Journalists in J&K are resisting a media policy that seeks to empower officials to certify what is 'fake news'
Srinagar: Every day has been a struggle for journalists in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) ever since the separatist campaign erupted in violence in 1989. But since August 5, 2019, media professionals in Kashmir have been caught up in a more complex situation.
It began the night before J&K was stripped of its special status and split up into two Union Territories. A total communication blockade had been imposed before the abrogation of Article 370 was declared to the people of the state. It created utter chaos in both the Kashmir Valley and Jammu division. Most scribes couldn’t file stories to their newspapers for a week, and news gathering became impossible.
Due to the withdrawal of all means of communication and curbs on their movement, media persons were rendered ineffective. All the avenues through which a journalist reaches out to his/her readers, listeners or viewers were blocked. Though phone and internet services were restored gradually later, and prior to that a media facilitation centre was set up in Srinagar, high speed 4 G internet continues to be denied to subscribers in the UT.
In this year of abrogation, much has changed in the life of a journalist. Apart from being subjected to harassment, humiliation, beatings and imprisonment, reporters are routinely called to police stations to explain their stories and reveal their sources. A couple of journalists including Asif Sultan, a reporter with a local news magazine, remain incarcerated after they were booked by the police under varied laws. In April FIRs were registered against three Kashmiri journalists. Two of them including photojournalist Masrat Zahra were booked under the harsh Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which entails imprisonment up to seven years if proved guilty.
Zahra and another journalist Gowhar Geelani were accused of posting on social media posts and photographs “tantamount to glorifying the anti-national activities of terrorists and denting the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country”. A third journalist Peerzada Ashiq faced police action over his report in The Hindu and was called to two police stations in Srinagar and Anantnag to explain his position.
Though such police actions have evoked widespread condemnation in media quarters in Kashmir, the rest of the country and abroad, several journalists interviewed by this correspondent said the reality for journalists in Kashmir is a ceaseless struggle.
New media policy
On June 2, the government came up with a new media policy that authorizes it to decide what is “fake”, “unethical” or “anti-national” news, and initiate legal action against the journalist or media organization concerned, including withdrawal of government advertisement support and sharing their information with security agencies.
Justifying what the local media organizations perceive as an onslaught on freedom of the press, the 50-page policy document reads “Jammu and Kashmir has significant law and order and security considerations. It has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border and in such a situation, it is extremely important that the efforts of anti-social and anti-national elements to disturb peace are thwarted.”
Media persons have rejected the media policy and said the government does not want them to report the truth about Kashmir and the events and incidents unfolding on their beat “objectively” and “candidly”. Senior journalist and editor of Kashmir Images Bashir Manzar says, “Who will sit in judgement on what is fake, unethical or anti national news?”
Another journalist said, “We should not be expected to act as obedient stenographers to advance the government narrative. This media policy is unacceptable to us.”
Bashir Manzar said that if the government was serious about discouraging fake or unethical reportage it should constitute a committee of media experts to examine complaints against journalists or media organizations. “This responsibility can’t be assigned to a cop in a police station or a babu operating from a government office. The new media policy is an assault on freedom of expression and must be withdrawn,” he said.