Kashmir media: caught between 'rebels' and state

IN Media Practice | 02/04/2012
Even as militant groups have been dictating terms to journalists on what to write, the State is not far behind in telling them what not to write.
It’s time journalists fought against pressures and favours, says FAHAD SHAH.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year to control the public mind." As Noam Chomsky has told us this, the thought can be related to anything which controls the information reaching the general public.

In a place such as Kashmir where a decades-old conflict is still alive, the control on the public mind is operated through the media. It’s a State which has 522 papers, including 195 approved and 105 unapproved ones in Jammu region, and 222 in Kashmir. Here the media walk on a sword’s edge to report facts, but often the truth becomes the tragedy. Once, my editor at a magazine told me that this is the most unreported place on earth. True, there are many stories the media have not reported.

Why don’t media report, doesn’t even qualify as a question in Kashmir. The reason is media have always been under pressure, from the State or from the rebels who have been fighting for the secession from India and some fromPakistan too. The pressure surges with change in the policies of media organisations.

A few years ago, in Kashmir, once I wrote the dateline as “Baramulla” while writing a story from this northern district of the Valley. After I filed my story, I was summoned by one of my editors and he expressed his anger, for I hadn’t written the dateline as “Varmul”. It is the Kashmiri name of the district which he told me was the style and policy of the newspaper. 

The style changed. Pressure worked. I saw it changing with time. Varmul became Baramulla, and the rest is understood from the archives. On the change in style and policies of the Valley newspapers, the banned rebel organisation, Lashkar-e-Toiba last month issued a statement to a local news agency, KNS.  It said: “The government-paid reporters and news organisations are warned to shun their work for State/Central government, police, and security agencies. Instead of strengthening the shackles of occupation, they (journalists) should highlight the plight of their brethren who are making supreme sacrifices in this war.”

As per the statement, it was decided, after a meeting among Al-Mansoorian, Al-Arifeen, Al-Nasireen, Save Kashmir Movement, Tehreek-e-Shariat Islami, Tahafuz-e-Shariyat Navaaz, Al-Jabaar, Jehad-Fil-Islam which was chaired by Abdullah Ghaznavi, that attacks in Kashmir would be intensified in the coming days. According to the statement, the LeT has the evidence to back its remarks on these journalists. It says: “We’ve the footage of those journalists working for English newspapers who’ve been awarded government jobs by Indian security agencies. We’ll put this footage in public domain at the right time.” 

The statement adds: “They are playing into the hands of the security agencies. By involving themselves in such acts these journalists are digging their own grave. They are warned to desist from such activities. We’re not talking from far off seas. We are here to chase you like a shadow. No one should take us lightly or misread our prediction as our weakness.”

So who is playing into the hands of the security agencies? In a conflict, reporters are pressurised from both sides- from the State and from the rebels. There have been attacks on journalists in Kashmir. Many have been killed by unidentified gunmen. Sometimes the State also warns journalists. In December 2011, President of the National Conference and Union Minister Farooq Abdullah told reporters: “It is enough now... You have spoken enough... You have written enough, and you have sung enough. Your reportage is all a premeditated act... you all receive phone calls about where the situation is going to get worse and then you reach there and then you present it in such colours that the tourists run away. I hope you people will get a realisation soon.”

This was a direct warning to the media that you can’t report if your sources call you to give you information. The media “are responsible” for fewer tourists coming into the State, but for large tourist arrivals (which has nothing to do with the political problem of Kashmir) the government is praised for its efforts to maintain “peace” in the State.  

The rise of alternative media in Kashmir is the result of the mainstream media succumbing to pressures. There are so many stories which are ignored by the media and are published only in alternate voices such as magazines, websites, blogs, etc.  Such voices are also pressurised indirectly or directly not to write about the critical issues. Being a publisher of an online magazine from Kashmir, I once asked a reporter why the news about unmarked mass graves that were found in different parts of Jammu and Kashmir was not reported. His reply was: you cannot question the media. Who are you to question them? 

When the public cannot question the media that are representing them, the content in the latter becomes different from what the people are saying. Though, a rebel outfit such as LeT is not public, but what it said in the statement raises doubts on the credibility of the media. And after a week, a local newspaper published a story in which the spokesman of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Dr. Abdullah Ghaznavi, is quoted saying that neither LeT nor any other militant outfit had issued any threat to the Valley-based journalists. “Lashakar-e-Toiba wants to make it clear that media organisations should not carry any news item on the name of LeT till I (Dr. Ghaznavi) call them up and ask them to do so,” he said. But then who sent that earlier statement through fax to the news agency?

Whether or not LeT is in the picture, media in Kashmir are changing. How can a journalist be in government employment too? Such journalism is an insult to the profession. It is time the media in the troubled State let the stories of Kashmir breathe fresh air.

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