PCI in Kashmir: the credibility question

BY LAXMI MURTHY| IN Regional Media | 03/07/2018
What precisely does the Press Council of India hope to achieve on its second visit in 9 months when the recommendations of the first visit remain unimplemented,
asks LAXMI MURTHY
Printscreen, Rising Kashmir

 

On its second visit in nine months to the Kashmir Valley, this time in the wake of the assassination of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, the Press Council of India (PCI) must ask some hard questions, including to itself. The three-member sub-committee, made  up of PCI members Pravat Kumar Dash, Pratidin correspondent, Ashok Upadhyay UNI editor, and Sushma Yadav,  Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the Bhagat Phool Singh (BPS) Mahila Vishwavidyalaya does not seem to have a definite agenda other than “assessing” the media scenario in the state from July 2-5.

 The PCI, in a limbo after its term expired in October 2017, was reconstituted only on May 31 this year, with former Supreme Court judge CK Prasad re-nominated as chair. This followed months of uncertainty, court proceedings and allegations of bias in selection of members, with journalist unions themselves fractured and unable to reach consensus on their representatives. 

 This quasi-judicial body has rarely flexed its legally bestowed muscles in the interests of working journalists or press freedom and has relegated itself to being a watchdog without a bite and only a squeaky bark. With the broadcast media and digital media outside its ambit, the need for a broader Media Council is increasingly clear.

The need for institutional memory is also apparent, since this new, rather motley sub-committee (none of its members appear to have previous experience of Kashmir), seems to have sailed forth into a volatile situation without the weight of the PCI's own very recent recommendations.

The PCI must ask: How can the second sub-committee’s visit to Kashmir help make journalists less vulnerable, when the recommendations of the previous one have not been implemented? 

Of the 20 recommendations, the PCI sub-committee’s ‘Report of Interlocutors on Media and Media Scenario of Jammu Kashmir’, released on October 9, 2017 in Srinagar, only two relate to journalists’ safety: one urging for bulletproof jackets and helmets, the other for medical reimbursement. Since the killing of the Lassa Koul, director of the Doordarshan station in Srinagar in 1990 by suspected militants, 21 journalists in Kashmir have been killed due to their work, according to statistics compiled by the International Federation of Journalists. Shujaat Bukhari’s targeted killing on 14 June by unknown gunmen comes almost ten years after the killing of Channel 9 cameraman Javed Ahmed Mir in 2008, allegedly by security forces. Not a single killer of journalsits has been brought to book till date. The interregnum has been fraught with hazards for professional journalists in Kashmir, who court death every day, braving intimidation, threats and physical attacks from actors from all sides of the conflict.  

Recommendations for journalists’ security, including bullet proof jackets and helmets are laudable, except that Kashmiri journalists “covering conflict” live in these zones, and are doubly vulnerable. Besides targeted attacks, the lethal pellet-firing shotguns used for crowd control have blinded hundreds of civilians including school-going children, and killed at least 14 since 2016, as documented by Amnesty International. Photojournalists in Kashmir, often the first responders on the scene, have also lost their sight. Journalists however cannot be safe when the entire civilian populace is at risk. 

The PCI must ask: why are pellet-firing shotguns still being used to control civilian crowds, also putting at risk journalists covering the protests?

With the government itself defining what is “objectionable” (read anti-national), and thus tightening the financial screws by withholding advertisements, another of the PCI’s recommendations seems to have been ignored: “Any objectionable writing should be clearly defined and reported to the Press Council of India for final disposal. No writing should be branded objectionable and subjected to punitive action until the Press Council has considered the matter and given its views on it.” Journalists in Kashmir cover the news, and the news includes coverage of demonstrations, funerals of militants and civilians, and civilian unrest.  Such coverage however is termed ‘anti-national’, and the counter-terror agency the NIA in its submission in its flimsy case against photojournalist Kamran Yousuf, argued that he was not a “real” journalist since he did not cover activities like inauguration of schools and hospitals.

The PCI must ask: can the government abrogate to itself the definition of ‘news’ and will it set the template for “real” journalism? Has the NIA or the J&K police responded to the notice issued by the PCI in September after Kamran Yousuf was picked up?  

The PCI’s report in October also noted that government advertisements were crucial to the survival of newspapers in a state where three decades of intense conflict had not allowed industry or commerce to thrive. The report recommended that “The DAVP should also increase its quantum of advertisement in the state of J & K; and also that small papers/periodicals should be given Centre/State advertisements in all regions of J&K, particularly in border areas.” 

Allocation of government advertisements has long been used as a lever to exert pressure: toe the official line or face financial ruin. As detailed in the situation report by the International Federation of Journalists, ‘Kashmir’s Media in Peril’ (November 2017), in a letter dated October 18, 2017 (just a couple of weeks after the PCI’s visit) addressed to senior officials of the state government and the Jammu & Kashmir police, the Home Ministry said: “...publishing of anti-national articles in the newspapers of the state should be strictly dealt with. Such newspapers should also not be given any patronage by way of advertisements by the state government. This may be circulated to all concerned for strict compliance.” Editors in Kashmir rightly view this as a form of censorship and direct control and continue to pay the price for independent reporting. Rising Kashmir, run by slain editor Shujaat Bukhari, had been blacklisted by the government for its independent content, and had not received advertisements for years. 

The PCI must ask: Is the allocation to newspapers in Jammu Kashmir fair and proportionate?

While the above questions are relevant, perhaps the most crucial question is that of credibility, and establishing the institutional autonomy of the PCI which was called into question after it summarily trashed allegations of torture and mass rape of women in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora by personnel of the Rajputana Rifles during a cordon and search operation on the night of 23-24 February, 1991. While the number of women raped was not established, mainly due to social stigma and fear of reprisals, as many as 32 women came forward for medical examinations. In its July 1991 report ‘Crisis and Credibility: Report of the Press Council of India’, the team headed by BG Verghese in its chapters on Kashmir dismissed the complaints as a “…massive hoax, orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathizers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad”. The report by a sub-committee using dubious methodology, embedded with the military and not having a single woman or Kashmiri speaker or interpreter, eagerly rubbished testimonies of sexual violence (despite medical records) and painted the army personnel in a positive light. While critiquing coverage of the incident in the Kashmiri media as biased, the PCI report itself reads like a product of the propaganda arm of the security forces.

During the PCI sub-committee’s visit to Srinagar in October 2017, the Kashmir Editors Guild, went as far as to term the ‘Crisis and Credibility’ report a ‘joint venture between PCI and then government of India to undermine and subvert the institution of media in Kashmir”.

The injustice to the victims and survivors of Kunan Poshpora rankles in many sections of civil society in Kashmir, and efforts have been ongoing to get justice. April 2013, 50 women filed a writ petition before the J&K High Court to re-open investigation into the case. Notice was issued to BG Verghese (who passed away later that year), and others who documented the events of that night. The petition is pending in court.

 Perhaps it is time for the PCI to ask: How might the Press Council set right the crisis of its own credibility in Kashmir? 

 

Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bangalore. She is the author of the IFJ Situation Report, Kashmir’s Media in Peril. 

 

 

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