ON July 16, Kashmir woke up to no newspapers as the printing presses of the major dailies had been raided, their copies seized, and some staff arrested. This was followed by an official gag, communicated by the government spokesman Naeem Akhtar, who also happens to be the Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Naeem Akhtar said there was a ban on newspapers, though he added that it was a “reluctant decision”.
“It is a temporary measure to address an extraordinary situation… In our opinion, there is an emotional lot, very young, out in the field, who get surcharged due to certain projections in the media, which results in multiplication of tragedies,” he was quoted by Indian Express as having said. As the ban on newspapers evoked sharp reactions, with even Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking details on the issue, the State government went on the back foot, denying that there was a ban. In the face of media resistance, however, the Chief Minister said she deeply regretted the decision.
Media blockade is nothing new to Kashmir. Since the outbreak of armed rebellion in early 1990, the media in Kashmir have been treading on a razor’s edge. Though a small community, the media in the State have lost 13 members to bullets from both sides of the conflict. Life threats, intimidation, arrests, censorship and beating have been part of the daily grind for an average journalist in this heavily militarised State. If an atrocity by government forces is reported, the journalist responsible is likely to be labelled “anti- national”. Highlighting violence by non-state actors or the extra-political activities of separatists might get him branded as “anti-tehreek” (anti-movement) or as a “collaborator”. The journalist is caught between the warring sides.
When I was told about the raid on the press, I was unnerved, but it did not come as a shock in view of the present situation in Kashmir. After the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the Valley has been witnessing unprecedented unrest reminiscent of the uprising in 2010 when 130 people got killed in firing by the police and paramilitary forces. Blocking out information was part of the state “strategy” in 2010, too. It is no different this time. All mobile services including data connection, except those provided by the government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, have been barred. Cable TV is off the air, and finally newspapers have been officially asked to stop publication. A handful of BSNL connections have kept alive the State’s communication links with the rest of the world. BSNL services have not been withdrawn reportedly because such a move would cripple the official communication link and inconvenience Amarnath Yatra pilgrims.
The newspapers had a tough time during the unrest in 2008 and in 2010, when the government forced them to suspend publication by imposing restrictions. When Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, copies of newspapers were not allowed to circulate.
With an almost complete ban on social media, the government has now chosen to close down the last source of information. The ban on newspapers is of course meant to prevent information from reaching readers in a situation where every means of communication is blocked. But by banning newspapers, which usually have in place a routine of cross-checking facts before publishing reports, the government had opened up a space for rumours to spread.
If the ban was meant to “ensure peace”, the principle does not seem to apply to television channels that present a one-sided coverage to people in the rest of the country. The TV studios of certain channels turn into war zones on prime time and spew venom at the minority community, particularly Kashmiris, which in turn aggravates the situation in Kashmir. It seems as if TV anchors have assumed the responsibility of defending the country. Indeed, jingoistic and ultra-nationalistic media seem to have changed the fundamentals of journalism and set new rules for coverage.
In Kashmir, all the democratic spaces are choked, which deepens the angst. Otherwise it is difficult to understand why Kashmiris would feel compelled to rally behind a militant commander.
Ten years ago, Kashmiris chose the path of non-violence. But the Union government failed to recognise that, and the result is that Kashmiris once again look to armed militants as saviours who can help them realise their political aspirations. To crush the sentiments of the people, the government is using all possible methods, and the muzzling of the media by declaring a press emergency is one of them.