Lines of Control

The compromised state of journalism in Kashmir

Journalists protested after the media in Kashmir was gagged last July, shortly after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. waseem andrabi / hindustan times / getty images
01 December, 2017

One day in 2002, when I was a cub reporter with the newspaper Greater Kashmir, I was discussing a story idea with a senior editor when a man walked into the newsroom and called my name. I asked him to sit down and inquired about the purpose of his visit, mistaking him for one of those people who would often walk into the newspaper’s office with a grievance they desperately wanted to get into print. But he said he was a sub-inspector with the crime investigation department and had to ask me a few questions. “Routine work,” he assured me, speaking in Kashmiri and Urdu. He then proceeded to ask me about my parents, my address, and my favourite books and authors.

Then, the polite policeman asked me something with such frankness that I felt both amused and repulsed. “Were you ever associated with any militant organisation?” he said and smiled.

“Lashkar-e-Taiba,” I said, and returned the smile. By now, the senior colleagues in the newsroom were also smiling, suggesting that this was a familiar ritual to them. Before leaving, the CID man said in a half-apologetic tone that he was only carrying out the orders of his bosses.

My seniors told me there was nothing to worry about. All of them had undergone this baptism, which I learnt was called the “BG note”—or background note. One editor said it was the government’s way of “inventorying a newcomer into journalism.”

The CID could have discovered those facts about me without that fleeting interrogation. Why then enact a police-station quiz in a newsroom? The seniors had figured out the answer: the very point of the exercise was to brazenly intimidate journalists. Soon after my interrogation, a senior colleague told me one of the wisest points I have ever heard about Kashmiri media: “You should worry, and worry seriously, when they stop threatening you. It is ok as long as they talk to you and threaten you”—suggesting that for a journalist working in the state, intimidation should be seen as a regular phenomenon, whereas silence would suggest that something more sinister might be underway.

Of course, there have been pressures from the other side too. In the early 1990s, militants would regularly dictate to journalists what they should write. They would also threaten journalists—sometimes even kidnap, assault or shoot them.

The political-resistance leadership, too, influenced the way journalism is practised in Kashmir, exerting pressure personally or through their organisations. Their manipulations have largely been based on grudges: about matters such as a press release not published, a news item relegated to inside pages, a criticism perceived as too harsh, or annoyance at a journalist’s perceived closeness to the state and mainstream political parties.

The state, however, has always had a unique advantage in effecting structural control of the media because the media has depended on it for advertisements. In response, the local media has drawn clear lines for itself, identifying, for instance, which ministers are not to be criticised. This censorship is present in journalistic practice, too. For instance, with authorities restricting access to the affected area, most reports about gunfights are inevitably the army’s version. Journalists also learn lessons, such as the fact that there is a limit to how relentlessly you can pursue a story or an issue, and that the chief minister has to be on Page 1 frequently—even if her statements are unremarkable. In this regard, the news, as reported in the Hindustan Times, that the Indian home minister, Rajnath Singh, had asked Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to stop ads featuring in newspapers that publish “anti-national articles” and “highly radicalised content glamourising terrorists and anti-national elements” was only revealing a kind of punishment that the ministry has used for decades to control the media in Kashmir.

Currently, barring Greater Kashmir, which gets much of its revenue from private advertisements, all newspapers in Kashmir survive on government advertisements. All major newspapers operate from government buildings, and a sizeable number of their owners have been allotted government accommodation, even when they have plush houses of their own. Only a handful of newspapers have reporters on their rolls, with most relying on agencies for stories.

In my experience, the government appears to think that the media in the state is beholden to it. In October last year, when the paper I edited at the time, Kashmir Reader, was banned for three months, a group of newspaper owners went to meet a senior minister in the government at his official residence. In talking about the ban, the minister seemed to refer to the “establishment” as an entity separate from himself, though as far as I could gather from his tone, he, too, shared its views. “The feeling in the establishment is that these people have offices in our buildings, they can’t survive a day without government ads and they live in apartments provided by us at nominal rent so why should we give a damn,” he said. “At least begin by having your own offices and accommodation.”

A fledgling journalist has to make a career in this restrictive, stifling and weakening media environment, in which a reporter risks a boycott of sorts by the government if she breaches the limits of what can be said. Thus, very early in a journalist’s career, self-censorship becomes a survival tool.

A journalist is also identified by the organisation for which she works. If an organisation has fashioned itself as conformist, pliant and “balanced,” a reporter’s life there becomes easy. If not, an organisation’s reporters find it extremely difficult to get the government’s, army’s or police’s version of events. Sources in both the administration and security agencies are also less likely to lead her to exclusive or breaking stories, which have largely been the domain of national media outlets, whose nationalistic credentials are above suspicion.

Most owners are easily accessible to officials and politicians, who can dodge a nagging reporter and crush her morale by talking directly to her boss. In contrast, reporters for national media, whose reportage is limited and carries little relevance locally, virtually bask in privilege. This can be easily ascertained by comparing the number of interviews and sound bites that the chief minister, or the people who answer to her, give to the local media and to the national media.

This apparent contempt for local media was visible last July, after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, when the government spokesman and senior Peoples Democratic Party leader Naeem Akhtar told a group of editors that they should stop publication for three days because the “government apprehended trouble.” Akhtar told them his name should not be mentioned, but freely spoke about the ban on record to the Indian Express.

Kashmiri reporters for national media outlets are also instinctually inclined to pitch positive stories, such as features on tourism or cafes. They are less likely to pitch a story on, for example, the lives of the girls blinded by pellet ammunition. Journalists or media organisations who do the state’s bidding are likely to find opportunities open up for them that are denied to those who dare to question the state.

In September last year, I cleared for publication in Kashmir Reader a story about a youth, Rasiq Ahmad Bhat, who had been shot at during a protest. He died in the intensive-care unit of a Srinagar hospital after ten days. Bhat’s father told our reporter that Mehbooba Mufti’s uncle, Sartaj Madni, had visited him in the hospital and offered him Rs 10 lakh for “speaking against Hurriyat.” Madni, the father said, also wanted him to ensure that his house would not be burnt down in case his son died and protests followed. Madni and Rasiq’s family lived in the same village, Akhran Nowpora, in the southern Kashmir district of Kulgam. The medical superintendent of the hospital had confirmed that Madni visited the hospital. A reporter of an English daily told me that she too had filed the same story, before Kashmir Reader did, but that it was never published. “The copy desk asked me to get more information and the official version,” she said. “I got both but the story was still binned. When I asked the copy editor why it was not published, he said, ‘You know why.’” Kashmir Reader was banned six days after the publication of the story.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the majority of the Indian public was misinformed about or ignorant of the unrest in 2016, and that the reportage in Indian media outlets, or for that matter even in the local media, barely scratched the surface. With regard to opinion pieces, it can be said without exaggeration that most Kashmiri media outlets have been depoliticised, and that only sanitised opinion pieces, which conform to the sensibilities of the state, get published. For unscrupulous “journalists,” the media is a gravy train that delivers to their doorsteps. Several reporters who were present at one press conference in 2011 told me that one such person there brazenly said to a senior army officer, “Sir, I need a generator.” He was promised one.

Apart from dailies, the media in Kashmir also includes a group of “news agencies,” which employ sizeable numbers of staff, though they do not seem to have any major sources of income, since subscriptions themselves are priced low. The salaries of their staffers also match those of some of their counterparts at the dailies. (Salaries in Kashmir media are generally low compared to those in other states—one daily is said to pay its opinion editor Rs 7,000 a month.) Locally, these dubious outlets are widely perceived as the brainchild of state organs tasked with regulating the flow of information. The content is largely factually correct but bereft of crucial context; for example, a story about a gunfight will likely state the number of casualties, but omit details about how many security personnel were involved in the operation or how armed the militants were.

A journalism teacher and friend, who quit his job with a magazine recently, lamented the “impossibility of doing journalism” in Kashmir. His idea of journalism veers towards idealistic. Many journalists argue that less-than-ideal journalism, with regular flashes of an independent spirit, is preferable to a completely constrained press. This is probably true. But the compromises are also hollowing out the institution of journalism in Kashmir day by day.

Journalists in Kashmir are grossly underpaid, riven by anxieties, and often see no prospect of career growth. Thus, even spirited young journalists find in the media in Kashmir a booby trap rather than a profession that is one of the last remaining avenues—though a stunted one—for expression in this place. The depth of the despair can be gauged by the advice veterans often give journalistic novices in Kashmir: find some other job, in the government preferably, or work outside the state.