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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Media in Kashmir being ‘choked’ due to local administration curbs: India’s top press watchdog

A three-member Fact-Finding Committee of the Press Council of India has said that news media in Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the valley, is “slowly being choked” due to extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.

The FFC, in its report submitted last week, has also advised the Kashmir administration to immediately stop the “tendency” to see all critical reporting and opinions as “anti-national”.
“A conflict zone has many players and many aspects of events that unfold. A journalist cannot and should not ignore the government version; at the same time, he is not the spokesperson of the government,” it said.

Headed by Prakash Dubey (convenor) with members Suman Gupta and Gurbir Singh, the FFC was set up by the PCI — a statutory quasi-judicial body that acts as a press watchdog — six months after a complaint by PDP president Mehbooba Mufti in September last year.

The report submitted to the council is yet to be considered and adopted.

While advocating the restoration of lines of communication with the local press, the FFC said the administration was suspecting that a large number of local journalists were sympathizers of the militants’ cause. “This was admitted by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, who frankly told the FFC that many journalists were of ‘anti-national’ persuasion. He conceded that when he was first appointed, he used to encourage open press conferences, but now had gone back to a ‘selective engagement’ with preferred journalists,” the report said.

The FFC took a holistic view of press freedom, especially after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and came out with a set of recommendations to prevent harassment of journalists and also advised the Jammu and Kashmir Police to not become representatives of other departments “by default”.

While drawing a distinction between a journalist and a militant, the FFC said those indulging in any criminal acts are not journalists pursuing their profession.

“If a journalist is bearing arms or carrying grenades and other ammunition, he is not a journalist; he is a militant, and should be treated as such,” the FFC said after meeting all stakeholders in its visits to twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar.

However, the security establishment cannot label writing against government policies, quoting a family or civilian sources in a story about excesses of the armed forces, or tweeting a point of view as fake news or anti-national activity and then arrest the journalist for sedition, it said.

It is not the business of journalists to support government policies or development work, it added.

According to the FFC, a journalist’s job is to report the news as it happens, even if it is unpalatable to government officials.

The report noted with concern that the public relations work of various government departments has been taken over by police. “This should cease as it is against the letter and spirit of the functioning of the various arms of a democratic government,” it said.

“Journalists rely on communication networks like the Internet, and access to events and persons to gather and transmit news,” the report said, seeking restoration of these normal privileges of newsgathering.

A government has the power to snuff these out as we have seen in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, it said.

Restricted internet facilities after the abrogation of Article 370, suspension of internet mobile connectivity whenever there is a conflict situation and denying access to journalists to scenes of an armed encounter are all methods that have developed to choke free and fair newsgathering in Jammu and Kashmir, it added.

The report said journalists are under high levels of stress due to constant pressure from government agencies and police as well as militants and they are still managing to do their job in such a hostile environment which is commendable.

“At a broader level, because of the continuing conflict, the business of news media has been severely disrupted in the region and sources of advertising are slowly withering away,” it said, adding print media especially, which has large overhead costs, is hardly sustainable anymore.

The report recommended stopping intimidation, arrests, and detention under draconian laws, underlining that it has recorded numerous cases of journalists being subject to interrogation, threatened, and made to fill irrelevant profiling documents.

“We have listed cases of journalists being summoned to the dreaded Cargo Centre for questioning — a location reserved for interrogation for armed militants,” it said.

“Officially, the police have conceded to the FFC that as many as 49 journalists have been arrested and charged since 2016, not a small number considering that J&K has a very small press corps,” it added.

Of these, the report said, eight have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which makes bail almost impossible.

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