Why is the clampdown on Kashmir’s local media so important that it has upstaged the bigger issue at hand — an uprising that erupted against the killing of a militant commander and once again brought into focus the fraught relationship between Kashmir and New Delhi? It is a rhetorical question actually. The media gag is not a big deal. The three-day ban on the publication of newspapers pales in significance before the grotesquery of the violence perpetrated by the state during the past week. There is also nothing novel about it this time. The Kashmiri media was silenced like it has been in the past.
At midnight on Friday, our bureau chief called and said the police have seized the copies of the newspaper and detained our staff members. I wonder why they took the trouble of sending stressed-out policemen to snatch newspaper copies. A phone call to newspapers owners would have achieved the same objective.
The philosophy behind the gag was explained the next day even though the government did not own up to the raids. The government spokesman, Naeem Akhtar, said the government apprehended trouble over the next three days, and suspending publication was considered necessary. Interestingly, while announcing this, Akhtar requested that he should not be named. This was the “how” of the media crackdown that accompanies martial law-like situation in the Valley. Before going into the “why” of the clampdown, one should ask “who” decided on the ban. One can hazard a guess that it was New Delhi’s decision because Muzaffar Hussain Baig, a member of Parliament and senior PDP leader, claimed Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was not even aware of the operation that killed Burhan Wani — the spark that lit the fire.
Still, why is the local media muzzled whenever Kashmir is on the boil? It is not difficult to explain. Local newspapers — a record of state violence — are the only source of news in curfew-bound flashpoints where mobile phone and internet services have been snapped. Besides, the local media has the wherewithal to cover such situations extensively. The state, however, prefers a media blackout on these occasions. It would rather have the journalists do the fire-fighting or, preferably, complement its actions, than perform its job. That is why non-Kashmiri journalists, air-dropped on such occasions from New Delhi, have unhindered access to places and persons, while local reporters face various hurdles. “Special reportage” dished out from New Delhi studios — saying Pakistan was paying Kashmiri youth Rs 500 for snatching rifles from policemen — has made local reporters a target of the seething masses. The local media is the biggest check on the propagandist reportage of the majority of Indian media outlets, especially television, which can’t see such eruptions except through the prism of national interest.
The contrast between the reportage by local and Indian outlets is too embarrassing for the state. For example, on Sunday, a news channel ran a report about attacks on the residences of the people suspected of informing the army on hiding places of the militants. That particular house had been attacked long before the fresh eruption in the Valley and had been covered in the local media at that time. Under the circumstances, it was a non-story. Compare this with the story of a 16-year-old boy, with congenital deformities in his limbs, being treated for a fractured leg at the Bone and Joint Hospital, only 2 km from the city centre. The boy had been thrown into a drain by the government forces on Friday while playing in a field in a south Kashmir hamlet. No news channel reported the boy’s story.
By and large, the local media do not balance truth with falsehood or flaunt “nuanced reportage” by equating the savagery of pellet ammunition on thousands of people with the stone-inflicted injuries of 15 troopers. Unlike Indian media channels, they question whether an Indian soldier has the right to be in Kashmir in the first place. They are more answerable to the local people than an air-dropped “war correspondent” from New Delhi who wears a cricket helmet and embeds himself with troopers in a bullet-proof vehicle, roams around in the curfewed city and acts like he is covering the war in Syria. Last time, he reported from here was during the Kargil war.
Coming from Akhtar, who used to write thrilling frontpage opinion pieces under various pseudonyms in a local newspaper while working as a senior bureaucrat, the gag order is also reflective of the schizophrenic nature of pro-India politics. Omar Abdullah did the same in power during 2010. Out of power, Akhtar and Mehbooba would probably have been sitting with the protesting journalists. Of all the political parties, the ruling PDP is heavily invested in media management. It recently announced two former local reporters as media analysts in the office of CM’s media consultant, who was formerly a NewsX reporter. Another senior PDP leader, Haseeb Drabu, was former national editor of the Business Standard and, for a brief period of time, used to write articles extolling Kashmiri nationalism in a local newspaper. Grapevine has it that the PDP has the largest number of sympathisers among the local journalistic community. Therefore, the party ideally should have been the last to annoy the local media. But compulsions inherent in relations with New Delhi, ruled by the uncompromising BJP this time, have probably forced the PDP to toe the line. The gag order, apparently an authoritarian act, is actually a sign of the powerlessness of Kashmir’s pro-India politicians.