Kashmir press must leverage strengths to overcome threats

Suhail Ahmad

World Press Freedom Day (May 3) serves as an occasion to assess and reflect on the state of press freedom and pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty. Media monitoring organisations come up with annual ranking of countries in press freedom index. In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), India has been ranked at 136 of 180 countries. The country’s ranking has slipped by three spots from last year’s 133rd ranking. In the past also, India has fared badly in the freedom index because of the challenges faced by press in Kashmir. This year as well, Kashmir figures prominently among the reasons attributed for India’s low press freedom ranking.
According to RSF report, media coverage of Kashmir continues to be “very difficult”, and there are no protective mechanisms. It refers to the frequent internet blockade which hampers media coverage. “Journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent,” adds the RSF report.
In Kashmir, journalists have been facing various challenges and threats, ranging from intimidation to death. While official censorship is commonplace, the threats, overt or covert, also encourage self-censorship on part of the editors.
Kashmiri journalists have braved the odds to uphold professional principles. They have had to negotiate many hurdles to retain objectivity in their reports. While covering the mass uprisings of 2008, 2010 and 2016, the reporters and photojournalists were intimidated and beaten by the government forces. They have also been at the receiving end of the angry protesters, sometimes sustaining fatal injuries.
Media watchdog, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has pointed out how none of the targeted murders has been solved, right from the height of the militancy on April 10, 1996 when the body of Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, editor of the Urdu-language daily Rehnuma-e-Kashmir and the English-language weekly Saffron Times, was found in Jhelum River up to January 31, 2003 when Parvaz Mohammad Sultan, chief editor of a local news agency News And Features Alliance (NAFA), was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.
Back to the 2017 RSF report, it also cites threats from Hindu nationalists for India’s poor ranking. Infact, the section on India has been titled “Threat from Modi’s nationalism”.
“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream (Indian) media. Journalists are increasingly becoming the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which ‘sedition’ is punishable by life imprisonment,” reads the report, adding that the threat encourages self-censorship.
The Reporters Without Borders press freedom index ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate. India is known for its dynamic media industry, but it continues to lag behind as far as freedom of press and safety of journalists is concerned.
I am reminded of George Orwell’s unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, which has been cited by renowned journalist John Pilger in his famous book ‘Tell me no lies’. Orwell described how censorship in free societies was more sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships because ‘unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban’.
Back to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, as RSF states, it reflects “rise of strongmen and an age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms”.
In India, BJP’s ascendency to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi heralded the era of post-truth politics, marked by the atmosphere in the country in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, there are many pressing issues calling for attention of the media fraternity in Kashmir. With Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) in place now, one hopes that it is able to address the various issues facing journalists.The Editors’ Guild needs to perform two-fold function of safeguarding the rights of journalists and maintaining and improving standards of local press. There is also a dire need to protect the profession from unscrupulous elements and promote genuine journalism. The best tribute to the sacrifices of local journalists would be to uphold the dignity of the noble profession. It’s time for Kashmir’s media fraternity to introspect and find out ways to leverage the strengths and capitalize on the opportunities to overcome weaknesses and threats of working in the conflict zone.
— Courtesy: RK. suhail@risingkashmir.com

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