It’s been consistently argued that everything important that happens in Kashmir is reported in the local press, and thus it is free. People living here have always contested this claim, but even it is taken to be true examining the context in which reportage is handled is the most important aspect. The job of the press is not just to inform the citizen about day-to-day happenings but to also help make sense of the news.
In the case of Kashmir the press may be serving the role of information dissemination well, but is it doing so upholding the real context of reported news? Ask an average Kashmiri media consumer and you come across acute cynicism. Newspapers in Kashmir are generally viewed as just another subject of politics, a space where politics of coercion plays out in such a way that it either breeds distrust for itself among the readers or a tool deployed to obfuscate.
Editors, owners as well as journalists have often spoken of interference and manipulation by various state agencies, both during intervals of seeming ‘peace’ and cycles of unrest and strife. The story of a newspaper allowed to build credibility in a calibrated manner, and that credibility then used by the State to deploy complex forms of deception to misinform public opinion, has been a constant one across time and generations of Kashmiri practitioners of journalism.
Instances of resisting coercion, manipulation, life threats to owners, editors and journalists are many. But the experience so far in Kashmir press is that no one has substantially escaped to the extent that this blighted land and its people could hope of a really free press. Control of the press has been achieved in such brutal, invisible and sophisticated ways that a certain freedom to report mostly governmental and urban news is taken as real liberty. But the extent of control and censorship now becomes ever clearer with the State’s crackdown on social media as it has achieved near-parity with the mainstream press.
However, in the final analysis the people overcome deception and censorship, because their own experience of living with the brutality of constantly denied agency informs both their understanding of the state of press in Kashmir and their response to the meek reflection of reality in it.
Last year, this newspaper was banned for three months. Its ‘freedom’ may have been technically restored to the extent it is traditionally allowed in Kashmir, but its sources of financial and professional strengths have not fully escaped forces who cannot deal with genuinely free press. But small gains have been made nevertheless and little freedoms irreversibly won! The spirit of the freedom of press can never be delegitimised, and regimes who have tried it ultimately themselves face more comprehensive deligitimisation among the people they seek to control.