Between “Worthy” and “Unworthy” Voice(s): The Illusion and Reality of Choice in Mainstream Indian Media

Between “Worthy” and “Unworthy” Voice(s): The Illusion and Reality of Choice in Mainstream Indian Media
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Bilal Bhat

The role of the media, besides holding power accountable and speaking truth to power, is to portray reality as it exists. It is this cardinal and essential nature and role of the media that drew me toward it and the profession thereof.But, alas, after sixteen long years in the broadcast media I am comprehensively disabused of this notion. If anything, it is the realization of the blunt fact that media narratives, when it comes to Kashmir, are presented with distorted prisms and filters that sixteen long years with Indian television have validated for me.
The narrative that is preferred by most, if not all, media houses in India, vis a vis Kashmir is that of a monofocal, slanted one. This phenomenon is so pronounced that it borders on the vulgar, in the sense, that it does not even countenance alternate voices and points of view. Journalistic ethics and propriety are sacrificed at the altar of blatant and flagrant partisan reportage. Not even lip service is paid to these values when the issue to be presented pertains to Kashmir. The framing of the news, views and hence discourse or narrative, is blatantly, in your face, so to speak.
The problem is so acute that voices used in the stories produced by reporters from Kashmir region have to be worthy enough to demean the public sentiment. Voices that go against the state policies, even if they are explicitly truthful, can never get space. To the contrary, these are trashed. If a given reporter has the “temerity” to push for viewpoints and news that are unpalatable from the perspective of the media house, in contention, he or she gets a frosty or indifferent response by the concerned desk.
All this makes journalism in this part of the world a parlous and even perilous exercise. The issue is more pronounced and salient in major media houses. Most of these have self goals and agendas that are odds with reality. This very fact presents moral and ethical dilemmas to journalists: Should one reflexively kowtow to the slanted editorial policies of a given media house and close one’s eyes to reality? Should one, for the sake of maintaining one’s career, accept flagrant violation of journalistic ethics and propriety? Should one carry on regardless of the welter and morass of contradictions that emerge? Or, should one protest or exit?
The distilled essence of my experience working for the mainstream media is that working for these media houses is akin to chasing a mirage. However, it takes time to get disabused and free from illusions. The focal point of these is that there is freedom and choice in presenting facts and reality, but these are mere illusions and charades that one comes to understand gradually and painfully. The name of the game for mainstream media in India is to trot out narratives that suit them and obscure or even obliterate the ones that are not aligned with their priorities.
An example might illustrate the point.
Recently, a voice (statement) that came from a family member of a victim of Sunjawangun battle became ac asualty of mainstream media’s so called editorial policy, where a voice questioning the state narrative was never heard. A lady from the funeral of a slain Kashmiri army soldier from Tral questioned the authenticity of the attack that happened in Jammu. She said that ‘the soldier was killed by army and not by militants’. But, this voice never got prominence as that of a female family member of Dy S P AyubPandith, who was lynched by a mob in Nowhatta. The said lynching was carried by all the TV news channels as their lead and remained in the headline for more than 12 hours.
Journalism is a game of attribution and we attribute voices relevant to a story irrespective of who gets affected. The focus of a media house and of a journalist is to bringto fore all the relevant facts by means of voices so that all the possibilities are covered. But, in terms of Kashmir, voices to a story covered have to be single eyed relevant to mainstream media policy.
The irony is that most of the journalists live under the illusion that obeying orders like a soldier in journalism will make them indispensible to the media house they work with. But, this is as illusory as can be. There are examples galore where and when a journalist having a near death experiences becomes a casualty as and when the journalist is seen as a threat to the jingoistic agendas of media houses.
Another factual in the convoluted history of Jammu and Kashmiris is the ignominious history of fake encounters. While examples galore can be cited in this regard, the Pathribal and Machil encounters stand out as the most egregious ones. It is not a stretch to posit that many encounters were carried out for the lust of lucre, fame and raw ambition and greed. But, yet again, no robust media enquiry or narratives emerged about these. For the mainstream media, a video showing a group of militants passing through a snow clad mountain is more important than a voice heard from a victim’s family. Besides the editorial policy of privileging certain narratives, that is, those favorable to these jingoists and downplaying or even ignoring other narratives, there are also flawed programmatic and logistical issues that compound the issue.
For instance, most of the stories are pitched from Delhi and executed in Kashmir by local reporters. Reporters at ground zero have no say over the idea that comes from desk. Someone who has never visited Kashmir is not even aware of the geography pitches an idea and asks a reporter to file the story. An avalanche struck in Gurez, killed soldiers and a reporter is asked to do a standup. The reporter goes to Zabarwan hills in the vicinity of Srinagar city giving the byline of Gurez. Such is the height of things that the reporter in contention does not even dare to explain to the assignment desk about the geography. It needs to be stated here that Gurez remains cut off from the valley for months due to snow but still a reporter of a news channel brazenly violates the norms of the profession and files a standup.
In Kashmir then there the two key words that a reporter needs to know before commencing work with an Indian news channel are worthy and unworthy. Worthy is what suits their narrative and unworthy is what exposes the truth which may be inconvenient and embarrassing from them. But, all said and done, the choice remains with the journalist. That is, whether to be part of an edifice and structure of illusions and thus lose his or her ethical and moral essence in the process or, part ways with this flawed narrative structure and thus maintain fidelity with the truth and be free from illusions!

—The author is a Senior Journalist. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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