- Newspapers must come together to fight it: Anuradha Bhasin
- Journalism is not to tell what the government wants to tell people. That is public relations and the government has hundreds of officials employed for that purpose: Muzamil Jaleel
- It is now for a newspaper to decide whether to succumb or choose to do whatever independent journalism it is still possible to do: Mir Hilal
Srinagar: “Local journalism will come to an end if the new media policy is not challenged at all levels in Kashmir,” said a senior journalist, who also owns a media outlet, while taking to Kashmir Reader. “We have to secure our right to report freely, fairly and fearlessly, otherwise we will become an extension of the government’s public relations department. We will cease to exist as journalists or practitioners of professional journalism.”
The editor, who chose to remain anonymous, was referring to the implications of the new media policy for the next five years announced by the JK administration last month. According to the policy, the administration will punish a media practitioner if a published news item is found to be “fake”, “plagiarised”, “unethical”, or in support of “anti-national activities”. Advertisements to newspapers, publications and journals will not be released if the administration thinks the content “incites or tend to incite communal passions, preach violence, violate broad norms of public decency, or carry out any acts or propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
“Why I think it needs to be challenged is not because we are facing it for the first time, but because it is official now. Earlier the press was muzzled unofficially. This policy can be used against anybody irrespective of whether a story is factually correct or not. The government wants the media to toe its line which is anti-people, anti-journalism and anti-freedom of press,” the editor said.
As per the policy, journalists and owners alike are vulnerable to punitive action if they defy the government’s idea of how to do journalism. But owners of the newspapers in Kashmir have not spoken a word about the new policy, nor has the Kashmir Editors Guild, comprising influential newspaper owners in the Valley, which was formed to uphold press freedom. None of its members even agreed to talk off the record about it when contacted by Kashmir Reader.
This silence from the newspaper owners, who are almost 300 in number, seems to be out of fear that the government can stop giving advertisements to them at its will and whim. Many owners have already cut costs either by laying off staff or slashing salaries and printing less copies. This has been goimg on since early spring last year when salary cuts were made. Now almost all the journalists in the local press are working on reduced salaries.
“The media policy has lacunae which need to be addressed,” said another editor-cum-owner, whose adverts were cut last year but restored later. The editor agreed that the media policy will have an adverse impact but requested not to put him on record, fearing backlash from the government.
Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, the only local newspaper editor who chose to talk on record, told Kashmir Reader that the “devastating media policy” should not be reason for media outlets to bow before the government. Journalists, she said, should keep doing their work.
“The media groups must get together to fight it out. What the government is asking us to do is not journalism but present the administration’s perspective. It cannot be accepted at any cost,” she said and added that her newspaper faced similar onslaughts in the past, with advertisements blocked many times.
“During 1990s when the administration was attempting to muzzle the press, Kashmir Times boycotted the government advertisements for many years. So, our policy remains the same: let’s speak the people’s voice. The newspapers must jointly fight it out,” she said.
According to senior journalist and former editor of two leading local newspapers, Hilal Mir, the administration has only put in writing what it has been doing verbally. The aim is clear: to prevent independent journalism, he said.
“It is now for a newspaper to decide whether to succumb or choose to do whatever independent journalism it is still possible to do,” he said.
Senior journalist and deputy editor with The Indian Express, Muzamil Jaleel, said it is clear that the administration wants to muzzle the press.
“This media policy is aimed at criminalising journalism in Kashmir and I am sure that the only way the Kashmiri journalists will respond to this intimidation is to continue practising professional journalism — to tell stories of people and to keep on asking questions. The aim of this policy is to justify slapping of terror cases against journalists and to keep on summoning reporters for questioning,” he said.
“Government has no role to tell a journalist what is good and what is not. Journalism is not to tell what the government wants to tell people. That is public relations and the government has hundreds of officials employed for that purpose. Our job is not to write laudatory press releases for the government,” he said. “Our primary job is to tell what people need to know and must know to make informed decisions. Our main job, in fact, is to tell what governments don’t want people to know. Our job is to critique, to question, and to tell what is happening on the ground”.
He said that “it is clear from this policy that the government wants journalism to become a mirror image of their official publicity department”.
“That is not possible. No one has ever managed to enforce a complete silence anywhere,” Muzamil said.
Kashmir Press Club general secretary Ishfaq Tantray, who works with The Tribune, said that as a journalist he sees the new media policy posing a serious threat to press freedom.
“All journalists, editors and newspaper owners need to come forward and devise a joint response,” he said. “The Kashmir Press Club management committee held an online meeting over this issue and the need was felt that all the media organisations, be it journalist bodies or editors in Kashmir as well as in Jammu, need to come together and devise a joint mechanism to deal with the issue.”
Tantray said that the local newspapers are heavily dependent on government ads, which acts as a curb on their independence.
“If independent journalism has to survive, the newspapers need to look for alternative models to sustain independent journalism,” he said.