‘Freedom Of Press Is In Everybody’s Interest’

05 Nov 2020 8 min read  Share

The new president of the Kashmir Editors Guild warns that independent media in Kashmir could die if state intimidation continues and tells us what really bothers him about the reaction to TV presenter Arnab Goswami’s arrest.

Sajjad Haider/ABID BHAT

Updated: Jan 23

Srinagar: We condemn the attack on press freedom in #Maharashtra. This is not the way to treat the Press. This reminds us of the emergency days when the press was treated like this.”

When India’s environment minister Prakash Javdekar put out this tweet on 4 November after the arrest that day of television presenter Arnab Goswami on charges of abetting suicide, many journalists pointed to the irony of the government’s silence on State-sponsored attacks on the press. The strongest reactions came from Kashmir.

“So much anger expressed by the BJP leaders over arrest of #ArnabGoswami while they celebrate raids, summons, arrests, beatings and humiliation of journalists in #Kashmir,” tweeted Fahad Shah, editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla. “As much one condemns misuse of power by govts it is clear there is politically motivated outrage too.

The writer Mirza Waheed tweeted: “Very true minister. Journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail for two years now. Last year, the US National Press Club gave Aasif its annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award but your government has kept him in prison.”

Goswami’s arrest became an opportunity to bring attention to the state of the media in Kashmir, where, especially over the past year, as Article 14 reported in September, it is the government that has filed cases against, beaten, illegally detained and harrassed journalists.

Some journalists have even been accused of terrorism under anti-terorrism laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, or the UAPA. Masrat Zahra, an award-winning photojournalist was charged under the UAPA in April 2020 for sharing her own photographs on Facebook.

Intimidation of the media has worsened after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019. The result has been public criticism of Kashmiri media for not doing enough to stand firm and caving in to government pressure. On 8 September, Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, whose office was sealed without explanation by the government on 19 October, wrote that her colleagues could not use fear as an excuse for their silence.

That criticism was a reference to the main media body here, the Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) and its silence after two of its members were summoned and questioned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in New Delhi in 2019.

On 15 September, the Guild elected a new body with a two-year term, with Sajjad Haider, 54, editor-in-chief of the daily Kashmir Observer as its President. Haider, who has worked for various international media, defended the Guild for its past silence, given what he called the “unprecedented situation” after 5 August 2019.

Haider said journalists in Kashmir faced greater pressure than colleagues elsewhere in India and did not get support from their own fraternity. “It’s incomprehensible why journalists elsewhere turn a blind eye or ignore the plight of Kashmiri colleagues,” said Haider.

In an interview with Article 14, Haider talks about the intimidation of journalists in Kashmir by state and non-state actors, the reason for the KEG’s silence and its options.

Edited excerpts from the interview: 

Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG), since its inception has always been at the forefront, protesting against the summoning of its members by the NIA. But the KEG didn’t utter a word about the use of terrorism laws against journalists such as Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani and other cases filed against Peerzada Aashiq, Naseer Ganai after 5 August 2019. Why?

After 5 August 2019 we faced an unprecedented situation even by Kashmiri standards. All civil liberties were suspended, as a strict curfew on the movement of people and reporters was imposed. All communication lines such as the Internet, phones and even landlines were shut for months. All spheres of public life came to a grinding halt, and that includes the media.

Once the government started easing some restrictions we had the pandemic and a second lockdown. Editors, like everybody else in Kashmir, were the victims of this double whammy.

We could not meet or communicate for months so it’s unfair to say bodies like KEG did not issue statements at a time when they were unable even to assemble. But let me state emphatically that the journalists you named are important members of our tribe and our future. How can one imply KEG would ever endorse what they faced? 

More than a year after the abrogation of Article 370, what do you see as the main challenges of the press in Kashmir? How do you think things have changed for reporters on the ground this past year?

Under the prevailing politico-economic environment, independent journalism here could very well die if a conducive environment for media function is not restored. This would be a tragedy of huge proportions given that a robust media is the life blood of any society and polity. As a representative body of newspapers, KEG is striving hard to put across this point to the powers that be that freedom of press is not their prerogative or that of the authorities holding the reins of power. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. Journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech. So any impediments, be it summoning of reporters and editors to police stations, or blocking/curtailing advertisements to newspapers, constitutes a threat to the very basis of this freedom and is tantamount to a subtle form of censorship. 

Our reporters and photographers are our eyes and ears on the ground and difficulties faced by them while discharging their professional obligation affect all of us. We have yet to see any perceptible change on the ground. But we hope things will change as some key people in the administration have for the first time publicly expressed displeasure over the recent events. 

The J&K government’s new media policy, released on 2 June, says it wishes to promote “effective communication and public outreach”. But it contains, as you know, vague, undefined threats against fake news, reportage against ‘India’s integrity’ and ‘public decency’ and security checks for reporters intimidates an already beleaguered media. How can or do you intend to address this policy?

The policy has deepened the anxiety among the local media which has been at the receiving end of the extraordinary situation prevailing here for the last three decades, but more so especially after 5 August last year.  The security lockdown and the communication blockade that followed the decision has hit the Kashmir media hard.

We brought out newspapers even when we had no free access to the internet to connect with our reporters and editors. We struggled to get the news content. Under such circumstances you cannot hold a measuring rod to gauge the accuracy of one’s content. Yet we are confident that Kashmir media has generally behaved professionally and responsibly.  

We also need to understand the media in Kashmir has a particularly unenviable job. The problems faced by it are both universal to a conflict situation and unique to the (former) state.  It is hobbled by the dearth of advertising resources and its dependence on government advertisements. But despite that, the media has done an amazing job in Kashmir by reporting honestly and objectively.

Local newspapers have played a great role by articulating the prevailing situation for the people within Kashmir and for the world.  Also, the media needs an environment free of control as much as the government needs a free media. This gives it a better comprehension of the situation as it is, not as it wants it to be. Therefore, the administration should let the media function for its own benefit at least.

Post the abrogation of Article 370, journalists have been summoned, assaulted and harassed by the govt agencies. What do you intend to do?

As I have said, Kashmiri media operates under extraordinary circumstances and at a great peril to their own life with little expectation of a reward or benefit. Yet many people, mostly out of naiveté, not only vilify it but belittle its contribution and handwork. These concerns are genuine and disturb us all.  The KEG, as a responsible media body, will continue to put across the point to the powers that be that the freedom of press is in everybody’s interest and is fundamental to a democratic society.

What are your top three priorities as KEG President?

Given that a robust media is the life blood of any society and polity, the death of bonafide traditional media in Kashmir due to the prevailing politico-economic environment here would be a travesty of huge proportions.

This environment of fear has to change, and the media has to be granted constitutionally guaranteed freedom to function. Also the economy of any media is vital for its freedom and in Kashmir, a big consumer market, all major corporates are spending peanuts on advertising, leaving only the government as a sole source of revenue for the media. That, by default, allows the government enormous powers of control over the media.

Another big challenge is unregulated social media: for all its power to do good, it can also be misused. In Kashmir, at times, it gets preference over the licensed media, as it helps vested interests to shape or distort narratives.

Have you seen any change in the way newspapers in New Delhi and elsewhere approach stories coming out of Kashmir after 5 August 2019? 

There are very few exceptions. By and large, segments of the population are no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is not because journalists are being censored, as might occur in authoritarian settings. Instead, the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence.

Many analysts say that Kashmir’s local media now toe the official government narrative. The lack of any government critique in mainstream local media is seen as a combination of fear and business sense, since government advertisements are the main source of revenue for these publications. Your comment?

Such wild allegations are disingenuous. Kashmir media has demonstrated resilience and courage; nowhere (else) do we have an example of newspapers coming out during prolonged curfews with restrictions even on the movement of reporters faced with total communication blockade.

Local media were perhaps the only civilian entity alive when everything had frozen under the unprecedented lockdown post-August 5 2019.I have no qualms in acknowledging that we have shortcomings, but we made newspapers available to our people when our smallest revenue channels had been choked and when there was an outright communication lockdown in place. 

Do you plan to reach out to the other journalism bodies in India to show solidarity with Kashmiri journalists? Do you believe other Indian journalist bodies supporting colleagues in Kashmir adequately? If not, why do you think that is?

We have been in touch with such bodies and interaction would continue. Whether they played their role when their colleagues were facing difficulties in Kashmir I would rather reserve my comments.

With Arnab Goswami’s arrest and so many ministers defending him, lots of people have been talking about the irony of Kashmiri journalists having police cases filed against them, including terror charges, being harassed and otherwise intimidated by the State. Are journalists treated differently in Kashmir than they are elsewhere in the country?

Unfortunately, yes. There is low appreciation in the rest of India for the great work journalists in Kashmir do despite the hardships and challenges. We can understand why the people in power do that, but it’s incomprehensible when journalists elsewhere turn a blind eye or ignore the plight of Kashmiri colleagues.

These are dangerous times for the media in Kashmir. What should a journalist do? What are your suggestions? 

Stick to objectivity. Factcheck your stories, and never get carried away.

(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist.)