The state machinery never ceases to astonish me. It refuses to learn from past mistakes and takes pride in repeating them, where the effect is never a farce but always a tragedy. Among the multiple fallouts of the hanging of Afzal Guru in secrecy, this column is going to look at the impact of an information blackout in the Kashmir Valley.

First, some crucial facts. The blackout was imposed by the State, but without issuing any formal orders or written directives. According to the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) preliminary report, though curfew imposed in most districts of Kashmir and the retaliatory general strike called by dissident political organisations had paralysed all activity in the region, journalists did manage to reach their places of work despite these adversities. But, newspaper publication and local news broadcasts had to be suspended after several media offices were visited by policemen handing out informal advisories. “This intervention reportedly came late on the evening of February 9, when most newspapers were getting ready to print,” points out the IFJ release.

According to Ghulam Hassan Kaloo, president of the Kashmir Press Association, though there was no proper written order, what the Valley witnessed during the three days following Guru’s execution was indeed “equal to a ban and media gag.” The State agencies also partly disabled internet and mobile phone services. And the local cable channels were directed to take off news and current affairs programmes.

Porosity and alienation

But, this gag order in reality produced a strange information ecology in the Valley, and the various arms of the State apparatus seem to be totally oblivious to these realities. Over the past few years, the Valley witnessed not just a greater spread of the Direct-to-Home televisions but also many opting for more than one service provider for their Internet connections. Hence, the security establishments’ bid to withhold news and information did not work in this age of technology-led information porosity.

On the otherhand, it created a huge sense of alienation among the people. For instance, Saadut Hussain, writing from Srinagar for Kafila (a team blog), vents his anger: “The State here not only ensured that people were caged in their homes, it also ensured that access to information was tailored as per State convenience. News channels were blocked on all cable networks, working in tandem with a mobile internet ban and newspaper stoppages, thereby ensuring a total news black-out. Was the State here afraid of letting the truth be known to common people, or was it afraid of letting the truth of the common people out to the world? Both.” Academic Siddiq Wahid observed: “The mask is off. Let alone our economic and social dignity, it shows that there is no hesitation to deny us our intellectual dignity to even question the justice system and express our grief at the cruelty displayed in the hanging of Afzal Guru. So we acknowledge receipt of the heart-breaking notification of the execution to his family, received on the third day after his death, with a slight modification to the last sentence: We received your notification. This is for your information and any further unnecessary action.”

‘Classified’ on everything

This clearly shows that the idea of media gag never works in the way the state wants it to work, but nonetheless it works in a manner that is detrimental to the society at large. In this context, I would like to share the arguments put forth by Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor (equivalent of Readers’ Editor) of The New York Times in one of her recent columns.

She wrote: “If you only own a hammer, observed the psychologist Abraham Maslow, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Similarly, when the government’s only chance of keeping an inconvenient truth out of the news media is to warn of a national security threat, it’s amazing how these threats pop up. This has turned out to be a powerfully effective tool. News organizations, after all, don’t want to endanger the nation’s safety, or be accused of doing so, so editors often listen to government officials when they make their case for not publishing. And, after listening, editors occasionally consent. But a countervailing force — people’s right to know what their government is doing and the news media’s responsibility to find out and tell them — ought to rule the day.”

In a remarkable similarity to the Indian situation, Sullivan went on to write about the U.S. administration: “This administration, while vowing transparency and accountability, has actually become ever more secretive and punitive: stamping ‘classified’ on everything in sight, pursuing whistle-blowers as never before, and prosecuting journalists for publishing leaked information. All in the name of national security, the hammer of choice. The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves.”

Isn’t it time for the two major democracies to learn?

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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