Information blackout leads to silence and exaggeration

Journalism, when not fettered, facilitates informed dialogue

Updated - August 14, 2019 12:22 pm IST

Published - August 12, 2019 12:05 am IST

An Indian paramilitary soldier guards during security lockdown in Jammu, India, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

An Indian paramilitary soldier guards during security lockdown in Jammu, India, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

In the aftermath of the First World War, sociologist Max Weber told his students that not everyone realises the demanding nature of producing good journalism and that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than that of a scholar’s. The conspicuous absence of reporting from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) following the vivisection of the State last week helped in realising the full import of Weber’s observation.

Journalism performs many tasks. British journalist George Brock has mandated four irreducible core tasks: verification, bearing witness, sense making, and investigation. However, following the Union Government’s dramatic move to alter the political structure of J&K, Indian journalism was forced to temporarily abandon its ‘bearing-witness’ role and had to resort only to its ‘sense-making’ task. In this newspaper, there was a strongly worded editorial, “ Scrapping J&K’s special status is the wrong way to an end ;” a series of lead and Op-Ed articles; and an outstanding data story, “ J&K’s vital statistics ,” which debunked the claims of Home Minister Amit Shah that Article 370 hindered development. It is important to classify these writings within the rubric of the ‘sense-making’ task of journalism. While they were rigorous and insightful, there was a sense of incompleteness because there were no ground reports from Kashmir. A day before the government’s decision, all forms of communications — mobile networks, Internet services, and landline phone connectivity — had been shut down, leaving Kashmir and some districts in Jammu isolated.

Knocking on the judicial doors

Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times , later moved the Supreme Court, seeking directions to ensure that media-persons and journalists from the State are able to freely practise their profession. She also challenged the restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on Internet and telecommunication services and severe curbs on the movement of photojournalists and reporters. Her petition rightly contended: “The information blackout set in motion is a direct and grave violation of the right of the people to know about the decisions that directly impact their lives and their future. The Internet and telecommunication shutdown also means that the media cannot report on the aforesaid developments, and the residents of Kashmir thus don’t get access to information that is otherwise publicly available to the rest of India.”

This newspaper’s Srinagar correspondent, Peerzada Ashiq, documented the gruelling days of blackout in his “ Diary of a Kashmir correspondent ”. His last despatch prior to the blackout was a report on the house arrest of former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and other leaders on August 4 . Then, there was a complete silence for three days. What emerged clearly from Ms. Bhasin’s petition and the Mr. Ashiq’s diary is that we know very little about the opinion of the people directly affected by the government’s decision.

There are ethical and democratic angles to the task of ‘bearing witness’. Academics Richard Stupart and Katherine Furman explained how we rely on a division of labour to gain knowledge. They contended that no one person can know everything worth knowing; hence we divide the knowledge-producing tasks. “Journalists who venture into sites of conflict and suffering form an important part of our collective knowledge production, and one which [is] important to the rest of us as moral agents,” they argued.

American journalist Roger Cohen’s reflections on the ‘bearing-witness’ task brought out its stupendous role in informing and sensitising people. He wrote: “In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness... To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.”

For reasons known only to the state apparatus, it firmly believes that information blackout will lead to a political consensus. But, political processes gain their endurance only when people are active participants. Journalism, when it is not hampered, facilitates informed dialogue and provides a meaningful insight into people’s aspirations. Otherwise, they are left with either a deafening silence or an enervating exaggeration. The state media will not report the observation of David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression: “There’s something about this shutdown that is draconian in a way other shutdowns usually are not.”

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