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World Press Freedom Day | Op-eds and Editorials

The drumbeaters of dystopia

The Indian media can barely question the state narrative on Kashmir, while global outlets can only pick holes in it

September 11, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 10:43 am IST

On the last morning of October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning in West Bengal when a police jeep intercepted his Mercedes to deliver the message: “There’s been an accident in the house. Return immediately to Delhi.” His mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had been shot at by her Sikh bodyguards in her garden, on the way to a TV interview. As he waited for a helicopter to take him to Calcutta, the Congress General Secretary turned on his transistor radio to get the latest. He tuned in, not to All India Radio but the BBC. The news was not good but that is not the point.

Even in pre-reforms India, when broadcast media was a government monopoly and mouthpiece, a would-be Prime Minister’s first resort of trust was “Auntie”, not mummy’s Akashvani. Thirty-five years on, with 400 private TV news channels, 1,000 newspapers, and 3,000 radio stations, it is a telling commentary on the credibility of the Indian news media ecosystem — in fact, on the theology of “competition” in a free-market economy — that nearly every piece of information which contests the establishment narrative that all is well in Kashmir, has come from a non-Indian source.

Stark contrast in coverage

Here’s a baker’s dozen since the “lockdown” began: First video of protests, firing: BBC, ‘Al Jazeera’, Reuters; Number of arrested: AFP, AP, Time , The New York Times ; Minors among those detained: The Washington Post ; Detenus flown out of overcrowded jails: AFP; First pellet injury death: ‘Huffington Post’; Soura, epicentre of resistance: Reuters; First bullet injury death: France 24; Beatings, torture: BBC, The Independent ; Harassment, sexual abuse of women: Deutsche Welle ; Civilians forced to chant ‘Vande Mataram’: Foreign Policy ; Doctor detained for speaking of shortage of medicines: BBC; Hospitals turning into ‘graveyards’: The Wall Street Journal ; Emerging medical emergency: The Lancet editorial.

With most “national media” plunging into the patriotic duty of drumming up support for the “constitutionally contentious” move — privileging the interests of a rampaging State over that of the caged citizen — the contrast provided by global outlets unmasking the suppression of human, civil and fundamental rights of Kashmiris, has been so stark that one website was constrained to ask: “Are foreign and Indian media reporting on the same place?” A mainland journalist on assignment says she has encountered so much hatred for the media’s part in painting a monochromatic picture, that she has had to apologise on behalf of her fraternity multiple times.

Ground zero in Kashmir

Therein lies the great paradox. For a whole month in the 21st century, Kashmiri journalists have worked in the 20th. They have not been able to freely use the phone and the Internet, write or transmit stories, print or distribute newspapers. They have been denied curfew passes, harassed at security checkpoints, made to delete photos and videos. They have had to beg travellers flying out of Srinagar to carry pen drives and printouts of mobile screenshots. Of the Valley’s 174 dailies, fewer than 10 are being published; their e-papers are frozen in time, on August 5. One editor going abroad for training was stopped inside an airport after he had picked up his boarding passes.

Yet, with foreign correspondents being denied permits to go to Kashmir, American, Arabic, British, French and German media organisations have relied entirely on home-grown journalists for their stand-out coverage, which begs the question as to why Indian mainstream media (MSM) vehicles have not been able to find the space or the resources for them. Or, why they have felt duty-bound to “broadcast sunshine stories that life is back to normal and getting better every day”, in the words of a British academic. Either the Indian media is so true to its craft, or so craven, that not a single report has had to be disputed. For the first time since 2014, the parrot cannot hear the cries of the majority, Muslim in this case.

Near capitulation

It is not as if all the Indian media has buried the story: there have been tiny isles of valiance in an ocean of conformity. Just that, after the initial flurry, the giants are coasting in the routine and the official, as per the sage advice: “Some news is best not reported”. Pockets of English print and digital journalism still offer some exceptions but large swathes of language media have served unvarnished, Islamophobic propaganda sans scrutiny. “Whatever [the] Indian media is reporting, the opposite is true,” says one Kashmiri journalist. “Editors give directions to field reporters on the kind of soundbites they want from the ground to fit into their studio scripts. People oblige but viewers do not see the security men behind the camera.”

A charitable explanation for the near-wholesale capitulation — the “underhand censorship” as one media watcher called it — is that, in the epoch of hyper-nationalism, Indian journalism is reverting to its historical and dutiful role of “nation-building”. Newspapers at the time of Independence, TV now. So, while the “western” media can only see anger, abuse, chaos, trouble and violence in the kaleidoscope, ‘swadeshi’ media can only see peace, calm, order, happiness and acceptance. In the battle between hard reality and ‘sarkari’ spin, between democracy and ‘desh bhakti’, loyal owners, editors, anchors and other toadies know which perception has greater purchase in the #NewIndia market.

The peak of lows

In truth, however, Kashmir marks the apogee in a long orbit of evisceration of the Indian media, an ongoing project that has overturned the profession’s credo to “comfort the afflicted”. Successive low benchmarks — JNU, cow lynchings, love ‘jihad’, Sabarimala, triple ‘talaq’, Rohit Vemula, demonetisation, Pulwama, surgical strikes — have taught the watchdogs to assume a supine pose. The pliancy in Kashmir, therefore, is a Pavlovian response. As The Economist commented: “The Press’s current sycophancy rises from a hinterland of intimidation, trimming and currying favour dating back to Narendra Modi’s rise in power in 2014.”

The strategem to subjugate the Kashmiri voice is, of course, a work in progress but it gained steam when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined hands with the Peoples Democratic Party in 2016. Standard intimidatory tactics with plausible deniability built into them — labelling newspapers as “anti-national”; denying government advertisements; arresting and interrogating editors — served to send the signal to the rest of the tribe. Battered by revenue shortfall, salary cuts and job losses, most fell in line. An artfully created class divide among journalists, between local and national, Pandit and Muslim, Indian and foreign, has polarised positions, and removed empathy from the equation.

Despite Brexit and Hong Kong, Kashmir has sparked a scramble among international news media houses, each trying to scoop the other. As the communications blackout took hold, BBC Radio thumbed its nose at Delhi by increasing the duration of its Hindi and Urdu bulletins with the teasing tagline: “Neither Internet shutdowns nor power cuts can stop independent news”. Meanwhile, the Indian MSM was resting its oars, having done its bit in the sacred task of manufacturing consent on the mainland. With the hashtag #KashmirWithModi trending on social media even without Kashmir being connected to the grid, Umberto Eco’s warning of the “invasion of the idiots” has come good.

In the “Brave New World” of Kashmir, the Indian state has worked out the Huxleyan circuitry of how to make the media relay a unitary message without explicitly making it appear so. Therefore, a scarcity of dissent in spite of a plethora of evidence. It is a model that can be developed further and replicated anywhere else at short notice — within the pretence of a democratic framework.

In 1954, Gabriel García Márquez wrote: “Journalism is a biological necessity of humanity.” To the eternal shame of the Republic, in 2019, from the judges of the Supreme Court to the former judge who heads the Press Council, from the Information and Broadcasting Minister to industry bodies, the open-ended trade fineprint “Conditions Apply” seems to be the operative clause. And to think that the train of events — from the BJP pulling out of the coalition, to the abrogation of Article 370 — was set off by the assassination of a journalist: Shujaat Bukhari, the founding editor of ‘Rising Kashmir’. But, then, does a Chinar tree make noise when it falls, if the Indian media is not around?

Krishna Prasad is former Editor-in-Chief, ‘Outlook’ magazine, and former member, Press Council of India

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