Structural Barriers to Media Openness in Kashmir

Kashmiri Journalists protest against Jammu and Kashmir police for assaulting their 2 colleagues in December last year. Photo: Faisal Khan/ Anadolu Agency

By Tanveer Ahmad Khan and Wasia Hamid

The modern age is one of global interactions wherein local happenings are shaped by the events taking place miles away across the globe and vice versa. In the academic language, scholars call it a “the age of globalization” whereby an individual remains a central consumer of information from global chain of networks  ona routine basis. Experts would argue that the leading agency behind such production and free flow of information globally is ‘media’ while social scientists would say as the fourth pillar of democracy, media needs to be transparent and autonomous at all times. And as laymen, people would generally believe that media must have a pivotal role if we want to halt the delivery of fake content to the citizens. But regrettably, in the contemporary world in India, in particular, the structural barriers have engulfed media openness and the professional autonomy of journalists to a large extent.

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Many scholars who have studied Indian society in the post-colonial era argue that the media openness in India found caste as one of the major structural barriers with Jeffrey pointing out that the vast majority of journalists and editors in the mainstream media are not Dalits. Yadav claimed, this caste profiling of journalists and key decision-makers in the media highlights the structural problem in Indian society. Thus, the absence of Dalit journalists in the mainstream media is a clear indication that ‘voices from the below’ would never be heard unless they find an open environment (open democracy). Otherwise, the ‘voice from above’ would always maintain its dominant nature.

In contemporary India, the concept of freedom of speech comes under immense threat as mainstream media professionals foster the desire to unraveling the ‘pseudo content’ rather than the actual. However, the presence of such ‘courageous journalists’ in conflict zones (like India) adds further fuel to their already existing detritus and destitute condition. Media is the only antidote to the ‘state-Rowdyism’ in such zones. Similarly, the concept of ‘national security,’ on the other hand, is invoked to put these professionals behind bars and curb ‘subjugated voices.’

The same is the case with journalism in Jammu and Kashmir where it has been really tough to be a journalist. The situation became grimmer for them after the killing of the rebel Burhan Wani by the Indian security forces in July 2016. After his killing social media found a new path for development in Kashmir. A new trend of media openness in Kashmir, a hope where justice for common masses would flourish, came to the fore. Masses started trusting media than before, and above all, increasingly, people started to consume professional information through social media, which was not a case earlier so far due to state-controlled policies or, for that matter, limited development in information, communication, and technology in the Valley.

However, this media openness faced a grave challenge after August 5, 2019, when special autonomy of Kashmir under Article 370 was revoked by the Indian government. Massive protests, strikes, curfews, detentions, a militarization of educational institutions, and even ban on some of the local and non-local newspapers were observed throughout Jammu and Kashmir. The purpose of attaining normalcy led to the blockade of all means of communication, and media was no exception to it. It was then that the young journalists of Kashmir not only played a crucial role in providing media coverage of the ordinary experiences and acts of violence faced by the Kashmiris but also detached themselves from what Antonio Gramsci called ‘organic intellectuals.’ Purely, in the Indian context, what Ravish Kumar calls ‘Godi Media’ who supports the ideology of a particular class or dominant religion and, of course, emerge as the organizers of ideological preponderance, or hegemony.

It is the two-way process (a) first, the state supports the ‘Godi Media,’ and (b) ‘Godi Media,’ in turn, supports the state. Through the support of the state,‘Godi Media’ has survived, and fair-minded media is being imprisoned. ‘Godi Media’ determined the potential interests of a dominant class and legitimized their historical role. The journalists, artists, designers, managers, radio talk-back hosts, newspaper proprietors, and academics who fall within this category indeed create a stunning barrier in the life of real and ground level journalists. They captured every moment or act of violence despite the challenges they faced in the battleground. They are being troubled both by the ordinary masses and the ‘state surveillance’ system, which is, no doubt, a significant ‘structural barrier.’

At the public side, they are often stigmatized as the state agents, while at the state level, they are considered as the threat to the peace (law and order). Being treated as a threat to the peace, a new dark phase on media openness has resulted in the frequent abduction, detention, and disappearance of journalists in Kashmir. The range of problems and challenges vary from online abuse to even death. The killing of veteran journalist and editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari, not only describes the experiences of journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir nevertheless also shows unsafe they are. Despite that, journalists working in Kashmir have picked up the challenging task of reporting the impacts of Indian military rule as well as the impact of militancy on common masses; thereby enlightening people of the discrepancies of governance. Thus, typically there exist two structural barriers to media openness in Kashmir; one the state itself and the second ‘unknown gunman’ or what academicians call non-state actors.

Even if the motive of a journalist in Kashmir is simply the public good or the betterment of their society, however, in one way or the other, they to face the wrath of violence. They cannot be fence-sitters as their fate is determined by the circumstance of which they are well aware of. Journalists like Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Aashiq, Gowhar Geelani, Asif Sultan, Kamran, and many more are the living examples of how state suppression and intimidation victimizes them merely on the line of duty.

The act of suppression was further tightened by the government with the introduction of UAPA. An act enforced by the government is used to suppress objective journalism in the name of their so-called anti-national activities. This is only done so that the reality of suffering inflicted by the Indian government on  Kashmiri people is buried without the outsiders having the slightest knowledge of it, and, to convert local media outlets into media controlled by central government so it can make them work like puppets to fulfill their roguish desires.

India calls itself the world’s largest democracy; however, democracies only flourish when people are provided a free atmosphere to carry on their job in a real sense without any pressure or conditions. As social scientists would argue that to make a state democratic in content and character, it needs to adhere to transparency and autonomy of the administrators of its fourth estate-media.

Tanveer Ahmad Khan is a Senior Research Fellow at Department of Sociology in Aligarh Muslim University and Wasia Hamid is a Senior Research Fellow, Department of Sociology at University of Kashmir.