Perspective: Is India’s New Policy on Media in Kashmir Vicious? — by Shahnaz Bashir

Jan 24, 2021

In this opinion piece Shahnaz Bashir evaluates the potential consequences and repercussions of the 53-page “New Media Policy” set to regulate the Kashmiri press in the aftermath of August 5, 2019. Inverse Journal has included a visual bibliography of additional links on the subject from recognized news and media sources.

As a journalism student at the University of Kashmir, in 2004, I loved discussing the normative theories of media with my friends through recreations under the cool shade of chinars in the gorgeous Naseem Bagh campus of the varsity. Even though I had witnessed the armed conflict in Kashmir for fifteen years till that time, I had never known a documented policy of how the local media must operate in Kashmir. These media theories were seldom expected to exist beyond the academic realm, and, through various scholarly books and papers, seemed to have disciplined the press elsewhere in the world. We studied the Authoritarian press model enactive in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Adolf Hitler’s savage statement, from his autobiography Mein Kampf, was germane to the working of the fascist press: All propaganda should be popular and should adapt its intellectual level to the receptive ability of the least intellectual of those whom it is desired to address. All these brazen assertions were read as classical examples of dictated press in history. But now, just a Google search away, one may update oneself with the knowledge of fresh and concrete implementation of the authoritarian-press-theory by reading the 53-page new Media Policy of India in Kashmir. The policy has been drafted by the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) that calls itself the "single window for circulation of information and communication for all governments”. In other words, the DIPR takes the charge of centralizing the control of governmental communication and, thereby, becomes an authoritative monopoly on interpretation of the information—any information for that matter. Here is how this control mechanism will work.

Until recently, the government in Kashmir had had unleashed countless newspapers, many with misleading circulation and titles, to thwart public resentment or to indoctrinate people but now with the new press policy Kashmir has become a functional model of a dictated press in the present global scenario of free journalism.

The timing of its draft is a part of the reason why new Media Policy.

After August 5, 2019, the day when the ruling rightwing BJP in India scrapped the autonomy of the internationally disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir, a systematic assault on journalism and journalists in Kashmir began. The assault was to blackout any journalism except the type that conforms to the interests of the government. It kicked off with arrests of young journalists, confiscating circulation copies of newspapers, enforcing disappearance of political-opinion columns, even banning some newspapers for months, snapping internet and forcing the journalists to work from a government set-up Media Centre—where, under constant surveillance and with few sluggish internet outlets, it was impossible to send out audio-visual reportage data. This crackdown on media culminated into summoning of reporters to intimidating interrogations and finally charging some with draconian laws.

The mention of "new initiatives taken" in the very first paragraph of the policy document suggests that the diversification or multiplication of media in Kashmir should not be expected to outrun the expansive control mechanism of the government. And it quickly moves on to “Objectives”, calling for "creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the Government in media"—a rather self-explanatory agenda. Intriguingly soon, it seeks to build a "genuinely positive image" of the government. The usage and placement of the adverb "genuinely" in the draft evinces how in a matter-of-fact manner the government presupposes itself to be “genuine” thus absolutely and self-righteously immune to any criticism much ahead of having commanded the bona-fide status of being called so—genuinely.

In the third paragraph on Page 1 of the document, the government endeavours to address public criticism and grievances. And once one is done with reading the entire policy document, gauging the depth of its dictatorial tone, one wonders what is meant by “public criticism” here. What that criticism will entail? What level of free expression of that criticism will be granted to the public? The mention of “criticism” in the document is as vague as the mention of “fake news”.

The New Media Policy is smartly nebulous on fake-news. DIPR implies to retain an exclusive and sole autonomy on the interpretation of fake news. It seeks to prudently ensnare journalists over information that compels revelation of sources. And with that in mind of the media persons, news reporting will be determined accordingly, ensuing a blinkered approach to newsgathering and dissemination, and appropriating the entire local media narrative of events in favour of the government. But for its own instant negations of involvement of the armed forces in human rights violations or to protecting its own “genuine” image, the government might remain untraced.

This vagueness regarding many other things seems intentional. In clause iv. of the “Objectives” section, that asserts that the communication of the government with people through the media will be “appropriate”, one can only make puzzling sinister guesses about the meaning of "appropriate" here.

The next section “Guiding Principles” on Page 2 begins with clause i. Visibility, seeking an omnipresent and conspicuous mention of the government in media. "Visibility" here means that the mention of government would entail its "positivity", the word underscored, by all means. The demand of the third guiding principle “Repetition” implies the Nazi “truth” model: "repeat something for hundred times" to hammer it (the government) down well into the public psyche.

Portions of the policy document read like a primary-school level essay on "usage of media" or “benefits of social/new media”. The "guiding principles" manifest the attempts to infantilize the press and assume the media as a naivety that cannot operate without patronization.

All the “principles” pontificate, and therefore, restrict, the public response to administrative functioning of the government, and discourage to reflect on its role in the political conflict in the region. Also, to leave open a large vague space in itself, to, primarily, disallow or even intimidate any editorial opinion on the political ecosystem of Kashmir, the policy under its vast purview vests in the government the power to unilaterally dub any alternative viewpoint as "prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India". And that seems to be the core objective for drafting this policy document.

The document is calm on whether the information related to any human rights violation, however "true, fair and consistent", has to be disseminated because any sought-out compliance to the government policies is based on the idea of its being absolutely free and clean of violations. A sweet self-centered utopia is being peddled here.

Making it certain that no form of media escapes its panoptic interference, the DIPR says it will be “focused on” every form of media. One more wordplay here: for the word scrutiny it uses “focused on”: that the media must be wary of the Orwellian "big brother is [always] watching" them too.

With the framing of the policy under question, and apart from being a communications and PR wing of the government, the DIPR has donned a new mantle of an intelligence-gathering and surveillance agency for local media. The policy warns “a robust background check". Antecedents of each media-house owner, his/her staff and all newcomers will be scrutinized to filter in only those who conform to the ideals and position of the government on the conflict in Kashmir, giving way to a lopsided press.

Not only does the DIPR seek to scrutinize media but also in its General Guidelines it directs all government departments, autonomous bodies, even universities, to route their advertisements and messages through it. This guideline is meant to police the departments’ outreach to masses and conduct a constant systematic analysis of what comes out of these organizations for the public. One more purpose of the guideline is to archive patterns of their communication for the perusal of various other relevant monitoring agencies. And with government filling the newspapers with its own political spins, every now and then, to dissuade the publics on certain political issues, no newspaper, once empanelled, can drop a government ad from publishing.

All the objectives and guidelines of the policy reiterate that the media should "highlight the activities and achievements of the government". The document pretends to be an advisory of a normal peaceful welfare state where the people are either absolutely happy with their rulers or oblivious as political or ideological agency. The main thrust of the policy is to direct the local media to highlight “development” performance of the government, making it seem that the only newsworthy matter in the region is “development”—which on the ground is as delusional as the word itself, implying that development reportage must happen before any development actually happens. The whole 53-page document looks like a development communication project module and a bulletin of warnings at once. In an internationally recognized disputed region, it relegates journalism to only reporting of governmental socio-economic schemes and programmes.

One doesn’t find anything about "politics beat" or "reporting politics" or even a subtle reference about the political atmosphere of Kashmir in the entire document. Word "political" is mentioned only at three places, denoting "political affiliation" of Doordarshan and All India Radio, the mouthpieces of the government itself, with the government. Assuming that only the government and its mouthpieces could have certain political affiliations, it negates the same for the people of the region. Such and the other statements in the policy document reflect exclusivist fascism and a direct assault on diversity of thought.

All the alternative political affiliations in a state that mistrusted, and even booked, staunch Pro-India politicians under Public Safety Act, a detention-without-trial-law, and accused many of having anti-national attitudes—jailing them subsequently for months, in order to smoothly scrap the autonomy of Jammu & Kashmir on Aug 5, 2019—what is now left for the media houses in Kashmir to politically affiliate with?

Each time the word “unethical” is mentioned in the policy as one of the Don’ts, it has been equated or synonymized with “anti-national”; that which is anti-national is automatically unethical.

Upset with the new Media Policy, the journalist community in Kashmir has been consistently protesting against it. Recently a local news portal surreally mocked the authoritative press model in a cartoon that showed a police officer teaching the Dos and Don’ts of journalism to a class of journalism students.

Freelancing in the global journalism scenario is based on severe crosschecking of sources and references for each fact reported. The new media policy in Kashmir indirectly derides the international standards of journalism with its assumption of a higher moral authority of its own “fact-check”.

In addition to muzzling the voices of people, the policy would lead to a nom-de-plume and anonymous journalism phenomenon in which many, who want to write the truth and wish to be safe at the same time, will find it bizarre to work without bylines.

 

The views, perspectives and opinions presented in this piece are the author's own.

Relevant Links

Share This!

About the Contributor

Shahnaz Bashir is an award-winning novelist and academic from Kashmir. He is currently a doctoral and Research Enhancement & Leadership (REAL) fellow and teaching associate in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.