Mehbooba and Media

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In her speech in Assembly on Monday, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti came down hard on the newspapers for printing what she thought were the unsubstantiated reports on the alleged construction of a Sainik Colony in Kashmir. “Do you want to put the state on fire?” she questioned the  media. She also offered a handy explanation for the purpose behind such reports. “I know certain newspapers are in the race to be dispalyed in Assembly,” Mehbooba said. She even refused to name the paper that had published the story on the Sainik colony lest it makes it “popular”. If anything, by attacking the media, the CM has only diverted from the real issue and which is the establishment of the Sainik colony in the state. True she denied that any such construction was ongoing in the state. True, she also denied that the government had allotted land for such a colony. And that this refusal, according to her, had been communicated to the Rajya Sainik Board. But if the issue has come to this pass, it is the Mehbooba-led coalition government which is responsible, not the media. 

From the day one, the PDP and BJP have made divergent noises on both Sainik and Kashmir Pandit colonies. While PDP has denied plans for separate Pandit townships and the Sainik colony for the non-state subject soldiers, BJP has publicly batted for them, undercutting the credibility of Mehbooba’s denials. Mehbooba herself has advocated “transit accommodations” for Pandits, albeit to be half-populated by Muslims and Sikhs. She has also spoken in favour of the Sainik colony, albeit for only the soldiers who are the state subjects. This has complicated the issue which otherwise goes to the heart of the prevailing conflict in the state. People in the state are anxious about their identity and seek both the state and the central government to respect the state’s special position guaranteed by no less than the Constitution of India.  The controversy could have been put to rest by one clear cut denial of the government the moment controversy over the colonies erupted. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, it took a media story for the government to react and offer unconvincing explanations.

Having said that, it is ironic that Mehbooba has chosen media as her whipping boy. Media in Kashmir has been doing its job under very tough circumstances. No newspaper will only do a story to only get displayed in Assembly and be named by the CM. The story in question was based on a statement issued by an NGO. And the said statement was also in the nature of a question. Considering that a spate of plans and policies have surfaced in the recent past which involve setting aside land for the construction of colonies and the economic infrastructure for business houses, people have ther right to suspect. In such an environment, media’s bounden responsibility is to hold the government responsible.

Mehbooba has also tarred the entire press with the same brush: In her opinion all newspapers in Valley do stories which are geared more to garner political attention than report the truth. Kashmir Observer for one has never aspired to be flaunted in Assembly. And we take serious exception to any insinuation which brackets us with the media which, according to CM, seek such attention. Here, we want to make it clear that her government’s approach towards media hasn’t been conducive to the freedom of expression. There is a subtle censorship  in place for the independent local press for long. This government  – and the previous government too – has tried to choke the genuine media by denying them the due share in Government advertisements and also delay payments for whatever advertisements are released. For the last eight months only a payment of one month has been made. 

Certainly, sections of the local media too are partly responsible for this state of affairs. They have always succumbed to the government pressure or have had misplaced hopes with the successive governments. A section always knocks at the government’s door, not realizing they are in a profession which differs from the rest. Government contractors, for example. Instead, government has created a Welfare Fund for the journalists to display its media-friendliness. Far from it. If anything, the Fund is demeaning to the profession.  Government need not show mercy to the journalists. It should do what it is ethically supposed to do. Creating Welfare Fund and denying newspapers their fair share of advertisements and delay payments can’t go together. 

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