This World Press Day, the media in Kashmir has little to cheer about. The day comes in the immediate wake of the FIRs against three journalists Gowhar Geelani, Masrat Zahra and Peerzada Ashiq, first two of whom were slapped with Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Though the government has not arrested them it has not withdrawn the cases. However, the recent FIRs are not the only problem the press in Kashmir is facing.
Both, the local newspapers and the reporters working for the various national and international publications have faced their toughest time in discharging their professional duties over the past nine months. The security lockdown and the communication blockade that followed the revocation of Kashmir’s special status has hit the Kashmir media hard. Journalists struggled for an internet connection to get their stories out. The newspapers have found it difficult to get the content to publish. It was days after nullification of Article 370 that the government put together ‘Media Facilitation Centre’, initially only with just four computers. Though communication gag has been eased since, with the media given access to internet, this hasn’t made a large difference to the prevailing pathetic state of journalism in Kashmir. Logistically, the situation may have eased, in terms of freedom of expression it has progressively worsened as recent FIRs bear this out.
Overall the challenges for Kashmir media are formidable and structural. The media in Kashmir, comprising a robust English and vernacular press has a particularly unenviable job to do. The problems faced by it are both universal to the conflict situations and unique to the region. One of the major problems bedeviling the freedom of expression in Kashmir is the economic sustainability of the local newspapers. Being a place with only a fledgeling private sector and little industrial presence, government advertising is a predominant source of revenue for the newspapers. This gives government enormous power to influence news agenda. This renders the local press prone to the pulls and pressures from the administration and various other interests in the region. Until August last, however, the local media had managed to skirt such pressures and done a largely excellent job of covering the prevailing extraordinary situation.
But the situation has now become extremely difficult and one can only hope that the things become easier in the weeks and months to come. Much will depend on how government seeks to pursue the cases against journalists it has booked in recent times. Withdrawal of the cases will certainly be a victory of freedom of expression, in turn also for the government. For a journalist to report on the ongoing situation is his profession. Government can have questions about the accuracy of the reports and hold the journalist responsible for any lacunae thereof. This can’t be held against the professional. Government, therefore, needs to revisit its current approach to journalists and journalism.
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