Churnalism in Kashmir

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IS journalism in Kashmir, churnalism? Is it about reusing existing material such as press releases and wire service reports instead of original research?  It, in fact, is. If we go by the content of the newspapers in the Valley over the past year, it fits the definition of churnalism. The expenditure on news gathering and the reporting has progressively gone down and the newspapers have taken to publishing the stuff available free of cost.

The transformation of the content in the local newspapers has played out right before the readers’ eyes: it began as a general dumbing down of the news in the wake of the erasure of Kashmir’s autonomy last year, its investigative nature moderated to an extent where no one in the government could be expected to be ruffled.   Ditto for the editorial page. The newspapers didn’t write about politics or contentious issues but about the environment, health and education in a general vein. As for the opinion, the columnists swore off politics.

Soon, the government and its activities, covered mainly by its public relations department, started getting the pride of place on front page. The activities of the Governor, and now Lieutenant Governor, top bureaucrats, as chronicled by the public relations department became the dominant news. Similarly, army commanders peered at the readers from the pictures alongside a detailed mention of no more than their routine work. The news if any was strictly restricted to apolitical issues like economy and environment, much of it gleaned from press releases or press agencies.

Now inside pages too are largely filled up with press releases of the Information Department. The visit to a place by an advisor to Lieutenant Governor  (LG) gets usually a three to four column space so do the activities of the Chief Secretary or any other top bureaucrat. The LG’s activity, no matter how routine, is deemed fit for a lead treatment. Fewer news stories that are published are preferably taken from agencies so that the newspaper is not directly held responsible for them.

This is the content that now generally makes up a Kashmiri newspaper. What’s more, on any given day, Kashmiri newspapers look like a mirror copy of one another with by and large same content filling their pages.

Each newspaper with a minor exception here and there has become a PR effort undertaken on behalf of the government. In a way, the drastic dilution of news and the self-censorship practiced by these papers is a media bellwether. It is a microcosm of what is happening in journalism in Kashmir as a whole.

Little is published that concerns the ongoing situation. The opinion pieces talk about issues like ‘Can Money Buy Happiness’, ‘Divorce and Dowry’, ‘Missiles of Aggression’ etc.

In the weeks following the revocation of Article 370, one of the leading newspapers carried passages from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial to fill its editorial and Op-ed pages.  And some papers that ventured to carry editorials wrote them on issues which didn’t have even a distant relation with the prevailing situation.  At the height of the lockdown after Article 370 move, a newspaper carried an editorial titled ‘A Second Election for Israel’.

There is no scope for in-depth, investigative reports or the ones that objectively reflect the ground situation. Separatist politics and the security environment, dominant concerns of Kashmir’s life for the past three decades, have become no-go areas for local journalists.

Kashmiri newspapers are content to serve as extensions of Government’s PR department. Official press releases constitute a significant portion of their daily content, so do the innocuous agency reports.  They hardly require professional journalists: reporting and editing jobs have become redundant. In fact, the production of a typical newspaper in Kashmir is dependent more on computer designers than the reporters and editors. Fewer of the latter can run the show. This is why the past year, more so the period after Article 370 move has witnessed a significant number of lay-offs of journalists. Churnalism has no place for them.

Irfan Mushtaq

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