‘New policy a serious threat to press freedom in IOK’

Srinagar, June 24 (KMS): Editors from across occupied Jammu and Kashmir while strongly reacting to the so-called media policy of the fascist Modi government in India for Jammu and Kashmir have demanded immediate revocation of the policy, which makes it binding for media outlets to get their contents checked by Indian secret agencies before being published.

An official statement released in the first week of June while highlighting the key features of the 53-page media policy said, “For the first time, the media policy lays down the guidelines for empanelment of audio-visual and electronic media such as FM, radio, Satellite and cable TV channels so …].” The policy also empowers punitive action in the form of booking journalists and editors under various laws of Indian Penal Code.

The policy has been criticised both locally as well internationally for violating the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in the occupied territory. The local media in Kashmir is under siege since August 5, last year, when India stripped the territory of its special status.

“It’s a one-sided decision,” said Tahir Mohidin, editor of Urdu daily, Chattan. “There was no consultation or discussion with newspaper owners and editors. We were not taken into confidence at all. This not in the interest of media, at all.”

“Everyone is scared,” said an editor with the English daily. “It’s not only the fear of losing advertisement revenue from government. Many fear that they be implicated in various cases and harassed by security agencies.” The aim of the policy, the editor said, was to “demolish the local media” and “put the journalists at the mercy of government clerks and police officials”.

In February last year, the government of the former state stopped issuing advertisements to two major English dailies in the Valley, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. Months later, the editors of both the newspapers were summoned by National Investigation Agency and questioned in Delhi and were questioned for their coverage of mass protests in Kashmir in 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. But the investigating agency has not revealed any official why it summoned the editors.

A journalist with a prominent English daily in Srinagar traces government coercion to the aftermath of the protests four years ago.

“I would say it dates back to late 2016,” he explained, “when the situation for media in Kashmir became quite bad with the banning of an English daily and the halting of government advertisements to several newspapers, including Urdu dailies. The government has tightened its screws since then.”

The policy also proposes a “background check” of newspaper owners, publishers and journalists “with the assistance of the relevant authorities” before a publication can be empanelled. Journalists will also be put through a similar background check before they can be accredited.

Second, the policy envisages a joint framework between the government’s Department of Information and Public Relations and security agencies to examine the media content for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”. The directorate of information is to devise “a suitable coordination and information sharing mechanism with the security agencies” to address these issues.

The provisions for “background checks”, the English editor felt, undermined editorial autonomy. “This clause effectively strips me off my authority as a recruiter,” he said. “What it means that not me, but a government clerk and a police official will decide which candidate should I hire. That’s ridiculous. What if they ask me to hire a person who’s close to the police or some other agency? That staffer’s presence in my newsroom is as good as any policeman’s.”

“The Press Club management committee already had an online meeting over the issue and the need was felt that all the media organisations, be it journalist bodies or the editors in Kashmir as well as Jammu need to come together and devise a joint mechanism to deal with the issue,” said Ishfaq Tantray, General Secretary of the Kashmir Press Club.

Personally, Tantray felt that the media policy was a “serious threat” to press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir. “This policy, as the reading of it suggests, gives unbridled powers to the director of information to decide what is news and fake news,” he said. “If the government is not happy with your story they will term it fake and register a case against you. If this policy is not contested by the media in J&K, it is definitely going to choke the space for the journalists in the region and curb whatever freedom of the press is left.”

It is worth mentioning here that over the past 10 months, journalists in Kashmir have been harassed, beaten up, summoned for questioning by security agencies and even booked under draconian laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

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