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Journalists had staged a sit-in protest inside the Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar during the August clampdown. Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo for The Kashmir Walla

 “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and don’t live alone— to a time when truth exists and what is done can’t be undone” – George Orwell, 1984

What Mr. Orwell meant to say was that truth cannot be suppressed. It is, however, precisely what the new media policy introduced in Jammu and Kashmir intends to do. The unchecked and authoritative power it confers upon the authorities to intervene in the affairs of the press is a direct assault on the fourth pillar of democracy. 

The policy is a hurdle for journalism as it tends to strip out the free and fair exercise of expressions of media houses. When freedom of the press is in triviality state and when the news has to pass through a police test. Neither the democracy nor the welfare state exists, it is an authoritative state.

The new media policy has come at a time when there is an uncertainty on the ground about the string of new policies—ranging from the domicile rules, empowering the government forces to declare new strategic areas to aid the construction of armed forces facilities outside cantonment zones—unilaterally imposed on J-K.

A free and independent media acts as a watchdog of the policies and plans of the administration, an important pillar of democracy, to guarantee freedom of information, the absence of which would lead to authoritarianism and anarchy. The laws passed by the legislature in modern times confer many discretionary powers on the executive by the way of delegated legislation and it is through the channel of a free press that supervision is maintained on the exercise of such powers to prevent any abuse on part of administrative action. 

The media policy as such is undermining the whole process of checks and balances.   A state must allow its people to express their ideas, criticize the policies and put forth their point related to governance, as rightly said by the assassinated United States president John F Kennedy: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people”.

The government, through the media policy, is trying to tighten its grip over the flow of news from the troubled region. To evade away from the international community’s criticism and call for better governance in Kashmir, the government perhaps wants them to sleep in ignorance by muzzling the voice of media houses. For otherwise, the journalists working in the region have won prestigious awards—and prompted punishments too—for their extraordinary works based on truth and facts.

The new media policy intends to vet news, conferring powers on the authorities to decide what is and what isn’t news. The policy is silent as to which matter shall be regarded as anti-national or unethical, leaving all discretion in the hands of the government authorities to tag any news falling within these categories and curb the free flow of ideas and expressions. 

An administrative policy must adhere to the Doctrine of Rule of Law, delegated legislation demands that a guideline be appended to the policies to effectuate them. The present policy as such is silent about modus operandi, as to which authority shall decide about the nature of news and on what standards. Such a policy can be challenged on the grounds of manifestation of arbitrariness under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, the same point is observed by the Supreme of India in the 2019 case between the Hindustan Construction Company (ltd.) and Union of India and others. 

The government cannot win an argument by choking expression; it can only degrade the freedom of the press and by that affect the voice of the public. The ethics of journalism demand objectivity, fairness, impartiality, and public accountability, however, all these basic tenants get violated by this policy. 

When the news has to pass through a gate framed by the government as provided in the policy, there raise questions with regard to the independence and fairness of such journalism, precisely leaving the control of journalism in the hands of the government.  

Prime Minister Narendra had said: “I want this government to be criticized. Criticism makes democracy strong”. However, ironically a centrally administered J-K comes up with a media policy which apparently doesn’t allow any criticism of the government—for the usual mode of constructive criticism are media houses and portals. The media policy is aimed at demolishing the local press, editors in Kashmir said. 

A policy, law or even a developmental project once introduced, passed or inaugurated is followed by the press for its later progress and implementation, and usually, a governmental response at a later stage is invoked through free and fair reporting by journalists, setting up a debate on the callous approach of the government towards the same, which under the present policy has no place and thereby it can disrupt growth and also hamper free ideas.

In the case this policy is effectively implemented, the corrupt in the corridors of power are likely to escape accountability without anyone batting an eyelid. The pressures of a free press would have at least ensured some truth to be put on the public record. 

Any such policy isn’t only anti-progress and growth but also constitutionally invalid as it goes against the basic tenants of Rule of Law, undermining individual liberty and freedom of the press, freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right, though not absolute, restrictions are to be reasonable and not arbitrary.

The Supreme Court of India in the case between the Indian Express Newspapers and the Union of India (AIR 1985 2SCC 434) observed that Article 19 of the Indian Constitution does not use the phrase “freedom of the press” in its language but it is contained within Article 19(1) (a):

“There cannot be any interference with the freedom of the press in the name of public interest. The purpose of the press is to enhance public interest by publishing facts and opinions, without which a democratic electorate cannot take responsible decisions.”

When freedom of the press is snatched, it demeans all other democratic ideals and they become hallow as Justice PN Prakash of the Madras High Court has observed and emphasized that “India is a vibrant democracy and the fourth estate is indubitably an indispensable part of it. If the voice of the fourth estate is stifled— India will become a Nazi state and the hard labour of our freedom fighters and makers of our constitution will go down the drain”   

India, while one hand claims to be the largest democracy and believes in Rule of Law, must simultaneously keep highest standards of democratic ideals and must not allow executive powers to intervene in the working of institutions of the press. Mehmet Murat Ildan said of the authoritarian Turkish government, which could be said of the current government: “The ugliest government is the one which is spreading fear to its own people! The finest government is the one which encourages its own people to criticize the government harshly.” 

The authors are students of law at the School of Law, University of Kashmir. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

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