Ten days after the Pulitzer prize awarded to two Kashmiri photojournalists in May had stirred the hornet’s nest in the country and ripples of celebrations in Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on 15 May accorded sanction to regressive new media policy that is aimed at “creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the Government in media”.
The fifty-three page policy prepared by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) headed by Dr. Sehrish Asgar and approved for implementation by principal secretary Rohit Kansal, both bureaucrats of the Indian Administrative Service, not only lays down the contours of what journalism is but also prosecution of journalists under the Indian Penal Code and cyber laws for what the administration would deem as “fake news”.
Further, the new media policy details plans to flood various media platforms – including social media – with the “achievements” of the government, coercing news organisations to not only make development a central focus of the coverage but to restrict journalists at that. The policy, in essence, makes the bureaucracy the censors of information.
However, it is evident from a cursory reading that the policy is in writing, the regressive actions against the press taken by the administration after the unilateral abrogation of J-K’s limited autonomy and statehood on 5 August 2019. “The so-called media policy has not surprised any local newspaper editors and journalists because [we] are already practising its provisions,” said Jammu-based editor of The Dispatch, Zaffar Choudhary. “The policy has just that in paper, all of it in one place.”
Since August, the bureaucratic establishment has been brought under the direct oversight of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government in New Delhi and in the absence of an elected government and almost all unionist politicians in jail, the bureaucrats have wholly taken over the affairs of the region, no longer answerable to regional politicians.
It has simultaneously made itself immune to sections of the press that still attempt to hold the corridors of power, the public servants, accountable to the public; more or less, the model of engagement between the press and the government that the DIPR envisions to create. The new media policy will remain in force for a period of five years.
The bureaucrat’s commandments
In what the policy document describes as “some of the objectives of the new policy”, the first objective is stated to be to “foster a genuinely positive image of the Government”; followed by an emphasis on creating “awareness among the people on government policies” and to “keep the government informed of people’s feedback”.
In the last of its seven stated objectives, framers of the DIPR’s policy announce the intent to “thwart mis-information, fake news, and be alert to any attempts to use media to incite communal passions, preach violence or to propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India”.
An aspect the journalist community in Kashmir was familiarised with when journalists were summoned in April 2019. Two Kashmiri journalists, Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the stringent anti-terrorism legislation, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act while another FIR was filed against a report published in The Hindu, reported by its Kashmir correspondent Peerzada Ashiq. The editor of The Kashmir Walla was also summoned by the police in May for the coverage of a gunfight.
These seven objectives are followed up by seven “guiding principles”—dominating the media space for “visibility”, repetition of uncritical state narrative, the simple dissemination of government’s claimed intentions, the use of all forms of media, and a mechanism to receive feedback and respond to it, all of which must be done with “consistency”.
The policy further proposes the shift of attention from the traditional print media to the popular online media and even television and radio stations, earmarking at least 40 percent of advertisement budget for the same. Online news platforms and the social media have been described as “special areas of attention” and the proposed policy’s “key components” include the creation of “a full fledged Social Media Cell in its [DIPR’s] repertoire for dissemination of information and monitoring of misinformation”.
The policy states that the DIPR will ensure “that the social media space is proactively occupied and that this means of communication is effectively utilized for furthering the overall objectives of the Policy” and has proposed “an exclusive social media unit” consisting of “suitable professionals/agencies”.
It is pertinent to mention here that the DIPR had recently disengaged more than forty contractual employees, mainly Kashmiris. The move was made amid the coronavirus pandemic even as the prime minister had made an appeal – albeit to the industry sector – to not lay off employees.
However, in what is seen as a further intimidation of the press in Kashmir, the DIPR has – citing “significant law and order and security considerations” and that the region “has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border” – laid emphasis on the need for “putting in place suitable mechanisms to address issues of fake news, plagiarism, verification of antecedents of all concerned with the profession”.
The expected outcome being “the efforts of anti-social and anti-national elements to disturb the peace are thwarted”.
The DIPR has proposed a “robust background check” into “the antecedents of the paper/news portal as well that of its publishers/editors/key personnel” as well as “each journalist” done with “the assistance of the relevant authorities” for the release of advertisement and individual accreditation. “For this purpose, the guidelines for accreditation shall be revised and updated to reflect this requirement,” the policy states.
But what is fake news?
While the use of social media by militant groups has over the years proven to be a significant factor in galvanising public support for the militancy built upon grievances and miseries inflicted upon ordinary citizens by successive governments, the DIPR attempts to conflate the issue with genuine news organisations and casts serious aspersions on local journalists.
Furthermore, even as the DIPR has stated its intent to curb “fake news”, the policy neither specifies in detail the process to determine what constitutes fake news nor does it mention the inclusion of any journalist body, national or local, in any of the committees it proposes to set up or their role in adjudicating matters related to the press.
All proposed committees are presided by Dr. Asghar herself while the committees for appeals would be chaired by the Administrative Secretary of her department. “With respect to all such matters as may involve fake news or news with anti-social, communal or anti national content, the implementing agency viz. DIPR will also device [sic] a suitable coordination and information sharing mechanism with the security agencies,” the DIPR has proposed.
The DIPR intends to “examine the content of the print, electronic and other forms of media for fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”, stating that “any individual or group indulging in fake news, unethical, or anti national activities or in plagiarism shall be de-empanelled besides being proceeded against under law”.
It also proposes withholding advertisements to “any media which incite or tend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of lndia or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour” and prosecution for “fake news or any news inciting hatred or disturbing communal harmony” under the rules laid down by the IPC and cyber laws.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedoms advocacy group, is “very concerned” about the policy regarding fake news–laws about which have been “abused” by governments across the world to curb critical reporting, said Aliya Iftikhar, the CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher. “[G]iven the Indian government’s track record around targeting critical journalists with legal and criminal cases, particularly in Kashmir, there is little reason to believe this policy will not be misused,” she told The Kashmir Walla. “We urge the Jammu and Kashmir administration to show good faith toward the media community and press freedom and to immediately withdraw this policy.”
The J-K administration intended to act as “a watchdog over the media” and as a result “completely kill journalism”, said Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the daily Kashmir Times, adding that the media policy “imposes a state of emergency” on the press.
Ms. Bhasin further added that the media policy “aimed to completely gag the media” and by making bureaucrats and the security establishment judge of news, Ms. Bhasin said that “in most likelihood, it is going to be weaponized against professional media persons and the independent media, against any free critic of the government”.
“The DIPR has no authority to decide and judge what fake news is,” she said. “They are not experts on media or news, they are completely altering the definition of media as something that should project only the achievements of the government and act as an organ to amplify [government] propaganda.”
Ms. Bhasin noted with caution the uncertain fate of any journalist who is left out from the bureaucratic process of accreditation. “Would their functioning be criminalised in anyway?” she wondered. “Because the policy in its entirety is extremely frightening.”
Expected of China
The media policy is being proposed at a time when the press across the world struggles with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic but more specifically in Kashmir, after a series of unilateral actions since last year, beginning with 5 August 2019 and more recently imposing a fresh domicile law that will grant non-natives domiciliary rights in J-K.
The criticism of the media policy has been muted in the Kashmir Valley, where the traditional media and journalists affiliated with it have already refrained from critical reporting of the government. Two prominent Kashmir-based editors that The Kashmir Walla reached out to, refused to speak on the policy.
While one editor said that he had not read the draft even as he went on to point out the policy’s vision of bureaucratic control over the press, another editor and member of the Kashmir Editors Guild refused to comment stating that “it was alright even if this meant inviting brickbats [from the public]”.
Ishfaq Tantry, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, in a prepared statement, said that the press club’s office bearers felt a need for all media organisations, owners, editors, and reporters to “devise a joint response as it looks the real stake holders, [the] journalists, have not been consulted or taken on-board before approving this media policy”.
In the statement, Mr. Tantry further said that the “media policy [is] a serious threat to the press freedom”, a reading of which “suggests, [it] gives unbridled powers to the director information [Dr. Asghar, a bureaucrat] to decide what is news and fake news”.
Daniel Bastard, head of Asia-Pacific Desk at the international advocacy group on information freedom, Reporters Sans Frontiers, said that the media policy “poses unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information in the Valley and beyond”. “We condemn this regulation in the strongest possible terms because, in both form and substance,” he said in response to an email by The Kashmir Walla
The DIPR has also proposed “media tours” for J-K journalists to mainland India, and journalists from there to J-K as a means of “correcting” the media’s “focus on the security aspects” of the region. Mr. Bastard observed that this was “a sad reminder of Czarist Russia’s Potemkin villages”–farcical displays of peace and stability. “[A] practice that you would normally see in China-occupied Tibet or in North-Korea”, he said.
Mr. Bastard likened the media policy to an “Orwellian tool” that, in the absence of clear guidelines, gave the authorities “an infinite space for interpretation” to adjudge truth and falsehood. “In a working democracy, it is not up to the government to arbitrarily determine what is and is not true,” he said. “This is what happens in autocratic regimes, and it speaks volumes about the state of democracy in J-K`.”