What happens when the national media in the world’s largest democracy presents the forced silence of a people as their consent? Last August, when the Valley was under a strict clampdown after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, the national media projected stories of a new era of development and peace.
This, despite the fact that Kashmiris were disconnected from the outside world and from each other as a communication blockade lasted for months. The internet shutdown earned the title of the “world’s longest shutdown of the internet in a democracy’ and thousands of Kashmiris languished in jails across the country.
For several years now, Kashmiris have been vocally critical of the coverage of the national media on issues pertaining to Kashmir–from the conspicuous absence of the ground realities and people’s representation in the ground reports to the panel discussions on national television with predictable outcomes.
‘Plain-speaking is missing’
Tahir Firaz, who completed his Ph.D. in politics and international relations from Dublin University in Ireland, is of the opinion that the national media’s “ultimate and inevitable” aim was to whitewash Kashmir. “There is this consensus that Kashmir is a part of India and they will rarely cross that kind of official narrative, otherwise that will be considered as anti-national,” he said.
Dr. Firaz noticed that the national media has always dispatched non-native reporters to cover stories of a certain kind. “It’s true that Delhi-based journalists are pushed to report the way they do in Kashmir,” he said, adding that “[it is] to create some kind of propaganda and to counter the narrative of the Kashmir’s self-determination movement.”
Pointing out the dominant media narrative in the mid-2000s, specifically between 2004 and 2008, Dr. Firaz said that there was an exaggerated discourse on the return of normalcy. The national media cited statistics—emphasizing on the number of tourists visiting Kashmir as an indicator of normalcy. The discourse took a sharp turn mid-2008 when a civilian uprising had erupted, he added.
More recently, the normalcy discourse again picked up pace after the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy, touted by the Government of India as the end to Kashmir’s woes. “The stories of lived experience and politics rarely come out in Indian media,” said Dr. Firaz. “Even if they do, the Indian media, in general, tend to show it as an aberration.”
Kashmir was the national media’s “ugly portrait”, painted with its “own colors and canvas”, noted Dr. Syeda Afshana, Associate Professor at the University of Kashmir’s Media Education Research Centre. “The shades of half-truths and slant draw a sketch that’s no way dispassionate,” she said. “Kashmir for Indian national media is not to demystify their affiliations [or] inclinations, but to morph reality in a way that suits the agenda.”
On several occasions after the abrogation of the special status in August 2019, the national media misreported Kashmir to present a lopsided narrative. In one instance, a national television channel passed off visuals of Eid prayers being held in Jammu as that of Srinagar—which had remained under a strict curfew. Some journalists from outside Kashmir were facilitated in helicopter rides at the administration’s expense. Other channels interviewed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers in Kashmir—without disclosing their affiliations to the ruling party—passing them off as common Kashmiris who supported the abrogation.
According to Dr. Afshana, what the national media terms as “coverage” doesn’t fit professional journalistic practices. “Indian media reportage [broadly] seems more fictional than factual,” she said, adding that Kashmir is reported in a partisan manner. “The plain-speaking about Kashmir is missing.”
On 4 May, the United States-based Pulitzer Prize for the best feature photography category was awarded to Associated Press (AP) photojournalists from Kashmir, Dar Yasin and Mukhtar Khan, and the Jammu-based Channi Anand “for striking images captured during a communication blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory as India stripped it of its semi-autonomy”.
The pictures depicted tensions in the region after the abrogation—a stark contrast to the national media—and the award prompted heated discussions in the national media. The Pulitzer Prize was also criticized by the BJP’s National General Secretary, Ram Madhav, ostensibly having taken offence to the award given to the Kashmiri journalists for their on-ground reporting during the clampdown.
The international media besides the AP, too, had reported tensions in the region through the incidents of protests and stories of torture in parts of south Kashmir. The national media at large, however, ignored these stories all along. This trend, however, has been a consistent feature of the coverage.
A 2014 study of the events in the preceding years noted that “the national press has downplayed the strikes in Kashmir Valley either by not publishing the news stories about strikes; by portraying the strikes as ‘sponsored’ programmes of resistance leaders, ‘crippling’ or ‘halting’ the normal life; or by diluting the details about strikes.”
The study titled “Partial Journalism—A study of national media of India and Kashmir conflict” by a Srinagar-based media studies professor, Dr. Danish Nabi, also observed that the general perception in Kashmir about the national media was that it overlooked “objectivity to serve what it usually describes as the country’s ‘national interest’.”
“Truth is often made the causality, and national media is often held guilty of this offence when it comes to reporting situations in the Kashmir Valley to serve the vaguely-defined ‘national interest’ which should have no role whatsoever to play in the supposedly objective institution—Media,” Mr. Nabi wrote in the study. “National media has adopted ‘partial journalism’ policy when it comes to reporting Kashmir conflict.”
Amid the cacophony of the national press, the local press in Kashmir has quietly suffered—intimidated by the government and facing a public turned hostile owing to the dominant discourse in the national media. After 5 August 2019, many journalists have been summoned by the police or booked for their work.
In Dr. Firaz’s opinion, every journalist being an individual is biased but there are certain basic standards of journalism that local journalists have been professionally following. “Kashmiri journalists are reporting the ground realities while as Indian public, or those people who make allegations, are programed or have been exposed to certain kinds of narrative on Kashmir,” he said.
It is pertinent, as such, to be mindful of the suppression of the press in Kashmir, said Mirza Waheed, a Kashmiri novelist based in the United Kingdom. “The Indian state and its representatives in Kashmir have brazenly made it clear that they don’t like independent journalism, only the kind that pleases the state,” he said. “We all know that just isn’t journalism — it collapses at the slightest hint of scrutiny.”
It was evident, he said, that the national media would rather “please the state than report truthfully”. “A lot of the TV channels are openly hostile to Kashmiris and essentially broadcast what suits the establishment,” he said. “It was clear in August last year when the Kashmiri press was silenced, and certain journalists shuttled into Kashmir.”
The story originally appeared in our 17-23 August 2020 print edition.