MEDIA MADNESS

It is an odd habit and yet he can’t keep from turning on the television while he sits down to eat his dinner; this despite the fact that watching the television news would leave a bad taste in his mouth while he savors hi meal. Still, Aamir Rafiq, a student of journalism, like tens of thousands of people in the Kashmir valley, finds it hard to fight off the temptation of tuning in to the television news broadcast from New Delhi. They know the direction the debates usually take on these channels: vituperative, abusive anchors and a cohort of their guests making Kashmiris feel as if they were criminals guilty of crimes of which there is no comparison in the world.

On a recent evening Amir sat down to watch a debate on one of the channels and in no time the drift of the debate was clear to him. The anchor and his guests were debating the “terror funding” in Kashmir, a cue they got from a recent ‘sting’ by another ‘news’ channel on some ‘pro-freedom’ leaders. As Amir watched, his anger could be easily gauged. In the middle of an argument, one of the panelists pointed out to the “red cheeks” of Kashmiris as being one of the signs of being funded by Pakistan.

 

“Half of the time, Kashmir is on bandh, half of the time there is lock-down, still there is no case of malnutrition or farmer suicide, I want to ask how do they manage, every body’s cheeks there are so red,” said one Major Arya, an army man who posed as an expert panelist on Kashmir.

Hearing this, Aamir shouted in fury.“What the hell is this madman talking about, is he in his senses!” frowned Aamir as he followed up with a few more expletives. He, however, kept on watching the show giving his own reasons for it:“Why I watch it? One it is fun and two it shows you the real way Indians think about Kashmir and us”.“Shut-up debate” as Aamir called it, has most of the times anchor shutting up those who go against his viewpoint in ‘debates’ which nowadays are directly about, or in one way or another referring to Kashmir.

As a Kashmiri viewer of such debates, Aamir finds himself a party to them. He frowns with the anti-Kashmir, anti-Muslim rhetoric and equally feels the excitement when some ‘pro-Kashmiri’ panelist is successful in peeving the opposite parties.

One might not be too bothered by what goes on in the studios of the various television news channels, all you need to do is to keep away from watching it. What alarms you though is when the tone of the television debates finds resonance in the policy that New Delhi advocates for Kashmir and it becomes clear in the Kashmir valley that it was anchors and panelists of television news shows who push the government to take a particular line on Kashmir.

The intensity with which the Indian media has been chasing Kashmir, almost every issue and non-issue in it, and the way the government of India has been following up on it is worrisome. For example, the “terror fund” debate that annoyed Aamir, and almost every Kashmiri who watched it, was on recent raids carried out by National Investigation Agency (NIA). The raids were a reflex to the ‘sting operation’ carried out on a few Hurriyat members.

The ‘sting’ done by India Today, a channel more known for its masala reports than journalism, showed separatist leaders Nayeem Khan, Bitta Karate, and Gazi Baba in some undisclosed location in New Delhi talking about how they received money to “fuel the unrest” in Kashmir.Soon after the video was released, the Centre pulled up its NIA team of 25 members who went on raiding dozens of places in Kashmir, Jammu, Haryana and other locations.Aamir, like thousands of other Kashmiris saw the sting video. And like many others he too picked some basic problems with it.

“Firstly the ‘sting’ seemed shaky, like several videos shot at several times put together. Also the Hurriyat guys shown in the video wore woollen clothes suggesting it was shot in winter months; if it was so important a scoop, why was it then released months later in May?” questioned Aamir.
However, for the people in the power corridors of New Delhi, these questions seemed irrelevant. They, on the contrary, found the ‘sting’ as enough of a ‘proof’ to let loose the NIA sleuths, who raided multiple locations for several days.The known outcome of these raids, so far, has not been anything substantial even as the NIA claims to scrutinize the electronic gadgets it seized during the raids.

Weeks after the NIA raids, the hyper anchors and self-styled experts were still ‘debating’ the “funding from Pakistan”, irking Aamir and thousands of other Kashmiris like him.While the drama continued, Aamir also referred to ‘India Today’.“India Today, have you watched it? One of its female anchors can give a good competition to Arnab when it comes to shouting on screen,” Aamir joked.The one Aamir referred to is Anjana Om Kashyap designated as ‘Editor Special Projects’ with TV Today Network.Interestingly, most of her ‘special projects’ surround Kashmir.In May, during the countless follow-ups on their Hurriyat ‘sting’, Anjana seemed to have taken everything so personally that it was hard to decipher between her kitchen rant and the so-called national interest she claimed to speak for.

In another such ‘special project’ she was anchoring on primetime last month, the India Today anchor was miffed on how some ‘Islamic’ channels broadcasted in Kashmir were triggering fundamentalism and anti-India sentiment?“For years now, dozens of Pakistani channels spitting venom against India are being watched in Kashmir, no one has questioned their broadcast, could their anti-India and fundamentalist stand be the cause of the terrorism that Kashmir is struggling with….? That is the question we ask in this hour…,” her last few words powered by all the wry facial expressions she must have ever learnt.
The question of ‘Pakistani channels’ was actually raised by a story done a few days earlier by a major Indian newspaper, thereby tipping off the news channels.‘Pakistani, Saudi channels beam into Kashmiri homes, stoke azadi rage’: This story done by ‘Times of India’ on May 05, postulated that whatever wrong was happening in Kashmir was due to the airing of channels which promoted “anti-India”, “fundamentalist” and “Salafist” thoughts in the region.

The journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh claimed in the story that there were “over 50 Saudi and Pakistani channels, including Zakir Naik’s banned PEACE TV preaching Salafist Islam, and others indulging in anti-India propaganda were running without necessary clearances via private cable networks in Kashmir”.
To substantiate the claim, Tikoo quoted some Shahid (did not give out his full name), an ‘Islamic scholar’ from Anantnag saying: “It (airing of salafist channels) is radicalising youth and adding fuel to the violent separatist movement that is being mobilised by invoking Islam. Wahhabism has stoked Islamist extremism and terrorism across the world.”
Even as an ardent watcher of such shows, Aamir told The Kashmir Monitor how ridiculous the claim sounded to him when he read the story and saw the debate.“It seems they don’t want us to live in peace. Why else would they try to make issues out of nothing?” he said while referring to the channel debate he had watched last month.“I don’t think half of Kashmiris have even heard the names of some of these channels. Besides, a few of them only telecast music and sports, how on earth would they ‘radicalise’ me,” his frustration clearly showed as he spoke.

If it would have been referring to any other place, the Times of India ‘channel story’ would have had barely a few days of shelf life, as happens with most such stories written for dailies. However, not when it mentioned Kashmir and also claimed to find the ‘real reason’ of the problem, a reason that conformed to those in power.And like Aamir, most Kashmiris already knew that.Not waiting for the second day, the same evening the story was published, the government of India reacted. All pumped up ToI did the follow up the next day: ‘Rein in J&K cable firms illegally beaming Saudi, Pakistani news channels, says government’.

The Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry in an official order directed the J&K Chief Secretary B.B Vyas to take action against the cable operators and even “confiscate the equipment”.A day later, the J&K government asked the all deputy commissioners of the state to take action against transmission of 34 TV channels, including those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, saying they have the “potential to incite violence and create law and order situation”.
No questions, no ground analysis to double check whether or not what was claimed had any semblance of truth. A few of the 34 channels, which formed a part of the banned list, as Aamir rightly pointed out, included some sports as well as music channels, leaving a lot scratching their heads.
Banning the channels is another recent example of the government of India’s knee-jerk reaction to its media reports on Kashmir. Unusual even for the political conflict it is, the vehement desk-reportage, questioning almost everything happening in the valley, shows how the Indian media has startedreporting their own whims and assumptions.Yet another example of media triggered decisions on Kashmir is the hyped up security measures for the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra.However, Aamir had not realised it yet.

“They are not debating it that much, so I guess that is way I missed it,” he replied when told how, for months now, a series of print stories by national media outlets quoting anonymous ‘security officials’ claimed that “stone pelters and militants were the biggest threat to the pilgrimage which is to start from June 29.“I think they will rake-up the issue on these channels when the Yatra is about to start for the government of India to react.”Aamir, however, did not know that they had already reacted.The repeated reportage had led the Union home Ministry hold an emergency meet on May 23, acknowledging the ‘threat’. They decided to deploy 27,000 troopers along the Yatra route.

“There are equal threats from militants and stone-throwers. All threats are being taken care of,” Adviser in the Ministry Ashok Prasad then said.Reacting to the hyperbole, the State Police Chief SP Vaid too held a high level meeting last week with police and other paramilitary forces discussing the security arrangements for the upcoming Yatra.“Fool proof security arrangements should be put in place for the routes and the base camps to ensure safety of the pilgrims. The deployment and security of the vulnerable areas should be strengthened to thwart any mischief by the anti-national elements and the militants. Enhanced Paramilitary deployment should be made,” DGP Vaid directed the officers.

The perception of fear was generated even as the past remains testimony of how the Yatra was never affected due to the Kashmir situation. In fact, militants in many of their videos have vouched for the safety of the pilgrims making one wonder wherefrom was the ‘threat’ perceived by the Indian media.As if this was not enough, the Indian media now seems to have set its eyes on banning the internet in the valley, or at least in south of Kashmir during the 40-day Yatra period. Why else would a leading news agency of India come up with a story like this: “‘Bedroom Jihadis’: New problem for Kashmir’s security agencies.”

The story dated June 02 was carried by most news portals and ranted about on news channels.
An excerpt from the story tells how it overtly wants to gag whatever remaining communication is available to the people of Kashmir.“After years of fighting armed terrorists with bullets and brickbats, security agencies in Jammu and Kashmir are now facing a new enemy – ‘bedroom jihadis’ who manipulate social media from the comfort of their homes to spread rumours and influence youths. An immediate worry for security agencies is the Amarnath Yatra that starts June 29. Armed with access to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, there are fears that the new band of jihadis could instigate communal riots in the Valley ahead of the 40-day pilgrimage to the high altitude shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva.”
The story, like most such stories, quotes anonymous police official to substantiate its claim. It would not be surprising if government of India, in the backdrop of this story, comes with another order of banning internet during the Yatra period in the entire valley or in the districts through which the yatris pass through.
Media experts, working journalists in Kashmir, and even young men like Aamir, see the negative impact of the Indian media’s handling of Kashmir.Experts, however, say that the trend of media-triggered decisions on Kashmir is nothing new and has been used as a “favourite tool” by those in power.

“Indian media has always done that. In Kashmir, partial reportage favouring the Indian state and opposing the realities has been the rule for the Indian media; a balanced, objectivity reportage has been a rare exception,” says Danish Zargar, a working journalist who has earned his doctorate specifically in national media’s reportage on Kashmir in 1990s.“They have done it all through ’90s and afterwards, and the practice continues. Only that their biased, or even misleading, reporting is now becoming more common and an accepted form of journalism in India. I believe if Indian media played its role more professionally vis-a-vis Kashmir, the realities may have been different. Because, they have ensured that the people of India see Kashmir as nothing more than a proxy war and Kashmiris as enemies,” he says.

A senior journalist who once worked as a correspondent for a leading national news channel recalls how his attempts to report the real on-ground facts and situation were met with disappointment after his Delhi Bureau misrepresented the truth.“It was 2009, we were reporting the Shopian rape and murder case. I faced severe opposition from the Delhi bureau when I tried to report the villager’s claims of Indian forces raping and murdering the two young women from Shopian. My editor was miffed on my reportage and kept on pressuring me to rather report that the women drowned (the state version) in a stream with hardly a feet of water,” the senior journalist, who eventually left the channel, told The Kashmir Monitor.
The People’s Democratic Party, the regional ally of BJP, even being a party to many of the decisions triggered by the media reportage, too believes that the national media is adversely affecting the current Kashmir situation.Recently, State Minister of Education Altaf Bukhari was vocal about how a few national broadcast channels were hell-bent on “putting Kashmir on fire”. He was reacting to claims made by ‘Republic TV’ that NIA raided Mushtaq Chaya, a known hotelier of Kashmir whereas the reality was that no such raids were made.

“Please allow us to live peacefully. We want peace here. But some news channels want to put Kashmir on fire. They are not showing true picture about the valley,” he said.Similarly in an interview with Indian Express, J&K Minister for Roads and Buildings, Naeem Akhtar said that his party was convinced that television channels in Delhi and Mumbai were doing “irreparable harm to us than anything else currently”.
Naeem claimed that the state government was considering “serious action” against these channels. “Because it is these television channels and their studio warriors who have become a serious threat to peace and normality in Kashmir,” he added.
To point out, the current media war in Kashmir is waged at a time when the region is experiencing its second straight year of public dissent. Akin to last year, the series of civilian killings, injuries have continued for the first half of this year too. The situation has been made worse by blocking communication channels multiple times in the last six months. Besides, a wave of student protests has also been a feature of the public protests showing how volatile the situation is in the valley.In all of this, the Indian media’s biased reportage has been one of the prime reasons of keeping the pot boiling making Aamir and most other Kashmiris wonder where would the drama head in near future.

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