To NC, PDP and their newly found love for press freedom: Remember how you blew it to smithereens!

Nisar Dharma
Journalists including Late Shujaat Bukhari protesting in press enclave during 2016 when Mehbooba Mufti led government raided newspaper offices and seized publication (File photo: Umar Ganie)

The new media policy in J&K is receiving flak from all quarters, however, Kashmir politicians criticising it has once again exposed their double-dealing.

Earlier this month, the J&K administration approved the revised media policy stating that it was meant for “effective communication” and “public outreach”.

The administration also stated that the policy attempts to “thwart misinformation, fake news and tries to develop a mechanism that will raise alarm against any attempt to use the media to vitiate public peace, sovereignty and integrity of the country”.

The policy allows the directorate of information and public relations to “examine the content of the media for any fake news, plagiarism and unethical and anti-national activities” and any individual or group indulging in such things “shall be de-empanelled besides being proceeded against under the law.”

As soon as the policy was announced, what followed was a barrage of statements from National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Congress, Peoples Conference, CPI (M) and others criticising it while ‘championing’ the freedom of the press.

However, even a brief look at the last decade or so of Kashmir politics proves how muzzling the press has always been a policy of the state (if not on paper) and each ruling party has set new benchmarks of it during their terms in power.

Be it National Conference or Peoples Democratic Party, their newly-found love for press freedom follows their years of systematic crushing of it.

For instance, PDP last week proved its leaders suffered from selective amnesia when it issued a statement calling the new policy “a direct assault on the free press and akin to choking the voices of dissent.”

The statement reeked of duplicity since PDP, in its times in power, had made some landmark moves to choke and crush the same media freedom that it is now ‘concerned’ about.

The person writing the PDP statement must have had a facepalm moment especially remembering the latter part of 2016.

That year Mehbooba Mufti led government raided newspaper offices, stopped printing of all newspapers in Kashmir for three days, and banned English daily ‘Kashmir Reader’ for three straight months to ensure “peace” prevailed in the back drop of Burhan Wani’s killing.

It was a time when the use of deadly force left civilians dead and blind day after day after day till the death-toll rose beyond 100 and those maimed and blinded counted in thousands.

PDP in its 2020 avatar may term the new media policy “a step towards demolishing the democratic institutions, militating against journalists, and killing free voices with absolute immunity” but they must remember that they too have set their own records in each one of those categories.

In October 2016, PDP government invoked a draconian law from the days of Dogra rule – JK Newspapers Incitement to Offences Act 1971– to stop ‘Kashmir Reader’ from publishing on the pretext that the newspaper can “easily incite acts of violence and disturb peace and tranquillity.”

Someone should tell Naeem Akhter – who must be concerned of his dicey future after his PSA was recently revoked– how in 2016 as a government spokesperson he justified the gagging of the press for “peace.”

He should also remember how in 2017, the same government had banned its employees from criticising it on social media.

While PDP may have raised the standards, the founding father of choking press freedom in the valley has always been National Conference, a family regime which, years after years, has slowly strangulated local press in Kashmir.

The party’s dichotomous ‘concern’ for press freedom may have led them to call the new media policy an “assault on freedom of speech and role of the press in a democracy” but years 2009 to 2012 are remnants of the past that would always haunt National Conference.

In 2010, a frenzied Omar Abdullah, the then Chief Minister, wore blinkers as Kashmir mourned deaths of over a 100 civilians, journalists were thrashed, and newspapers denied advertisements compelling them to fall in line and avoid reporting the worst state of human rights .

Right around that time when Omar was ruling J&K, 27 journalists had been confirmed as being killed for their work in India since 1992, and 10 of those deaths took place in Jammu and Kashmir.

Infact, from 2009 to 2015, the NC regime did enough to choke press freedom in Kashmir by stopping issuance of government advertisements to several local dailies at different intervals.

For instance, The Kashmir Monitor hardly received any government advertisements for over a year in 2010-11. A senior government official then had informed the newspaper that the move, while meant to force the publication to toe the line, also served as a warning to others.

In 2020, while National Conference opines that the new media policy “obliquely stifles media’s right to ask tough questions”, it is suggested that the leaders of this dynastic party should meet at their ‘Nawah-e-Subh’ office and ask some tougher questions to each other.

The party may call the new policy “remnant of colonial-era censorships” that “will choke the already constrained space for free working of the press” but shouldn’t it ponder who constrained that space?

While it says that the new policy is an “infringement of the people’s right to information”, NC can turn back a few leaves of the party’s past to know how ridiculous its current statement sounds.

With a lot of time at their disposal, Omar and Mehbooba should contemplate how acerbic their seemingly supportive stance to press freedom is.

In fact, what the journalists in Kashmir are facing today is a result of the persistent abhorrence these former heads of the state had for free media.

(Author is Senior Reporter at The Kashmir Monitor. Views expressed are personal. He tweets @nisardharma)

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A journalist by chance with over six years of experience in reporting, editing, and curating content. Nisar has dual Masters Degrees in Mass Communication and Journalism, and English Literature. He has covered education, health, politics, and human rights. He likes working for a daily, though occasionally tries his pen in long-form to connect personal narratives with history. Nisar loves reading, and re-reading Orwell.
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