Sunday, Dec 10, 2023

The Gag Bites

The Gag Bites

The selective media muzzling has the local Kashmiri press furious

The Gag Bites Jitender Gupta

A beleaguered Omar Abdullah may have eked out a temporary peace on the streets of Srinagar. But his government will have a pretty hard time of it explaining the imposition of its toughest ever censorship on the local media—especially since it has caused a sharp rift between Kashmiri and Delhi-based journalists, many of whom were here to cover the recent unrest.

It all began after the state government withdrew the curfew passes of local journalists. The army had just been called out on the streets of Srinagar on July 6 following the killing of four people, including a 23-year-old woman. But what raised more than a few hackles was that, even as there was a blackout on news vis-a-vis Kashmiri journalists, the government allowed Delhi-based TV channels ready access and movement on the curfew-bound streets.

The situation had been simmering for some time. Local cable channels had been at the receiving end with peak news hour cut to just 10 minutes, apparently in the hope that news of protests and subsequent killings would be curtailed. The channels had even briefly stopped broadcasts to protest the censorship.

The newspapers (about 50 hit the stands in Srinagar everyday) stopped publication for four days from July 8 after staff was denied curfew passes. The police also clamped restrictions on Srinagar’s Mushtaq Enclave, where most of the newspaper offices are located. Employees were ordered to stay indoors.

But local media wasn’t the only one hit. The cameras of some channels, including that of NDTV, were confiscated. Srinagar deputy commissioner Mehraj Kakroo offered a strange reasoning for the restrictions. Since the army was out on the roads, he said, no curfew passes could be entertained. At least 15 journalists were roughed up by the police and crpf personnel.

On July 7, Mark Magnier, a journalist with LA Times, was roughed up by the police near the Dal lake. “I took out my cellphone...identified myself as press and showed my media card. But the officer grabbed my phone, smashed it on the stone floor and cursed the media. Then he hit me twice with the lathi, threatened to arrest me and grabbed my notebook, which I managed to wrench back,” Mark told medipersons.

On July 9, Riyaz Masroor, a local reporter for the BBC’s Urdu service, was beaten up by cops outside his residence in uptown Srinagar when he was going out to collect his curfew pass. He suffered a fractured arm. On July 10, Kashmiri journalists took out a protest after police booked NewsX reporter Suhail Bukhari for ‘waging war against the state’. The channel had apparently run an inaccurate news report about the death of a person in police firing in Pulwama. Suhail and his camera have since relocated to Delhi.

In between, there’s been much heartburn over the Delhi media’s highhandedness. It wasn’t only angry protesters up in arms against a prominent news channel for using adjectives like mobsters, gangsters and paid agents for the ‘stone-throwers’. The local media has been harsh in its condemnation, calling the reporters who flew in from Delhi “helicopter journalists”. A spokesperson for the Kashmir Journalist Corps, a body of young reporters, adds, “Journalists from Delhi were given full help, assistance and government hospitality to ensure friendly coverage.” Ghulam Hassan Kaloo, president of the Kashmir Press Association, says, “Curfew passes were cancelled, mediapersons were beaten and forced to remain indoors, and the government still has the cheek to say that there were no restrictions.”

In fact, many English and Kashmiri dailies even came out with editorials on New Delhi-based reporters camping in Srinagar and being facilitated while restrictions were imposed on local journalists. In a front-page piece titled ‘We Want Freedom’, the daily Rising Kashmir had this to say: “The celebrity TV anchors from New Delhi were treated as state guests and given free access to events. A master shouter from New Delhi would draw parallels between an injured crpf man and Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, who was killed by a teargas shell, only to deduce that it is only a matter of lives being wasted. Against facilitating this parachute journalism and other issues, the Kashmir press has appreciably put up a united front.” The editorial prompted NDTV’s Barkha Dutt to issue a clarification saying she was not given any special treatment or facilities or a curfew pass by the state government while covering the disturbances in Srinagar.

Amid the allegations, counter-allegations and clarifications, the media too has become a casualty. What is worrying is the new divide between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri journalists, who in the past have helped and supported each other.

Lost In Translation

Selective Leaks And Bit Stories

On July 8, many Delhi-based news channels aired the transcript of a phone conversation between two Kashmiri men who they said were affiliated with the hardline faction of the Hurriyat. The transcript, channels said, was provided by Union home ministry sources and they claimed it exposed how the separatists were trying to instigate stone-pelting in the Valley. The conversation goes like this:

Person A: I heard a procession has been taken out from Budgam.
Person B: Where?
A: From Budgam.
B: So what, where the hell can they go this time (implying  in the curfew)?
A:  I heard 20,000 people are in the procession.
B: 30,000?
A: I swear by Allah.
B: ...In Magam for the night. (Here, a part of the audio is missing).
A: Enjoy your salary while sitting at home.
B: It is not easy to control a procession once it goes out of control.
A: 10-15 people should be martyred. (TV channels translated this as: We want 10-15 to be martyred).
A: Listen, listen... (increased volume of the TV).
A: Did you hear that?
B: What?
A: You make a call to anyone in Budgam.

Quoting sources, the news channels said there was talk of transfer of money between the two men, Ghulam Mohammed Dar and Shabir Ahmed Wani.

In the Valley, many dismiss it as a move to deviate attention from the anger on the streets. In fact, anyone who knows Kashmiri can tell the conversation may not have sinister undertones. Budgam’s senior superintendent of police A.A. Kakroo confirmed to Outlook that Wani, a 25-year-old car dealer, wasn’t linked to  separatists. “We had to arrest him after the channels played the conversation,” he said.

Kakroo said the police was looking for Dar, a lower-rung Hurriyat activist who has gone underground. When asked about the ‘objectionable’ parts in the transcript and whether there was any talk of transfer of money, Kakroo said, maybe Wani didn’t mean what he said. Wani’s family, meanwhile, says he will cooperate with the investigating agencies to prove his innocence.