Media in J&K being ‘choked’ due to local administration curbs: PCI FFC

NEW DELHI, 14 Mar: A three-member fact-finding committee (FFC) of the Press Council of India (PCI) on Jammu & Kashmir has said that the news media in the union territory, especially in the valley, is “slowly being choked” due to extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.

Six months after the PCI, a statutory quasi-judicial body which acts as a press watchdog, set up the FFC headed by Prakash Deubey (convenor) with members Suman Gupta and Gurbir Singh on a complaint by PDP president Mehbooba Mufti in September last year, it has submitted its report to the council, which is yet to debate and adopt it.

In its report last week, the FFC said that news media in the Jammu & Kashmir region, and especially in the valley are slowly being choked, mainly because of the extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.

“Our conclusion and recommendation is very specific: those indulging in any criminal acts are not journalists pursuing their profession. If a journalist is bearing arms or carrying grenades and other ammunition, he is not a journalist; he is a militant, and should be treated as such,” the FFC said after meeting all stakeholders in its visits to the twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar.

However, the security establishment cannot label writing against government policies, or quoting a family or civilian sources in a story about excesses of the armed forces, or tweeting a point of view as ‘fake news or antinational activity’ and then arresting the journalist for sedition. It is not the business of journalists to support government policies or development work, it said.

It said a journalist’s job is to report the news as it happens, even if it is unpalatable to government officials.

“The tendency to see all critical reporting and opinions as ‘antinational’ must stop. A conflict zone has many players and many aspects of events that unfold. A journalist cannot and should not ignore the government version; at the same time, he is not the spokesperson of the government,” the report said.

The report noted with concern that the public relations work of various government departments has been taken over by the police.

“This should cease as it is against the letter and spirit of the functioning of the various arms of a democratic government,” it said.

“Journalists rely on communication networks like the internet, and access to events and persons to gather and transmit news,” the report said, seeking restoration of these normal privileges of news gathering.

“A government has the power to snuff these out as we have seen in the case of J&K. Restricted internet facilities after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August, 2019, the suspension of internet mobile connectivity whenever there is a conflict situation and denying access to journalists to scenes of an armed encounter are all methods that have developed to choke free and fair news gathering in J&K,” it said.

The report said journalists have high level of stress due to constant pressure from the government agencies and police, as well as militants, and they are still managing to do their job in such a hostile environment, which is commendable.

“At a broader level, because of the continuing conflict, the business of news media has been severely disrupted in the region and sources of advertising are slowly withering away,” it said, adding that the print media especially, which has large overhead costs, are hardly sustainable anymore.

It said that the normal lines of communication between the local government administration and journalists have been disrupted because of the former’s suspicion that a large number of local journalists are sympathisers of the militants’ cause.

This was admitted by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, who frankly told the FFC that many journalists were of ‘antinational’ persuasion. He conceded that, when he was first appointed, he used to encourage open press conferences, but now has gone back to a ‘selective engagement’ with preferred journalists, the report said.

The report recommended stopping of intimidation, arrests and detention under draconian laws, underlining that it has recorded numerous cases of journalists being subjected to interrogation, threatened and made to fill irrelevant profiling documents.

“We have listed cases of journalists being summoned to the dreaded ‘cargo centre’ for questioning – a location reserved for interrogation for armed militants. Officially, the police have conceded to the FFC that as many as 49 journalists have been arrested and charged since 2016 – not a small number, considering that J&K has a very small press corps,” it said.

Of these, the report said eight have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which makes bail almost impossible.

Demanding restoration of rights and privileges of the Kashmir Press Club, the FFC said it was a legal, representative body with a membership of over 300 journalists.

In January, the Jammu & Kashmir administration cancelled the allotment of building and land which housed Srinagar’s Kashmir Press Club after it was taken over by a group of journalists flanked by the police.

The premises were handed back to the estates department.

“There is no convincing reason on why the body was superseded and put in cold storage. In a democracy, journalist bodies not only should be allowed to flourish, but their views should be sought and respected,” it said. (PTI)