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Journalism and Occupation in Kashmir

(Article first published by The Kashmir Walla)

For obvious reasons freedom of the press in Kashmir is limited and constrained. Military occupation with its attendant curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, searches, surveillance, wiretapping of calls and emails, and state-sponsored violence from custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings to torture and disappearances, produce immense pain and suffering among Kashmiris. Intimidation and fear are widespread. That is the intent, design, and logic of occupation. In such a repressive and oppressive atmosphere people are reluctant to speak freely and provide information to journalists and journalists do not have freedom of movement to report stories. Occupation nourishes and sustains a climate of timidity, paranoia, and intense psychological distress. The uprising and resistance in Kashmir to Indian rule is one of the major news stories in the world yet it is underreported. The Indian state has been diligent in framing and manufacturing the news messages coming from Kashmir. It has broken the windowpanes and hearts all over besieged Kashmir. In addition to a series of draconian laws, which are imposed arbitrarily and without any legal recourse there is a campaign of censoring and controlling journalists.

Another issue complicating the functioning of journalists is the vast network of state spies who deliberately spread disinformation and rumors. In addition the Indian state directly deports journalists, if they are already in Kashmir, as in the case of John Halpern, or preventing them from entering Kashmir from Srinagar airport as in the case of Gautam Naulakha or denying entry at any of the international airports as happened to me on 23 Sept 2011. Of course if journalists report on Kashmir within the conventional government framework then they will have no problems and will be garlanded with malas.

In late November 2011 I visited to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. I learned that of the top countries in which journalists experience the most difficulty, five are in South Asia – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India. Pakistan is at the top of the list and India is at number thirteen. “India,” the official I spoke with told me, “is moving up the list.” At a time when rebellions and revolts are erupting over large swathes of India journalism is crucial for not only the world community to know what’s going on but for Indians themselves. An unimpeded free press is essential to the functioning of democracy. In reporting on Kashmir and other conflict areas journalists, in addition to being deported, are threatened, harassed and in some cases beaten, as happened recently in Srinagar.

As long as the Indian state continues to portray the struggle for freedom in Kashmir as an expression of Pakistani driven terrorism and deny the aspirations of most Kashmiris and their right of self-determination, then the people of India and the rest of the world will never understand what fuels Kashmir’s discontent with Indian rule. Kashmir is packaged in a public relations campaign as a magical tourist destination where middle class Indians escape the heat of the plains in the summer, stroll in Shalimar gardens, stay on houseboats and enjoy shikara rides across Dal Lake and in winter pretend that they are in Switzerland as they frolic in the snow. Bollywood’s portrayal of Kashmir in films tends to reinforce cliches from romantic visions to jihadi fanatics who lust for blood. These stereotypical images are light years away from the brutal and harsh realities faced by average Kashmiris everyday of their lives. The fare offered by TV talking heads replicates the U.S. Fox network model, i.e., obfuscate, mislead, traduce, slander, and fabricate.

Real journalism should go where the silences are. It should go into the darkest corners and shine light into them. It should be fearless and courageous. It should be uncovering the mass graves dotting Kashmir. It should be focusing on massive human rights violations, collective punishment, custodial deaths, sexual molestation, fake encounters and the plight of the mentally disturbed, orphans and half-widows. It should investigate war crimes and name the members of the security forces, intelligence agencies and officials in Srinagar and Delhi who are responsible. It should be in an adversarial relationship with power. To be invited to have tea with Omar Abdullah or dosa with Chidambaram is a sign of journalists failing their duty. This is embedded journalism at its worst. Why? Because state officials want to seduce journalists with access to power and manipulate the flow of information through leaks, half-truths and lies. The classic aphorism, which historically informed U.S. journalism was: Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable. Sadly in the world’s second largest democracy that adage has been largely forgotten, as it seems to be in the world’s largest democracy as well.

Journalists who curry favor and approval from higher-ups are chamchas. They are experts in makaree and have sold themselves for career advancement. Access to ministers in Delhi or corporate bigwigs in Mumbai are signs of their moral corruption and the desire to get ahead at the expense of reporting the truth. Thus they function as stenographers. They are lapdogs with laptops, and in most instances, become de facto instruments of the state and conveyor belts of propaganda.

Even with all the difficulties I have cited above, some of the bravest journalists I know are Kashmiri. They cut through the layers of barbed wire and report the facts without fear or favor. I am proud to know them.

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