Bhat, a government college teacher who lives in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, cringes every time a television anchor on national media “denigrates and stereotypes” Kashmiris. “Even their language has a violence to it that affects people here,” said Bhat, who did not want to be identified by his full name.
Ever since the mass protests that broke out in the summer of 2016 in the wake of the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, residents across the Valley have cited coverage of Kashmir in the national media as a reason for growing polarisation, even a catalyst for local militancy. When Dineshwar Sharma, the Centre’s “special representative” for talks in Kashmir, arrived in the Valley late last year, the delegates who met him reportedly complained about the national media, especially television channels.
Sharma took note. He has reportedly asked Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to convene a meeting with certain television channels and warn them against spreading “vicious propaganda” on Kashmiris. Four channels are believed to have been singled out for regularly airing exaggerated stories about the Valley, undermining the fragile dialogue initiated by the Centre.
In Kashmir, the heated rhetoric deployed by national channels has had two results. Residents feel demonised, their voices drowned out. At the same time, as news channels lose credibility in the Valley, journalists reporting for the national media from Kashmir often find themselves at the receiving end of public anger.
Much of the sound and fury is generated by prime-time discussions on television. Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Srinagar-based daily Rising Kashmir, claimed the national media was more balanced earlier. “But with the advent of TV media, there is only one line that is followed,” he said. “It has to be anti-Kashmir, that will only denigrate Kashmiris.”
Suhail Bukhari, a former television journalist who was media advisor to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti until last year, said there was a “conscious decision to editorialise and take a position”, a trend that had emerged in the last five or six years. Even pro-India Kashmiris are not spared, he said. For instance, the late Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was dubbed the “pro-Pak CM” by a certain news channel.
Both journalists felt that prime-time television talk shows have abandoned all pretence of neutrality. “TV channels became part of a so-called nationalistic agenda, which perhaps earns them TRPs, so most people do not take them seriously,” said Shujaat Bukhari. “They have become the drum beaters of a state narrative aimed at criminalising and demonising Kashmiris. They have played a major role in increasing anger in Kashmir.”
While Kashmiri voices are seldom heard or are shouted down on such talk shows, the speakers who are heard are partisan voices, felt Suhail Bukhari. “For example, if the people have a grudge with security forces and the vocal section of the national media comes across as spokespersons of security forces, where is the scope of credibility?” he demanded.
A distant lens
While discussions turn heated, the reportage has not helped either. Local cable news channels have been banned in Kashmir since 2010, so most television journalists in the Valley work with the national media, which comes with its own baggage.
A senior television journalist in Srinagar, who did not want to be identified, said Kashmiris have been reduced to recurring stereotypes – the shikara owner, the fruit grower, the stone pelter and, more recently, the radical Islamist or hawala racketeer.
He does not believe the situation will improve any time soon, despite Sharma’s interventions. According to him, some of the propaganda comes from government and state agencies themselves. “The intelligence agencies and Home Ministry keep feeding propaganda to Delhi-based journalists, who run it without question,” he said.
Ruheela Hassan, who teaches journalism at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in South Kashmir, said the national media has not given “due coverage” to Kashmir. “In most cases, the portrayal is completely antagonistic to the reality,” she said. “When the issue is viewed through a distant lens, the root causes are not visible. Kashmir need not be discussed in ‘secret rooms’ in Delhi but with the people to get the true picture.”
She felt journalists who were not based in the Valley lacked a nuanced view of the situation. “Watching some people shouting and repeating the same slogan can never add to any perspective, though it helps enhance the visibility of few,” she said. “It creates more stereotypes that have raised false images of Kashmir.”
Bhat said Kashmiris now tune into national television channels precisely for their anti-Kashmir stance. “People want to know what they think about us, how many abuses were thrown our way,” he said. “The national media is a general reflection of the Indian state, repressive and untruthful.”
He added, “The irony is that [state-run] Doordarshan does not indulge in this misinformation, but it is not watched by many. It is the private media where the Army is worshipped and Kashmiris become a binary. It sells to bash Kashmiris.”
Line of fire
Journalists reporting from the Valley now stand charged of “not showing the truth” and of being complicit with a state that is often perceived as hostile to civilians. On a daily basis, they must work their way around agitated and sceptical civilians, especially since the 2016 protests.
In Srinagar on January 12, a reporter for a national television network was interrupted during his piece to camera on the weather. Two young men in a passing vehicle slowed down to yell “liar” and “lying media”, along with a string of abuses.
In September 2016, when an Army camp in North Kashmir’s Uri town was attacked by militants, killing 19 soldiers, television crews flocked to the spot. The civilian protests that had started in July that year had still not died out and public anger against journalists was running high. Back in Srinagar late in the evening, a journalist with a national channel covering Uri said they had “switched off the headlights and made calls to SSPs [senior superintendents of police] before travelling” through hubs of protest. Even then, a few vehicles were attacked and damaged.
Meanwhile, Valley-based journalists say distortions on news channels and skewed reportage by Delhi-based journalists have created an environment that is “dangerous to the health of the ground reporter”. A senior journalist with a Delhi-based channel said the last time television reporters ventured out without anxiety was almost a decade ago.
Back then, television cameras were welcomed and people would jostle for the opportunity to articulate their grievances and opinions on camera, he said. “We were respected, and reported from amid a sea of people,” he added. “Now, it is difficult. People get agitated because of the camera.”
Another Valley-based journalist was also bitter about reporters who parachuted into difficult situations. “Reporters from Delhi come with no understanding of complexities on the ground and are misled by the two sides, state and non-state, equally,” he said. “The damage they do, we pay the price. Because at the end of the day, while they return to the safety of Delhi or elsewhere, we are left to face the repercussions.”
Journalists say they must also juggle expectations in the newsroom, especially with the growing trend of editorialising the news. “It became difficult to sustain what used to be news, to put information in the public domain and leave it for interpretation,” said one reporter with a national news channel. “Now, it is judge a story and present one side full throttle.”
He said there were expectations from all sides that were “at times difficult to balance” and the scope of reportage was constricted. Mostly, news of violence in the Valley made it to the national networks.
Outside the newsroom, according to one journalist, there was the silent reproach of Kashmiris who felt their voices were not being heard. “It is either that they are not asked about their views, or their voices are suppressed even when we send the bytes,” he said. “Hence the accusation of not showing the truth.”
Yet another journalist added, “Or their opinions are presented in such a way that it changes the meaning.”
To avoid trouble, television journalists in Kashmir keep a low profile, hiding the logos on their microphones while travelling or erasing channel names from their vehicles.
In the face of this growing resentment of the television media, reporters said they preferred to travel in “safe company”. Said a journalist with two decades of experience, “In the beginning, we would avoid travelling with reporters of certain channels. Softer channels would go together.”
Yet, he added, the public does not always distinguish between channels, and today he has to refuse certain assignments, particularly those involving trips to volatile areas such as downtown Srinagar. “There is no nuance of what individual channels or their stances are,” he said.
The gulf between television journalists and the public has grown so wide that reporters now say they feel safer around encounter sites, where there is dense security cover and lower chances of running into irate crowds.