“What’s anti-national?” demanded an editor with an English daily in Kashmir. “And who will decide? Is reporting about the killing of two militants somewhere in Kashmir anti-national? What if some 10,000 people at some place are shouting slogans for ‘azadi’? Should reporting that be also considered anti-national? It’s very dangerous if such a decision is left to the jurisdiction of officials and policemen. The ultimate aim of this policy is to make local media in Kashmir as the extension of the state.”

He was referring to the new media policy released by the Jammu and Kashmir administration, a 53-page document aimed at “creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media”. Among other provisions which seek to regulate reporting in the freshly minted Union Territory is a mechanism which empowers the government to decide what is “anti-social and anti-national” news.

The policy has been criticised in several quarters for violating the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The local media in Kashmir, under siege since August 5, when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and split it into two Union Territories, sees the policy as a death knell.

“It’s a one-sided decision,” said Tahir Mohidin, editor of Urdu daily, Chattan. “There was no consultation or discussion with newspaper owners and editors. We were not taken into confidence at all. This not in the interest of media at all.”

The aim of the policy, the editor with the English daily said, was to “demolish the local media” and “put the journalists at the mercy of government clerks and police officials”.

Designed to curb

The new policy lays out an elaborate mechanism to impose curbs on the media. First, it uses an established system of “empanelment” to ensure that news outlets meet government standards and specifications. The Jammu and Kashmir government already has a list of “approved” or “empanelled” print publications. These are publication approved by the government’s empanelment committee and eligible for government advertisements.

The new media policy extends this to other forms of media. “For the first time, the media policy lays down the guidelines for empanelment of audio-visual and electronic media such as FM, radio, Satellite and cable TV channels so as to streamline their interface with DIPR [Department of Information and Public Relations],” said a government statement released on June 2.

The policy also proposes a “background check” of newspaper owners, publishers and journalists “with the assistance of the relevant authorities” before a publication can be empanelled. Journalists will also be put through a similar background check before they can be accredited.

Second, the policy envisages a joint framework between the government’s Department of Information and Public Relations and security agencies to examine the media content for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”. The directorate of information is to devise “a suitable coordination and information sharing mechanism with the security agencies” to address these issues.

“J&K has significant law and order and security considerations,” reads the policy. “It has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border. In such a situation, it is extremely important that the efforts of anti-social and anti-national elements to disturb the peace are thwarted.”

A man reads a newspaper. Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

Punishing the media

“Any individual or group” held to be circulating content deemed objectionable by the government shall be “de-empanelled”, says the new policy. “There shall be no release of advertisements to any media which incite or intend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of India or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour,” it continues.

With the private sector almost non-existent in Kashmir, government advertisements are the primary source of revenue for local news newspapers.

It does not stop there. The policy also empowers punitive action in the form of stopping of government advertisements to the newspapers, booking journalists and editors under various laws of Indian Penal Code.

Undermining editorial autonomy

“To me, it looks like an essay by some right-winger,” said the editor with the English daily. “If this policy is taken to a courtroom for scrutiny, it will not survive more than five minutes. The question, however, is: where’s the courtroom?”

The provisions for “background checks”, he felt, undermined editorial autonomy. “This clause effectively strips me off my authority as a recruiter,” he said. “What it means that not me, but a government clerk and a police official will decide which candidate should I hire. That’s ridiculous. What if they ask me to hire a person who’s close to the police or some other agency? That staffer’s presence in my newsroom is as good as any policeman’s.”

Mohidin, for his part, saw the involvement of security agencies in vetting news as dangerous, and a departure from past practices of journalism in the conflict zone. “Earlier, if there was some issue, we used to be called to DIPR office and it used to be sorted out,” he said. “Now, they have included police in it. That has never happened before.”

A silence

While the provisions of the media policy have caused anxiety among the journalistic community in Jammu and Kashmir, protests against it are muted. There have been few official objections made by local newspapers.

More than two weeks after it was announced, a lesser known body called the Jammu Kashmir Editors’ Association demanded the media policy be rolled back. But prominent journalist bodies such as the Kashmir Press Club and the Kashmir Editors Guild are yet to issue official statements on the media policy.

“The Press Club management committee already had an online meeting over the issue and the need was felt that all the media organisations, be it journalist bodies or the editors in Kashmir as well as Jammu need to come together and devise a joint mechanism to deal with the issue,” said Ishfaq Tantray, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club.

Personally, Tantray felt that the media policy was a “serious threat” to press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir. “This policy, as the reading of it suggests, gives unbridled powers to the director of information to decide what is news and fake news,” he said. “If the government is not happy with your story they will term it fake and register a case against you. If this policy is not contested by the media in J&K, it is definitely going to choke the space for the journalists in the region and curb whatever freedom of the press is left.”

A Kashmiri man reads a newspaper. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP

The ghosts of August 5

Many attribute this silence to the crackdown on journalists since August last year. Over the past 10 months, journalists in Kashmir have been harassed, beaten up, summoned for questioning by security agencies and even booked under anti-terror laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

“Everyone is scared,” said the editor with the English daily. “It’s not only the fear of losing advertisement revenue from government. Many fear that they be implicated in various cases and harassed by security agencies.”

In February last year, the government of the former state stopped issuing advertisements to two major English dailies in the Valley, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. Months later, the editors of both the newspapers were summoned by National Investigation Agency and questioned in Delhi. There was speculations that the editors were questioned for their coverage of mass protests in Kashmir in 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. But the investigating agency has not revealed any official why it summoned the editors.

A journalist with a prominent English daily in Srinagar traces government coercion to the aftermath of the protests four years ago.

“I would say it dates back to late 2016,” he explained, “when the situation for media in Kashmir became quite bad with the banning of an English daily and the halting of government advertisements to several newspapers, including Urdu dailies. The government has tightened its screws since then.”

Reporting party statements

It is the Valley’s political parties who have been vocal in their protests against the new media policy. From the National Conference to Communist Party of India (Marxist), parties across the political spectrum have spoken out against it. The notable exception was the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Reporting these critical party statements have been the only way in which news outlets covered the media policy and the discourse around it. Beyond that, Mohidin conceded, there was a marked lack of reportage or commentary on the intricacies of the policy in the local media.