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Control Freaks?

When the journalists become inquisitive and start investigating, politicians react. No. They lash out.

Why do politicians want to control the media? Because with the power it now wields it can make them popular or extremely unpopular by beaming looped clips of footage to millions of homes.

Mohammad Akbar Lone, the speaker of Jammu and Kashmir assembly said in the J & K assembly on 27February, “Media is under my control”. An offended press walked out, boycotted the assembly proceedings and sat on dharna. Two days later Akbar Lone was compelled to clarify in the house – “I never meant to hurt the media… What I said in the Assembly is confined to the House only.”  He did assert that he’d exert control inside the house nevertheless.

Akbar Lone isn’t exactly a media-friendly politician and is a classic case of Look Who’s Talking. He has in the past issued several privilege motions against newspapers, summoning journalists and grilling them on the details of their reports and language used. According to Ishfaq Tantry of Rising Kashmir, once when in a headline Lone’s name was mentioned as Akbar Lone, he issued a privilege motion on why ‘Mohammad’ was not written before his name.


The house isn’t spared his unfortunate behaviour either. Not so long ago, he was caught hurling abuses inside the assemb

 

The importance of how the media portrays politicians has some of them resorting to all sorts of tactics to ensure if not favourable publicity, then at least minimum criticism. Forget paid news, politicians are busy launching their own channels. The symbiotic relationship between journalists and politicians was aptly summed up by former US President Ronald Regan, who once kick started a press conference by saying, “Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement to make.”

So basically, all politicians want journalists to report on them and cover their events, but don’t want to be answerable to the journalists, or to the public. And when the journalists become inquisitive and start investigating, politicians react. No. They lash out.

This is what happened in Jammu and Kashmir too.

It started on 27 February, when question hour began in the legislative assembly. Sham Lal Sharma, the Health and Floriculture minister had to reply to a question pertaining to the Floriculture Ministry raised by PDP MLA Abdul Rehman Veeri. Rather than stick to the response sought on flora, the honourable minister veered into the I&B space, attacking a newspaper.  In his answer he referred to a front-page report of a local newspaper Daily Excelsior, on irregular sealing of hospitals apparently carried out in order to extort money or hafta. The story was an expose. The newspaper had not even revealed the identity of the reporter given the threat to his/her life. The byline was Excelsior Special Correspondent.  The story said “Knowledgeable sources in the department claim that a junior official, who was otherwise due to reach the rank of Head of Department in the year 2019, had been appointed as Director on the promise that he would be sending  50 lakh a month as hafta to the people in top corridors of power.”

The Health minister said this story was an “example and a sample” of a media trial of political personalities. Urging the Speaker to hold a time bound inquiry to bring out the details, not of the scam but of who reported it and the sources of the story. According to Sanjeev Pargal of the Daily Excelsior, the Health Minister had also issued a privilege motion to the newspaper for stories written on him.

Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar and Irrigation and Flood Control Minister, Taj Mohi-ud-Din joined the chorus to take action against the report, not against the scam accused!

PDP MLA, Nizam-ud-Din Bhat, a former journalist himself, sensed where this was going and spoke up to say ‘‘Sources are always secret. The media can’t be asked to disclose them.” In that question hour, the Speaker did not allow the MLAs in disagreement to raise questions, but the Health Minister and his two supporters were allowed to vent on how the media’s reportage was wrong. Another MLA Prof Chaman Lal Guptan spoke up to say that he supported the media and said if the press didn’t write stories, democracy could never flourish in the State or the country.

But an agitated Akbar Lone silenced all opposing voices. “How they (the media persons) were supposed to behave (sic)? I know ethics… how to make use of ethics. I will give my verdict today. Don’t try to become advocate of press. They are not at liberty to publish what they want. They are under my control. They have to disclose their sources. There is no PCI (Press Council of India),’’ Mr. Lone said as quoted by Kashmiri press.

When MLA and former journalist Nizam-ud-Din Bhat reiterated that media cannot be compelled to reveal its sources, Lone retorted – ‘‘No, they have to disclose if asked for. Show me the rules book.” (sic)

Such blatant disregard for the confidentiality of a newspaper’s sources by the speaker of the house can become a ruling, which successive speakers will follow. The media would then have to reveal its source whenever the speaker sought it. This flies in the face of all journalist’s privilege recognized worldwide, which allows them to guard their sources. Even the Press Council, while conducting any enquiry as per the Press Council Act, 1965 cannot do so. Section 15(2) of the act says that – “Nothing in sub-section (1) shall be deemed to compel any newspaper, news agency, editor or journalist to disclose the source of any news or information published by that newspaper or received or reported by that news agency, editor or journalist.”

Many major scams first appeared as news stories reported by investigative journalists. Other investigating agencies like CBI, CVC or police authorities came into the picture only after media created enough public opinion around the case. In this case Jammu and Kashmir’s local media is performing its duties. One glimpse at any of the local dailies like Kashmir Monitor, Daily Excelsior, Rising Kashmir, confirms that hard news issues are the ones which dominate the pages, and page 3 is almost non-existent. Political and bureaucratic authorities are constantly being questioned by journalists.

This freedom and liberty of the press would have taken a serious blow in Kashmir had it not been for the united response of print and electronic journalists to Akbar Lone’s attitude towards the media. All of them walked out of the legislative assembly and boycotted it for two days. Thankfully, the dharna was successful and national media also picked up the issue. Many journalists are still concerned as the Speaker has not expunged his comments; only clarified them. For now it appears the independence and dignity of press has been reinforced. Until the next time someone in a position of power feels outraged.

We spoke to some reporters covering the issue to find out more. Here are the interviews.

newslaundry talks to Ishfaq Tantry of Rising Kashmir:

His reportage of the issue can be found on these links:

 

newslaundry talks to Sanjeev Pargal of Daily Excelsior:

His reportage of the issue can be found on these links:

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