Early this year, in February, the who’s who of Delhi journalism had assembled at the Press Club of India, at Raisina Road, to defend their right to report. The reason was the attack on journalists who were covering the Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case at the Patiala House Court.
Almost five months later, a motley group of journalists gathered at the same venue for same reasons – except this time, the attack was not on Delhi media but a ban on Kashmiri media. Barely 10 journalists sat on a dharna at about 1pm at the press club with the placard: “Journalists with Kashmir”.
The show of strength was nowhere close to February, but perhaps a comparison is too simplistic – journalists attacked in Delhi occasions major protests because if we aren’t safe in the national capital, there’s little hope for those operating outside of it. But the meagre presence should open our eyes to another reality: if we are censored in Kashmir, there’s no reason for us to assume we won’t ever suffer a clampdown in Delhi.
For that reason alone, one would have hoped that the protest against the Jammu and Kashmir government’s crackdown on media would attract a bigger crowd than the gathering assembled to watch a tree being cut in front of the press club. Someone wryly commented that it wouldn’t be a surprise if CRPF troops present at the club to control crowd would leave after the felling of the tree was done.
“Journalists are most reticent to protect their own rights,” stated one of the reporters standing on the sidelines of the dharna.
Other journalists sitting in the middle of the dharna mused about the lack of solidarity in the profession. “You know how journalists are, the cream of the profession never joins in,” one said. The jibe seemed to be aimed at journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who had just arrived at the press club and, contrary to the hopes of the protesting journalists, had bypassed them altogether and zoomed into the restaurant. (He would contribute his two bits to the cause later.)
The organisers – Press Club of India and Indian Women Press Corps– had also planned a rally if enough protestors showed up, but that was not to be. Instead of marching, after the dharna, a panel discussion comprising Rajdeep Sardesai, The Citizen Editor Seema Mustafa, Caravan Political Editor Hartosh Singh Bal and IWPC President, Sushma Ramachandran was set up. It was moderated by Press Club of India President Rahul Jalali.
All panellists talked about excessive force being employed in the Valley − on the people as well as journalists – and how irresponsible the television media has been. Mustafa named names and said there should besome kind of a mechanism to get channels like Times Now, Zee News and NewsX to act responsibly.
Sardesai also called for a stop on irresponsible journalism wherein unauthentic video clips were being shown to generalise all stone-pelters as a being paid. Interestingly, it was Sardesai’s channel India Today TV that aired an unverified clip of a young man who stated that he had received Rs 500 from Syed Ali Shah Geelani to pelt stones.
After much contemplation on the state of TV media in Delhi, Caravan editor Bal got to the point: the media ban in Kashmir. “The constitutionality of the ban should be looked into. Who can ban media? Who has the power?” he asked and added that if a police officer can silence the media in Kashmir, and an SP can muffle the media in Chhattisgarh, then “an ITO SHO tomorrow can mute all of national media.” ITO is where most newspaper organisations have their offices in Delhi, including The Times of India.
A few Kashmiri media professionals were also present at the meeting. Touseef Raina, a young journalist from Srinagar, made an interesting point about the “us and them” feeling in Kashmir. “Earlier the ‘us-versus-them’ narrative was only for the military in Kashmir. What we are seeing now is a national vs local media narrative,” he said.
The meeting ended with Jalali announcing that newspapers in Kashmir will resume publication from July 21. Indeed the Kashmiri press is back in action today. But it would be too soon to celebrate. For now, the Mehbooba Mufti-government has initiated no enquiry into the media gag and went to extent of stating that there was never any ban in the first place.
Are we to believe, then, that the raids on newspaper offices and the media gag was carried out at the behest of the police? If, so, then it does not portend well for democracy in Kashmir or Delhi.