Top editors claim the authorities are compelling them to change the terminology they have used for decades but newsroom staff say the editors aren’t blameless either.
July 10 was just another dull newsroom day at a leading English daily in Srinagar, copy editors formatting government handouts for the next day’s edition as they have been doing since New Delhi dismantled Jammu and Kashmir’s residual autonomy on August 5, 2019.
In the evening, the newspaper received a J&K administration handout announcing that it had fired 11 public servants over what it called “terror links”, under a new policy of dismissing government employees whom a Special Task Force created for this specific purpose has accused of supporting militants. The sacked public servants included two sons of Syed Salahuddin, the most prominent Kashmiri militant leader who is based in Muzaffarabad.
The newsroom would have dealt with it like any other handout, cleaning up the language, toning down the rhetoric and placing it on the newspaper. If, that is, the chief editor had not told the copy editors he’d been directed to use the word “terror” in the headline as well.
The staff flatly refused to use such a loaded, contentious word that, in a conflict zone like Kashmir, is fraught with danger. The editor hurried out of the room to speak on the phone.
He returned a few minutes later, to inform the staff they had no choice but to accept the terminology being imposed upon them. “He said they weren’t budging,” a seasoned journalist at the paper recalled. The editor never disclosed who “they” were.
The staff struck work in protest. By 10 pm, though, they realised that all other prominent papers had more or less fallen in line, at least in the English press.
In the end, Greater Kashmir, the most widely circulated English paper, Kashmir Images , Kashmir Monitor, and Kashmir Observer all carried similar headlines to the one supplied in the handout, accommodating the term “terror”, in print and online. Rising Kashmir didn’t publish the report online but carried it in print.
“It was the first time ‘terror’ appeared in newspaper headlines, that too on the frontpages,” said another journalist at the daily, noting that the consequences of showing such partisanship could be dire in a place like Kashmir. “So, we amply used the word ‘allegedly’ to balance it a bit.”
Falling in line
A week later, on July 17, Srinagar's newspapers, English and Urdu both, received a brief, marked “off the record”, which singled out four of the sacked government employees who were teachers.
“Sacked teachers were teaching terrorism”, the note declared in the title, attributing the grave allegation to unnamed sources in “central law enforcement agencies”. “It made blatant accusations,” said a sub editor at another prominent newspaper, who shared the note with Newslaundry. “Newspapers were told to run it as it was. My editor told me to sub it and when I read it, I begged him not to give me a byline.”
After a lengthy discussion with his editor, the sub “toned down” the accusatory “report” and ran it without a byline, only in print and not online. “We didn’t even call the accused for their side of the story,” he said.
Kashmir Reader did run the copy but largely used the term militant instead of terrorist, while Kashmir Images tried to “balance” its report by adding, “However, Raziya Sultan refutes the charges and says she has been framed illegally. In a message on social media, Raziya Sultan insisted that she has had no links with any terror outfit or terror activity.”
Kashmir Observer carried a report two days later centered on an allegation in the brief against local governments. "Elected govts failed to curb separatist elements in ranks,” the paper headlined its report, and made sure to use wrap "terror" and "terrorism" in quote marks.
Compared to the English press, Urdu and Kashmiri newspapers published from Srinagar were more discerning. Tameel-i-Irshad carried the July 10 handout without “terror” in the title – using “anti-national activities” instead – and substituted “extremism” for “terrorism” in its headline for the July 17 brief.
Aftab mentioned “terror links” in its July 11 headline, and wrote a similar title to Tameel-i-Irshad’s for the brief. Moreover, neither paper carried the handouts on the frontpage.
Chattan also employed “anti-national activities”, as did Rising’s Urdu and Kashmiri publications Buland Kashmir and Sangarmal, which carried both the July 11 handout and the July 17 brief.
Nida-e-Mashriq didn’t publish the handout either and instead reported, on July 12, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s statement denouncing the dismissals.
“There’s a clear instruction to newspapers that they cannot use the word ‘militant’,” the sub editor said. “Our editor simply said the directive has come from ‘higher authorities’.”
Indeed, several editors, sub editors and reporters from across papers told Newslaundry that they had received such an instruction, directly or indirectly, over phone or via text message. None would name the source of the pressure, however, for fear of reprisals.
“It comes right from the very top,” one editor said simply, but cryptically.
Still, another editor, the sub editor and the owner of a leading newspaper were loath to blame the administration alone. Many editors and owners were either giving in easily to the pressure, they alleged, or they were using it as an excuse with their staff to defang their journalism and avoid upsetting the authorities.
Indeed, as the Indian government has tightened the screws around Kashmir generally and the media particularly, many papers have restricted their coverage of politics and the conflict and avoided asking questions of the administration.
“The new viruses are talking about ‘development’ and ‘meet this person’ stories,” the sub editor complained. “It’s simple business for the owners. If a paper has the lieutenant governor on page 1, it is sure to get a quarter-page or half-page ad. Some are earning big bucks. It is mostly not through use of threats, it is simply submission and support. After the abrogation of Article 370, there was submission owing to pressure. Now we are simply supporting the government.”
Rising Kashmir, for one, ran a fullpage ad on August 5 about the Manoj Sinha administration’s film policy. On August 1, an ad for a national anthem singing competition covered three-fourths of its frontpage. In the preceding three days, there were frontpage ads, respectively, from tourism, social forestry and food supplies departments.
Two days after the public servants were sacked, most papers failed to commemorate the anniversary of July 13, 1931, a day of immense historical importance to Kashmir’s Muslims, who observe it as Martyrs Day in memory of the 22 Kashmiris who were massacred by soldiers of the Dogra King for demanding equal rights and dignity.
July 13 was a state holiday until the Narendra Modi government brought Kashmir under its direct control and unofficially banned its commemoration.
This year, Tameel-i-Irshad carried a National Conference ad on Martyrs Day and, reportedly, lost ads from the administration. The paper’s editor would neither confirm nor deny this, merely saying, “There was an issue but now it has been resolved.”
The paper had used “anti-national activities” instead of terror in the headline of the July 11 handout but carried the July 17 brief with a subhead stating the dismissed “teachers were imparting extremist teachings”.
For now, as the J&K administration ostensibly attempts to shift the middle ground, many papers have worked out tricks to find breathing space.
One is to quote government handouts, especially from the police, at length. “We use the police statement as much as possible, even where there is no need, to bring in the word ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ inside quote marks,” explained the sub editor. In fact, even headlines, “where everyone knows double quotes are not used”, have started featuring “terrorist” and “terror”.
At Rising, the use of state-approved terminology led to a “crisis situation”, with the staff threatening to resign in protest. Most of the other leading papers have avoided a significant change in vocabulary and, thus, contained staff resentment.
A July 20 report on a gunfight in the Rising mentioned “terror” and “terrorists” 13 times in a 400-word copy. In a report on the police purportedly preventing young men from taking up arms, “terror” and “terrorists” appeared six times in the opening two paragraphs, even though the headline attributed the claims to the police. The next day, the headline simply declared, “Police prevent 14 youth from joining terror groups”. Three days later, “terror” and “terrorist” appeared 21 times in a 700-word story, though not in its headline.
Ayaz Gani, who took over as editor at Rising Kashmir after the assasination of its founder Shujaat Bukhari in 2018, was upset when Newslaundry called him to understand the newspaper’s editorial position. He demanded to know which of his staffers had spoken to us.
“This is all disinformation. No such thing has happened,” he claimed, referring to his staff threatening to leave. “You are interfering directly in our affairs. Who has given you the right? It’s our internal matter. No incident has happened. It’s a fake thing.”
They still use the word “militant”, Gani asserted. “You can check our newspaper and website.”
But the paper has been using the terms “terror” and “terrorist” without quote marks? “See, we use everything,” he replied. “We use whatever terminology comes. What’s the matter with that?”
Another trick is to publish handouts only in print and not online. “Some stories are printed, some are only online,” the sub editor said. “What matters is the PDF copy of the paper that is sent to the DIPR every morning before 8, especially on the day ads are placed or big days such as when there’s a visit by the lieutenant governor or the president.”
All newspapers in Kashmir are required to send a copy of each edition to the Directorate of Information and Public Relations.
The T word
Kashmir’s journalists don’t just report the conflict in the region, they live through it, treading the fine lines between the various parties. The administration’s push to redefine their vocabulary is the latest challenge, one they fear could imperil their safety.
How they should address Kashmiris fighting the Indian state has long been a sensitive subject for journalists. While the Indian government calls the guerilla fighters “terrorists” now – they used “militant” until a few years ago – the majority of Kashmiris prefer “freedom fighters” or “mujahid”, the latter term cloaking the fighters in religious sanction. The press has over the last three decades settled on “militant” as a rather neutral term, even though this too is unacceptable to many Kashmiris.
The word “militant”, a member of the now headless Kashmir Editors Guild, pointed out, “neither demeaned one person’s mujahid nor glorified another’s terrorist”.
So, by dictating the use of “terrorist” and similar terminology, the authorities were not only forcing the press to be partisan, not least because there is no universal consensus on who qualifies, it was also robbing them of professional agency.
“We are being dislodged from a professional space which we have earned after a lot of struggle, even deaths,” rued the seasoned journalist. “They are compromising our security.”
An editor who has worked in the media for over 30 years, explained the potential perils more clearly, “Tomorrow if militants get some strength or they decide to show strength by pressuring newspapers to write ‘freedom fighter’, what will we do then? The government is making journalists vulnerable.”