World Press Freedom Day is used as an occasion to assess and reflect on the state of press freedom throughout the world and pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty. Media monitoring organisations like Reporters without Borders come up with press freedom index, an annual ranking of countries, in this regard.
Amid the myriad issues calling for our attention, May 3 debates are usually centered on the threats to press freedom and the need to use this freedom responsibly. However, in conflict zones like Kashmir, the day also serves as a reminder of the struggle and sacrifices of local journalists.
Conflict is regarded as one of the main elements of newsworthiness. As they say ‘conflict sells’. Since 1989, Kashmir has offered media with this key ingredient for a ‘big’ story. Even if it may appear as an attractive proposition from outside, reporting from Ground Zero in conflict zones is beset with challenges. Kashmir is no different. Here journalists have been vulnerable to attacks from various parties to the conflict. Journalism has been a hazardous pursuit through the long years of turmoil in the valley.
The journalists have often reported on sensitive issues at considerable personal risk. They have faced arbitrary detentions and physical intimidation at the hands of security forces and intelligence agencies when they appeared to supporting militant groups by reporting extensively on their activities. On the other hand, militant groups expected the journalists to carry their statements in their entirety. There have been cases when the militant groups issued threats and attacked the reporters and editors who did not heed their diktats.
Even while covering the protests in the recent past, particularly during the three consecutive unrests from 2008 to 2010, the reporters and photojournalists have been beaten severely by the government forces. They have also been at the receiving end of the angry protesters, sometimes sustaining fatal injuries.
Over the past two decades, journalists reporting Kashmir conflict have been caught in this deadly crosshair. Like the other major conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the media coverage of Kashmir situation has also been a popular subject of research studies at local, national as well as international level.
The principles of reporting are put to a severe test in the times of armed conflict and journalists are expected to exercise an even more acute sense of ethics and responsibility. Kashmiri journalists have braved the odds to uphold professional principles. They have had to negotiate many hurdles to retain objectivity in their reports.
The functions held on Press Freedom Day provide an opportunity to remember all the media professionals of the state who have laid down their lives while performing their duties. It is also a time for introspection on part of the media fraternity to protect the profession from unscrupulous elements and promote genuine journalism. The best tribute to the sacrifices of our fellow journalists would be to uphold the dignity of the noble profession by sticking to the principles on which its very foundation is based on. People trust journalists and the media fraternity is duty-bound to uphold this faith. Journalists’ first loyalty must be to the citizens and they should fulfill the obligation to uphold the truth.
In Kashmir, journalists have been witness to curbs of various degrees, ranging from harassment to death. In many cases the curbs are enforced, overtly or covertly, while on some occasions the journalists go into uncalled for ‘self-censorship mode’ to remain in good books of people who wield power to benefit or harm them.
In many instances, India fared badly in the freedom index because of the situation of press in Kashmir. Even as India is known for its dynamic media industry, it has been listed alongside the “autocratic” countries on some occasions. Quoting the 2014 report of Reporters without Borders, ‘The Hindu’ reported that press freedom in India remained among the worst in the world. Of the five classifications ranging from “good” to “very serious,” India fell into the “difficult” second from the bottom category. Among other factors, the think-tank also pointed to restrictions routinely put in place in Kashmir on all kinds of media outlets including the social media.
I am reminded of George Orwell’s unpublished introduction to ‘Animal Farm’, which has been cited by renowned journalist John Pilger in his famous book ‘Tell me no lies’. Orwell described how censorship in “free societies” was more sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships because “unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban”.
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