THE CRIMES OF THINKING, DISSENTING AND CRITICISING

Last month, while upholding the detention of Kashmir High Court Bar Association president, Mian Abdul Qayoom, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court endorsed the government’s view that the senior lawyer should “declare and establish by his conduct that he has shunned his separatist ideology”. Following criticism of the judgement by the Bar Association and many individuals on social media, the Jammu and Kashmir Police lodged an open FIR against the criticism. In two little strokes, both the right to hold ideological convictions and the right to criticise have been struck down and criminalized. Court verdicts have been open to analyses and criticism for decades, though some comments can invite contempt proceedings, if the court so chooses, but the state donning the power to take punitive action against views that are in dissent of court verdicts is untenable as per the constitution and the law.
And what indeed may be the barometer for gauging and mapping acceptable and unacceptable ideological convictions? Where and how does one get an ISI certification of a safe ideological mooring? And what is the methodology that is to be used for measuring an individual’s ideology and judge whether or not it has changed?

If this seemed like an aberration and not like a leaf from the Orwellian World of treating the very process of thinking as a crime, the ‘Media Policy 2020’ adds some clarity to the vision of a surveillance and police state that the government is building step by step in Jammu and Kashmir. The new Media Policy, valid for the next five years, has recently been introduced with the stated idea of carrying “the message of welfare, development and progress to the people in an effective manner”.

The main highlight of the policy is that the government will assume sweeping powers to examine content to identify news items that can be categorised “fake”, “plagiarism”, “unethical”, and “anti-national activities”. Those found accused of these offences will be punished. The government would monitor content published in newspapers and other media channels and decide what is fake news, anti-social or anti-national reporting. The news organisations involved in “fake, unethical and anti-national” reporting would be de-empanelled and not get government advertisements, apart from facing legal action. The policy also makes a background check of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff mandatory before empanelling them for government advertisements, apart from security clearance before a journalist is given accreditation.

Virtually, this makes the government the judge, jury and arbiter on every spoken and written word by an individual or an organisation. It has the powers to decide, judge and also take punitive action.

The Media Policy comes close on the heels of slapping criminal cases against three journalists – Gowhar Geelani, Masrat Zahra and Ashiq Peerzada. While the former two were booked under anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for their respective Facebook posts which have not been specified in the charges, the latter was charged of “fake news” because he had not carried an official version in his story, even though he mentioned that the officers did not respond to his calls, which has become the new norm with arrogant officers choosing to become inaccessible to the media. In the last ten months, scores of journalists have been summoned by the police and interrogated for their reports that the government was not comfortable with. The communication ban despite the partial relaxation since January, after the Supreme Court verdict, continues to have a chilling effect on the journalists who are unable to adequately collect information, verify it and disseminate it.

Media in Jammu & Kashmir was already being battered, throttled and choked but what has kept it alive so far have been the brave endeavours of few courageous journalists. The Media Policy 2020, however, paves the road for killing journalism in one go.

If this unconstitutional document becomes the legal bible, the media persons are caught between the options of surrendering and turning themselves into vehicles of the state’s propaganda machinery or standing up in defiance at the risk of being persecuted. Other than that, journalism can be reduced to writing about weather and wholesale market rates but for all one knows, even that could be deemed “fake and anti-national” in the future.
By using the logic of law and order, security situation and proxy war being to justify the introduction of this media policy that arms the administration of Jammu and Kashmir with extra-constitutional powers, a state of emergency is being imposed where the idea of a free and independent media is completely annihilated. This very logic is also at logger-heads with the stated aim of the Media-Policy 2020, as also mentioned in the 50-page document that it is intended to create a “sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media” and promote the “highest standard of journalism”. This virtually means that the government cannot be criticised and should be deemed above the board. This purported aim of the policy also offers a clearer picture of the yardstick – of being on the right side of the government – that would be used for judging the journalists and other individuals voicing their opinions.
The highest standard of journalism is achieved not by becoming clones of the government’s public relations department but by revealing the ugly truth about the flaws and lacunae in the system and the society, particularly the abuse of power by those in the corridors of power. The aim of an independent media is to hold a mirror to the society and to speak truth to power. Independent media, which plays the role of a watch dog, is imperative in a democracy for making the government accountable to the public. The new media policy alters this paradigm by making the journalists accountable to the government, which now dons the role of the over-arching watch-dog.
There’s an old anecdote about the Stalin era in circulation for decades. When Stalin sighted a graffiti saying, “Our government is corrupt”, he asked his officers to trace its creator and press charges against the person. He was asked, “under what law?”. “Official Secrets Act,” he promptly responded. The Jammu and Kashmir government has taken absurdity to an even higher level. Without having to hand-pick dissenting people and journalists and do the due diligence on concocting weird charges to press, they have brought in a policy that makes every fact revealed, every spoken word, every comment an act of criminality.