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Media in J&K being ‘choked’ due to local administration curbs: PCI

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Srinagar: A three-member fact-finding committee (FFC) of the Press Council of India on Jammu and Kashmir has said that the news media in the Union Territory, especially in the Valley, is “slowly being choked” due to extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.

Six months after the PCI set up the FFC headed by Prakash Dubey (convenor) with members Suman Gupta and Gurbir Singh on a complaint by PDP president Mehbooba Mufti in September last year, it has submitted its report to the council which is yet to debate and adopt it.

The PCI is a statutory quasi-judicial body which acts as a press watchdog.

In its report last week, the FFC said “news media in the Jammu and Kashmir region, and especially in the valley is slowly being choked mainly because of the extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.”

“Our conclusion and recommendation is very specific: those indulging in any criminal acts, are not journalists pursuing their profession. If a ‘journalist’ is bearing arms or carrying grenades and other ammunition, he is not a journalist; he is a militant, and should be treated as such,” the FFC said after meeting all stakeholders in its visits to twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar.

“However, the security establishment cannot label writing against government policies, or quoting a family or civilian sources in a story about excesses of the armed forces, or tweeting a point of view as ‘fake news’ or ‘anti-national activity’ and then arresting the journalist for sedition. It is not the business of journalists to support government policies or development work,” it said.

It said a journalist’s job is to report the news as it happens, even if it is unpalatable to government officials.

“The tendency to see all critical reporting and opinions as ‘anti-national’ must stop. A conflict zone has many players and many aspects of events that unfold. A journalist cannot and should not ignore the government version; at the same time, he is not the spokesperson of the government,” the report said.

The report noted with concern that the public relations work of various government departments has been taken over by the police.

“This should cease as it is against the letter and spirit of the functioning of the various arms of a democratic government,” it said.

“Journalists rely on communication networks like the Internet, and access to events and persons to gather and transmit news,” the report said, seeking restoration of these normal privileges of news gathering.

“A government has the power to snuff these out as we have seen in the case of J&K. Restricted internet facilities after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August 2019, the suspension of internet mobile connectivity whenever there is a conflict situation and denying access to journalists to scenes of an armed encounter are all methods that have developed to choke free and fair news gathering in J&K,” it said.

The report said journalists have high level of stress due to constant pressure from the government agencies and police as well as militants and they are still managing to do their job in such a hostile environment which is commendable.

“At a broader level, because of the continuing conflict, the business of news media has been severely disrupted in the region and sources of advertising are slowly withering away,” it said, adding print media especially, which has large overhead costs, is hardly sustainable anymore.

It said the normal lines of communication between the local government administration and journalists have been disrupted because of the former’s suspicion that a large number of local journalists are sympathisers of the militants’ cause.

“This was admitted by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, who frankly told the FFC that many journalists were of ‘anti-national’ persuasion. He conceded that when he was first appointed, he used to encourage open press conferences, but now had gone back to a ‘selective engagement’ with preferred journalists,” the report said.

The report recommended stopping of “intimidation, arrests and detention under draconian laws”, underlining that it has recorded numerous cases of journalists being subject to interrogation, threatened and made to fill irrelevant profiling documents.

“We have listed cases of journalists being summoned to the dreaded ‘Cargo Centre’ for questioning – a location reserved for interrogation for armed militants. Officially, the police have conceded to the FFC that as many as 49 journalists have been arrested and charged since 2016, not a small number considering that J&K has a very small press corps,” it said.

Of these, the report said eight have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which makes bail almost impossible.

Demanding restoration of rights and privileges of the Kashmir Press Club, the FFC said it was a legal, representative body with a membership of over 300 journalists.

In January, the Jammu and Kashmir administration cancelled the allotment of building and land which housed Srinagar’s Kashmir Press Club after it was taken over by a group of journalists flanked by police.

The premises were handed back to the Estates department.

“There is no convincing reason on why the body was superseded and put in cold storage. In a democracy, journalist bodies not only should be allowed to flourish; but their views should be sought and respected,” it said.

J&K Press Corps contests PCI’s fact finding report

Jammu & Kashmir Press Corps (JKPC), a body of some Valley based newspapers, has denied the Press Council of India’s (PCI’s) fact finding committee’s report suggesting that government is curbing press freedom in the valley.

JKPC dubbed the PCI report not only as false but also malicious targeting reputed publishers and editors.

JKPC in a statement issued here said that its members met a fact finding committee (FFC) of the PCI, comprising Prakash Dubey, Suman Gupta, and Gurbir Singh that visited the valley in October last year.

“However, we are deeply shocked, pained, anguished and distressed as the FFC report is not only factually incorrect and defamatory but has been written with complete malice and malafide as hatchet job to destroy the reputation of editors and publishers of Kashmir-based newspapers,” the statement said.

It said that the truth as told by prominent editors has been conveniently erased by the FFC from the report. In breach of every established norm of free and fair investigation and complete negation of the guidelines and ethics of such probe, FFC concluded its report without incorporating the version of editors, publishers and journalists who appeared before it.

“We have always stood and advocated for press freedom. Situation for journalists working in the Kashmir Valley has vastly improved since abrogation of article 370. In fact, media is growing in Kashmir valley and several new news outlets have been launched after 2019.  This was conveyed by leading publishers to FFC during the meeting but they have conveniently suppressed those facts in the reports,” JKPC said.

Reacting to report’s assertions that curbs have been imposed on media by local administration, the JKPC statement said: “In Kashmir valley alone we have around 100 daily newspapers and 48 weekly newspapers. Government or its representatives have never interfered in functioning of the newsroom. The use of word ‘Choked’ is highly objectionable and defamatory for newspapers as they are operating with complete freedom.  The reference to the ‘government curb’ is a deliberate attempt to defame us and making truth a casualty. We have already made it clear in our meeting with FFC that no bonafide journalist have been harassed or summoned by police but again this fact too has been buried by the Committee members.”

JKPC also took offence to the use of term ‘Intimidation by Police since August 2019.’

“JKPC wants to make it clear that PCI appointed committee appears to have been misled by some vested interest operating under the guise of journalists. The entire report is patently slanderous, disgraceful and atrocious targeting hardworking journalists and editors. If FFC had taken into account the version of leading newspapers and editors instead of selectively picking lines from random deposition, our reputation would not have been compromised by bundle of lies,” the statement said.

“Due to this report we have suffered in our reputation and have been lowered in the estimation of general public. We call upon Hon’ble PCI Chairman to withdraw the report in entirety and incorporate our version before re-publishing it,” added the statement issued by PCI.

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