The killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani has unleashed a wave of violence in the valley of Kashmir. Clashes between security forces and protesters have reportedly left 47 people dead and over 1,500 injured. The use of pellet guns on young children has also come under harsh criticism.
Earlier this week, the state government of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to clampdown on the press. The rationale behind the move, as provided by State Education Minister Naeem Akhtar, was that the government was simply trying to curb violence by containing “certain projections” in the media. At numerous places, printing presses were raided and newspaper copies confiscated.
However, Rising Kashmir’s Editor Shujaat Bukhari wasn’t surprised. According to Bukhari, this wasn’t the first time that press was being gagged in Kashmir.
“When Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted over the 2001 Indian parliament attack was hanged in 2013, copies of newspapers were seized from the press and the stands. I remember my newspaper ceased publication for four days. During the 2010 agitation, we were forced to stop publishing for 10 days,” Bukhari wrote on BBC news website.
However, Millennium Post’s Consulting Editor Siddharth Mishra disagrees. “Why talk only about Kashmir? Curbs have always been imposed on the media during the time of riots. I had covered Bhagalpur riots in 1989. At that time too there was a curb on newspaper circulation,” said Mishra.
Emphasizing the presence of such restrictions across the country, Mishra pointed out that there used to be a restriction on the use of mobile phones during elections. He claimed that such a restriction existed even during the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections.
“I have a lot of friends in the Kashmiri press and they will not be happy with me for saying that the coverage of the local media during this entire episode wasn’t fair. Who was Burhan Wani? He was a terrorist who was killed in an encounter. Why such a hue and cry?” said Mishra.
He added that the “government has acted tough but it had its reasons” to act in such a manner. But on the other hand, The Milli Gazette’s Editor Zafrul Islam Khan felt that censorship of Kashmiri press was unacceptable.
“In every democratic society, freedom of the press is sacrosanct. Blanket banning of the press is unacceptable. It will not help in controlling the situation,” said Khan.
He argued that the confiscating of newspapers will only show the country in bad light. Contradicting Mishra’s assertion, Khan stated that it would not be appropriate to paint all Kashmiri newspapers with the same brush and accuse them of unfair coverage.
“Hundreds of Urdu newspapers are published from Kashmir valley. They represent different voices and ideology associated with PDP, National Conference and militants,” said Khan. Similar views were echoed by Times of India’s Senior Assistant Editor Aarti Tikoo Singh.
“From my perspective, right to freedom of speech and expression should be upheld in all circumstances. I don’t think it really helps the state in an age of the internet and social media,” said Singh. She mentioned that absence of news from Kashmir gives Pakistan the opportunity to peddle untruths.
“The state government has a valid concern about the irresponsible reporting and bigoted views appearing in the press. But the solution is not to censor the entire press. What is really required is that the state government scrutinizes the local and national newspapers carefully and sees for itself who is reporting responsibly and who is out there to instigate violence,” said Singh.
She also suggested that the government should withdraw advertisements from those media houses that violate journalistic ethics.
Prof Biswajit Das of Centre for Culture, Media & Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia reasoned that censorship doesn’t help anywhere. “Closing the press itself is a grave concern. The government is following the fire brigade approach. It is trying to close all the outlets as you do in case of a fire. It’s not a long term strategy,” said Das.
But the academician was also critical of the commodity value that the press has become associated with. He opined that there was general disenchantment with the media and the state also suffered from lack of trust in it.
“I watch the news channels every evening. Everybody is putting fuel to the fire. Nobody is trying to caution. We need press regulations in this country,” said Das.