Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shoot the Messenger

In his press conference, the chief minister asked the media to be balanced while covering events. That is fine. But what wrong is media doing if the state has failed to convince people on the truth about Shopian tragedy. Naseer A Ganai comments.

This much you know: On June 1, when Kashmir was on boil against the alleged rape and murder of two women by the “security forces” in Shopian, the chief minister Omer Abdullah addressed a press conference. In Shopian the women went missing on May 29 when they were on their way to orchards and their bodies were found in the morning of May 30 on a riverside. The family members and the residents said the security forces raped the women before murdering them. The incident evoked widespread protests across the Valley in which over 300 people have been injured, four of them critical, one of whom later succumbed to injuries.
Back to the press conference, the chief minister said his government enjoys credibility among people and he would sacrifice power for the sake of credibility. However in the same breath he contradicted himself by saying that “people have no faith in the state institutions and even if the government would come up with the findings about the Shopian killings, people will not believe its findings.” He then announced a judicial probe into the incident. Fine so far. The chief minister however didn’t stop there. He asked the media not to blow “trivial issues out of proportion” and use the word alleged when the allegation has not been proved. He referred the incident in which an Army truck hit a scooter outside the 15 Corpse headquarter, killing a youth. He said people lodged protests against the accidental killing and blocked the road and media gave it full coverage. On the same day, he said, three other incidents involving civilians took place in valley but no one protested against them. The CM is perhaps forgetting that Army represents the State, and as he rightly pointed out, people have no faith in the state institutions. So they believed that Army vehicle deliberately hit the scooter and killed the youth. Hence, widespread protests and the local media coverage.
The CM went on. About the media reportage of the Shopian incident, he said some new channels were reporting “Bandh in valley against the rape and murder of two women by security forces.” Then he had questions for media: where from you established that rape has taken place when his government has not been able to establish neither rape nor the murder? He asked the media to be balanced. But the question is: If the media is carrying the version of people of the Shopian district and family members of the two women, is it doing anything wrong? If the State government has failed to convince people, protesting for the past four days whether the girls have been subjected to rape or not, is it the fault of media?
The police registered the rape and murder case after ten painful days despite Supreme Court ruling last year: "In a given case, even if the doctor, who examined the victim, does not find [any] sign of rape, it is no ground to disbelieve the sole testimony of the prosecution." Now if media is reporting about the misuse of force by the State government against the protesters, is it unprofessional?
Doctors say within 15 minutes it could be established whether the rape has taken place or not but the State government, which claims enjoying credibility among people, has failed to establish the cause of the death of two women even after four days of the incident. And instead of accepting its incompetence it is as usual trying to blame the media for everything particularly the local media and cable news networks in the valley. The State needs scapegoat and it finds in media here.
Last year when pro-freedom marches started in Kashmir the State acted in the same manner. In June, 2008 over a million people marched to the United Nations Militarily Observers Group office in Srinagar, calling for independence. The million men march embarrassed the Government of India and the State Government. The government then took two steps. First, it went for undeclared curfew that has become a norm since then putting whole valley under siege. Undeclared curfew is curfew but without announcement. In undeclared curfew, lawyers say, there are more chances of killing as civilians don’t know that stepping out would cost them their lives. Last year it placed barbed wires across the streets, highways and restricted the movement of people and didn’t allow anyone to come out. It also booked almost all separatist leaders under the infamous Public Safety Act, under which a person is jailed without trial for 2 years.
This year it followed the same technique of undeclared curfew. Its second step after curbing the movement of people was to curb the media. It closed down all cable news channels without issuing any order. In JK, State does not believe in written orders. It just tries to bring the ‘order’ without issuing it. Democracy Zindabad!
The cable news channels, which were giving full coverage to protests and government action against protesters, were only allowed to work after they were forced to sign an agreement that they would show only to people what government wanted them to. Here lies the difference. In Kashmir media are being forced to comply with the State policies. The New Delhi based news channels and the newspaper comply with the State policies about Kashmir willingly.
However the cable news channels would part ways with the agreement this month when they saw thousands on streets protesting against the alleged rape and murder. They showed everything. Protests, statements and of course the government version. Now they have been asked to follow last year’s guidelines. If they fail to, the government can close them down.
Last year the state government acted against the newspapers as well. It didn’t allow journalists to move out of their homes, and those who came out, their identity cards were torn to pieces while many were thrashed. This way, it stopped publication of all newspapers across Kashmir valley for over eight days. In Kashmir protesters accuse media of not giving enough space to them and the security forces beat them up for “inciting the masses.” For the last two years over a dozen photo journalists, camera men were thrashed and beaten up by the security forces while doing their professional work. Many a time photojournalists have gone for sit-in demos against the atrocities of police and security forces on them but situation never improves. At times they get thrashing from people as well.
Last year when scores of journalists were thrashed by the security forces for covering protesters in Sopur, the Srinagar based journalists who were working for local, national and international media groups; perhaps first time issued a statement. The September 2008 statement says it all: “In the aftermath of the Amarnath land controversy, members of press in Kashmir have been coming under serious attack by the personnel of CRPF and in some measure by the crowds. We have reasons to believe that the attacks happen by deliberate design of the State agencies. When the Governor N N Vohra was informed about these attacks, he pleaded ignorance and, in presence of some members of press and the secretary information, instructed the Director General of Police not to let such attacks to continue.”
However, to cite one instance, the attacks continued the next day, confirming our suspicion that the attacks are carried out by design. Journalists have faced irrational demands from CRPF personnel manning the streets like "you are not carrying a curfew pass for your camera." Such instances speak volumes about the pathetic state of affairs. It seems the chief minister too wants journalists in Kashmir to carry curfew passes for their cameras.
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