In the past few weeks since Article 370 was struck down and the State of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two separate Union Territories, the Central Government has been the sole narrator of the impact of this monumental break from the past on the territory and the people concerned. There is no other voice with the two former chief ministers from two regional parties — Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti — said to be under detention along with reportedly hundreds of other political activists. No other public representative from other political parties, with the exception of CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury who was granted access by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, is being allowed entry into Srinagar. Telephone and internet services are shut indefinitely, a local newspaper editor is currently being heard by the Supreme Court on her inability to report on the events or print because of restrictions placed by the authorities.
How institutions and individuals respond to this extraordinary situation is a question that strikes at the very heart of what constitutes a functional democracy. There can be no ambiguity on the role of the media under the circumstances. Indeed, it is not just a journalist’s privilege but bounden duty to inform the people, especially about what is being done in their name. The signs emanating from the Kashmir Valley are ominous with the local media facing the brunt of the official clampdown and journalists from Delhi being attacked by security personnel at the Srinagar airport for merely trying to report on the events. While it may suit the government of the day to define covering up embarrassing optics as national interest, there cannot be any let up on the part of the media to resist all such attempts at whittling away freedoms that have been earned at a high cost. Vigilant journalists have thankfully thwarted a highly regrettable attempt by the Press Council of India’s leadership to intervene in Kashmir Times Editor Anuradha Bhasin’s petition in the Supreme Court with an ostensible view to ensure “basic codes of conduct to be observed by journalists based on morality, social and national interests”. Journalists in the Press Council, however, objected to this arbitrary attempt while press associations, unions and the Editors’ Guild of India publicly pointed out that the Council is “not only failing to speak up (for press freedom)” but is “perversely arguing for a media clampdown in the name of national interest” at a time when reporters on the ground are being targeted for doing their job. The Council has since backtracked and clarified that with their intervention in the Supreme Court, it only wants to plead that it “stands for freedom of the press and does not approve of any sort of restriction on the media”.
India and democracy have suffered once when the media “bent when they were asked to crawl”. That episode in history must not be repeated.