By K.N. Pandita
Nehru was the Prime Minister. His Information Minister brought to him a recommendation to impose a ban of a certain errant national newspaper. Nehru said,” I prefer my government to be criticized rather than gag the mouth of freedom of expression.”
The reason why BBC and some leading British media organs have worldwide credibility as ace media outlets is the largest amount of freedom of expression they enjoy.
Only a government deficient of self-confidence is apprehensive of media criticism, and thereby, takes media an enemy of the state. albeit very erroneously.
In reality, the fourth estate is the lodestar showing the path to the nation in general, and to beleaguered governments in particular. It is difficult to make felonious governments believe that the fourth estate is not only a friend of the government but also the sentinel to alert it against dangers looming on society.
Only myopic regimes want either to manipulate the media or muzzle it, both absolutely detrimental to the growth of a democratic system.
Stone-pelting has been going on in Kashmir ever since the National Conference-lead anti-monarchy movement in Kashmir in 1930s. It is a sign of a mix of anger and cowardice. To attribute it to a particular group or to say this unsavoury activity is conducted on the behest of a particular group or political leadership is not the full truth. We do not deny erratic thinking among some quixotic politicians for personal rather than political aggrandizement. But apart from that, politicians are aware that a less educated and knowledgeable constituency of hooligans seldom fails to respond to their calculated mission.
Governments know that coming down with repressive measures on the media may gag its mouth for a while but it rebounds with a loud bang which more people are willing to respond. Sealing a newspaper does not speak of the strength of the government but it does help the quarantined paper achieve greater credibility with the readership and civil society. In that sense, the government has done a favour to the Early Times and other two sealed papers in Jammu through negative publicity hype.
A week or ten days ago, as strikes and turmoil intensified in Kashmir, a statement came from the chief minister saying threadbare that PDP activists were instigating youth and urchins to pelt stones and that the government has credible evidence of the same. This is formal recognition of the truth that the stone pelting mobs and their mentors were determined to violate human rights not only of innocent citizens but of their own as well because the state would react befittingly and even effectively. However, beyond that cryptic comment, the government did not make any mention of any follow up action. It was unwilling to take on hard targets while soft ones like the three proscribed papers in Jammu could easily become the targets of the choleric administration.
The government did not act because it is torn between the mutually antagonistic philosophies of the two countries over Kashmir dispute.
We know that the State chief minister received a shot in the arms after the Prime Minister’s urgent meeting on Kashmir decided to take a strong action to reverse on-going situation and absolve Omar Abdullah of all the slew of accusations which opposition wistfully tried to bring against him.
On recurrent inflammable situations in Kashmir, Home Ministry has been traditionally adopting lackadaisical stance. But escalation of Maoist-Naxalite combined terror in other parts of the country forced the Home Minister to change stance and adopt harsher option of dealing with miscreants. This came as reprieve to the state chief minister who was almost on the verge of quitting and committing the same mistake which his father did in 1990. But ill advised by sycophantic counselors, the chief minister took a bizarre step of muzzling some papers without re-assessing its dire consequences.
The Chief Minister should be clear in making a distinction between a political opponent and pragmatic political commentators. There is a vast difference between them. Media is neither a friend nor a foe; it is oriented to serve public interests.
State authorities have given a unilateral interpretation to the rumour of desecration of a temple in Anantnag. Instead of saying that the temple was intact, it would have been far better to have deputed a mixed delegation of genuine stakeholders and responsible media persons to make an on-spot verification and report. The government should have come out with a convincing and fully evidenced proof in support of its stand and thus repudiated the false rumours if these were false. Erroneous or baseless reporting could have been made into a case of violation of press norms and the press council is the proper forum where such matters are dealt with. The issue should not have been blown out of proportion.
One has to remember that Jammu press has the rich tradition of being moderate, discreet and non-provocative; it seldom violates professional code of conduct.
It is time that government clarifies the matter without loss of time. Jammu civil society has not taken supportively the alleged insistent handling by law enforcing authorities of the family members of the owners/editors of the muzzled papers. It is totally unacceptable and the press fraternity decries it. Let nobody tamper with the Fourth Estate.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).