Kashmir Perspective: Media in Conflict Zones

While conflict situations pose dangers for reporters they also bring inherent difficulties and dilemmas for the newspapers published in conflict zones like Kashmir. Limited freedoms available to the press under these circumstances challenge the very basis of a democratic setup. This also raises a vital question. Can a democracy survive without institutions like a free media and more importantly is free media possible in places like Kashmir ? [1]

Although much is known about the Kashmir conflict the plight of media in Kashmir is nonetheless one of the least written about subjects.

Press in Kashmir works in peculiar and extraordinary circumstances without any effective strategy. How lack of resources, both human and material, not only act as barriers for growth of the free press in Kashmir but also contribute to uncertainty. What are the dilemmas the press faces while trying to strike a balance between the needs of its reader and that of government.

The other aspect is the portrayal of news. How important is the dissemination of correct news from places like Kashmir and how often exaggerated or at times distorted news exacerbates the already volatile atmosphere prevalent in the Muslim world? How significant is the role of media in the places where the West feels it is engaged in a long-term struggle, a battle of ideas against the forces of extremism. [2]

Professional constraints

Although the press in rest of India is remarkably free, the conflict in Kashmir has added tremendous strain on the local press and blemished its reputation as being free and fair.

Furthermore, Kashmir continues with its reputation as being one of the most unsafe places for journalists. Threats posed by the identified and unidentified forces, attacks on media persons, a culture of impunity for those that target journalists, coercive government methods to force media to toe the official line and a profoundly unfavourable media environment mean journalists who seek out and report truth do so in a climate of uncertainty both in terms of their job security and for fear of physical liquidation. [3]

Although the environment has relatively eased it is still difficult for the press to play role of a watchdog, exposing corruption and criticising those in power for their acts of omissions and commissions. [4]

The level of freedom and independence of the media depends on many factors and freedom to report and to express an opinion is only one link in the chain of communication. [5] The other vital link is the economy of the traditional media. Absence of a robust private sector mainly due to sluggish economic activity and the lack of industries, primarily because of lop-sided planning and partly due to prevailing conflict, has prevented the healthy growth of newspapers as an industry in Kashmir and increased media’s dependence on government support and in the process hampered its independence.

Almost all publications operate with substantial government advertisement support. They may be unable to compete effectively in absence of this vital source, even though they embrace democratic values. The government advertisement revenue makes roughly 20-30 per cent of their net generated income.

Dependence on government advertisement support and in return tacit and indirect government control has created a sort of crisis for media. Willingness to be more accommodative to official viewpoint is killing public confidence in traditional media and creating a demoralizing effect. Moreover this leverage allows government to wield a stick to beat the press whenever it is perceived as not following the ‘rule’.

The government also retains a monopoly over the dissemination of information of vital public importance. It controls the distribution pattern and the volume of advertisements for newspapers from numerous agencies and departments. Here, inequitable distribution of the advertisements and often choice of it effectively acts as indirect censorship. The government’s Information department, which acts as a nodal agency for routing these advertisements, may release a tender notice to a particular newspaper but withhold at the same time the more vital notification which announces the results of entrance examinations for professional colleges. While the former has only financial importance but no readership value the latter has the potential of giving a boost to newspaper sales. The government can easily kill a publication through engineering such difficulties.

In spite of these difficulties more newspapers surfaced in Kashmir during the conflict period than were closed because of financial squeeze. There are more publications than the local markets can sustain, and there are too few managers with the skills to run newspapers profitability. [6]

The new challenges the independent newspapers in Kashmir confront has also to do with absence of a healthy media industry itself. Just emerging from the throes of nearly two decades of conflict situation the media, because of this reason, has few accepted ethical standards.

In order to meet the rising costs newspapers at times relied on various shadowy sources for sustenance. There are numerous instances where newspapers published the paid advertisements from the underground as well as over ground organizations considered as secessionists in nature by the successive governments. Some of these organizations, once outlawed, are now engaged in negotiations with the federal government but there are already several cases against half a dozen local newspapers in various police stations and courts for publishing their statements.[7]

Credibility crisis

An undeclared state of emergency prevailed all through the16 year long conflict period in Kashmir. This undermined much of daily personal and family life of the people while as media functioned under tremendous strain and pressure.

Media had limited access to information and for a long period local media was banned from ‘sensitive’ areas. Military would fly media teams from Delhi to cover events deemed sensitive in nature. Local media would often rely on press releases issued by the security agencies specially the military about the battles that centred mostly on statistics of casualties. This raised some fundamental questions. It was argued that those fighting the war were also disseminating information about the same war. The trend changed in mid nineties when police began issuing press releases giving chronology of day’s events. It however became known that every time militant casualties were given, the figures were grossly exaggerated.

The public treated the information provided by the military and police, although faithfully reported by the media, with a high degree of suspicion.

The prevailing conditions in which the warring parties were engaged made it more difficult for journalists to dispel what is known as ‘fog of war’.[8] The reporters would piece together often confused reports from a wide geographical area, though he or she was confined to a particular location.

Independent media reports, which did not reflect the official view, or were contrary to official claims, drew not only government wrath but personal reprisals as well. Nobody dared present both the sides of day-to-day events, particularly about the violent incidents. Both sides were held responsible for wanton excesses. Kashmir media was polarized on official and non official lines while reporting these excesses. While the excesses by militants got reflected in the government controlled media, those by the security agencies went unnoticed by it. Local newspapers did exactly the opposite of it.

One of the negative impacts of it all was that an artificial situation emerged in which the man on the street got only the one-sided view of the events. In turn, it kept him from taking an objective view of the situation due to which most people remained clueless about the truth. With several media persons falling to the bullets, one doesn’t know from which side these came, fear in the journalistic profession was palpable. It also played a role to curtail the freedom of speech and expression. Although the atmosphere has eased a great deal now the fact is that truth has been one of the biggest casualties during Kashmir ‘s most crucial phase of history.

Media and Audience

However, one single factor cannot be ignored in all this. That people rising in revolt do have certain pent up grievances which they seek to sort out by taking resort to violent means after failing in getting them redressed through peaceful and democratic methods. As is well known the people of Kashmir have had some long standing grouse which can be traced to certain historical injustices perpetrated on them. This has bred discontent among them, which, sadly, the successive regimes tried to ignore. Obviously, these basic ingredients of violence cannot be brushed aside while trying to address the issue and media could ill afford to ignore this reality.

So the question arises how do the media reflect the grievances of the people in these situations? More so when in times of crisis people generally demand maximum disclosures about the wrong doings. [9]

So how does one explain the dilemma of a Kashmir journalist whose community is thoroughly alienated from mainstream India and considers the local journalist his only voice? How does a newspaper operating there maintain the difficult balance between his audience and the government whose support is crucial to its survival?

Lack of Resources

While visiting ‘war reporters’ from India and abroad, covered by various schemes like insurance etc, attained the distinction of being ‘celebrity journalists’, those covering the conflict and at same time living amidst it were indeed the exceptional individuals operating in exceptional circumstances without any safeguards and guarantees: "soldiers without the means of self defence, who court danger in order to bring back news from hell".

What are the rules for reporting from the battlefield? What first aid should you give a wounded or injured person? What protection does a journalist have while reporting conflicts ? What are the rules and procedures to investigate press freedom violations?

These and many more such questions pose another predicament for independent newspapers working in inhospitable environments. [10]

Changing Minds, Winning Peace

What impact does the presentation of news in conflict zones of the Muslim world have on the world in general and the West in particular.

The happenings in places like Kashmir do have a direct bearing on the Muslim world to a large extent and often the news of excesses in Kashmir raise emotions among co- religionists across the world motivating them to resort to extremist methods to avenge these excesses, or at least to express their anguish. [11]

According to Edward Said: " The Iraqi, Libyan, Chechnyan and Bosnian cases are all different; but they do have in common in the eyes of the Muslims throughout the world is that it is Western mostly ‘Christian’ powers and peoples who are mobilized to fight a continuing war against Islam. Thus the polarity is deepened and the chance of dialogue between cultures is postponed". [12]

An extensive US study done by a bipartisan group, both Democrats and Republicans in 2003 concluded, "the problems occur in terms of perceptions and attitudes toward our policies. And so there’s this interesting gap, if you will, between negative attitudes toward policies and positive attitudes toward American values. We fully acknowledge, I want to stress that public diplomacy is only part of the picture".

The study further said "the surveys and the polls that show that there is an increasing level of opposition, especially in the Arab and Muslim countries, to what they perceive to be ‘our policies’ and that a question arose, "Are we effectively communicating and dialoguing with the Arab and Muslim world?"


This whole set of issues brings us to the conclusion that for effective communication between the alienated peoples and the powers that may be free media is an extremely important tool which can act as a bridge. But at the same time absence of, or even limited, freedom of the press in conflict zones can have dangerous consequences for the world at large and may make the peace efforts parties try to further more difficult.

Few newspapers in Kashmir have managed to retain the much needed credibility and there are fears that this too may be short lived as these newspapers operate under extremely difficult circumstances and without any press strategy. [13] There is no press watchdog agency to monitor or to guide and hence an urgent need for broadening the scope of an effective cooperation between countries to further the advancement of local medias. Experience sharing, training and orientation programmes for newspaper staff from conflict areas will go a long way to help resolve some of the problems. International actors can develop better conflict prevention as well as conflict resolution strategies by allocating resources through appropriate channels for the development of an independent and pluralistic media in these areas since they not only act as early warning indicators of conflicts but are also only guarantee for transparency and good governance in conflict management and post conflict development efforts. [14]

Notes & References:

[1]. Media in conflict zones finds itself often playing more than the role of an agency that reports on a conflict, but as a player in the conflict itself and as a player that needs to be influenced. Media: Conflict prevention and reconstruction–”UNESCO report, 2004

[2]. Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian put together a bipartisan group, people who are both Democrats and Republicans, chose the people on the basis of their competence in the various fields: communications, area expertise, et cetera. And everyone volunteered their services for the public service. And we spent the whole summer — we traveled to Arab countries; we traveled to Turkey; we traveled to Senegal; we traveled to France, engaged with the Muslim community there; in London to see the regional Arab networks in London and the papers; and also, we had discussions through Digital Video Conferencing with Indonesia and Pakistan. And we contacted, literally, hundreds of people here. So it was quite an extensive effort.

And basically, the major conclusion — substantive conclusion — I just want to put forward this morning, there’s no question that in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Terrorist Attacks of September 11th of 2001, the United States of America is engaged in a major struggle to what we call in our report: to expand the zone of tolerance and to marginalize extremists — the extremists, be they secular or religious, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu — the goal is to really expand the zone of tolerance throughout the world.

Our mandate is the Arab and Muslim world, and especially in this part of the world. We also recognize that while the conduct of policy is the primary determinant of the success or failure in this struggle, the role of public diplomacy has taken on critical importance in the effort to understand, inform, engage and influence people in this important region of the world.

At a critical time in our nation’s history, the apparatus of public diplomacy has proven inadequate, especially in the Arab and Muslim world. The fault, we make the point, lies not in the dedicated men and women who are serving here in Washington and in the field in the public diplomacy function, but with a system that has become outmoded, lacking both strategic direction and resources.

The good news, we found, is that the Executive Branch — I met with the highest-level officials in the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, Defense Department, USAID — that they are ready to meet the challenge. They are sensitive to the issue and the problem, and of course, Congress is abundantly aware of the issue since they mandated us. Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, Chairman of the U.S. Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World Foreign Press Center Briefing Washington , DC , October 3, 2003

[3]. The explosion of a parcel bomb in the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Srinagar on September 7, 1995 , is one such incident. It marked a new phase in violence directed at the press . ( Kashmir Under Siege (New York : Human Rights Watch, 1996).

[4]. Kashmir paper in advertising fix – The English-language private daily " Kashmir Observer", published in Srinagar, north-western India, has been experiencing serious financial difficulties ever since the Jammu and Kashmir state government decided to stop purchasing advertising space in the publication’s pages.

RSF is concerned about the consequences of the new provincial government’s discriminatory policies, which could have grave long-term implications for information pluralism in the Kashmir region. The organisation has asked Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, to distribute official advertising among media outlets in the province in an equitable manner, free of political criteria

In late January 2003, the provincial government stopped buying advertising space in the " Kashmir Observer" newspaper. Some officials told the newspaper’s editorial staff that the paper had been crossed off the list of media outlets entitled to such contracts. In a 15 January editorial, "Kashmir Observer" editor and publisher Sajjad Haider had objected to the provincial government’s attitude toward his newspaper, and criticised the authorities’ delayed payments for official publicity. "This reluctance to pay advertising invoices is a subtle and insidious form of coercion. The government needs to be reminded that newspapers here are working solely to protect [the] public interest," he wrote. Haider is the son-in-law of Molvi Abbas Ansari, one of the leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a separatist alliance. As a result of the conflict that has been tearing Kashmir apart since 1990, major companies have been leaving the province, thus depriving the media of advertising revenues. Official advertising and announcements represent the main source of financing for Indian dailies such as the " Kashmir Observer". ( http://www.cpu.org.uk/cpunews_story4.html ) Feb 2003

[5]. The level of freedom and independence of the media depends on three main factors. The first is regulation; the second, the presence of able managers and the ability to be economically viable in the new market; and the third, the degree to which professionalism and responsibility are exercised . (David Webster, Management and Media: Building free and independent media)

[6]. In the span of approximately fifteen years, the number of newspapers published grew by some 500 percent.(65) In addition to the dramatic increase in the actual numbers of newspapers published, Kashmir also saw significant increases in newspaper circulation. Though the data are incomplete, they are nevertheless revealing. In 1982, total newspaper circulation in Kashmir was estimated to be around 119,000. Two years later, the circulation had risen to 192,000. In another five years, the figure was 369,000. Interestingly, by 1990, newspaper circulation was down quite sharply – to only 280,000, perhaps due to militant threats against various newspapers, as well as to the flight of many Kashmiris from the Valley. In 1992 it stood at 297,000.( Figures from Mass Media in India , various years. Sumit Ganguly "Explaining the Kashmir Insurgency: Political Mobilization and Institutional Decay, International Security, Vol. 21, no. 2, (Fall 1996)

[7]. "Any such ad favouring or encouraging secessionism is an offence and is a cognizable crime under the Indian Penal Code. The police is supposed to lodge an FIR against such newspapers ," Farooq Renzu, Director of Information Department Kashmir Government, 24/01/2006

[8]. "War is fought in this fog of falsehood, a great deal of it uncovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by panic." No wonder many atrocity stories about the enemy’s barbarity have shown remarkable resilience-in at least generic form, if not precise details-from the First World War to the present day. Mass media are often willing participants, if not always initiators of, this process of demonisation. Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War by Arthur Ponsonby M.P. First published 1928 by George Allen and Unwin. Published by the Institute of Historical Review, 1991.

[9]. The report of the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the media handling of Britain’s MOD in Gulf war, says, " In our judgement the public is, in general, quite ready to tolerate being misled to some extent if the enemy is misled, thereby contributing to the success of the campaign."

[10]. Kashmir Observer lost two of its staffers during the ongoing conflict and little could the organization do to compensate the lost.

[11]. Despite a crackdown against extremists in Pakistan, Kashmir remains the most likely location for a new holy war- The Next Jihad, Time Europe 2003)

(B) On December 27, 2006 Spanish police arrested a Tunisian man in the southern city of Malaga as part of an investigation into an al Qaeda recruiting network that police cracked in December in Spain on suspicion of recruiting volunteers to send as suicide bombers or insurgents to Iraq, Chechnya or Kashmir. Reuters Feb 27, 2006

[12]. Edward Said- Covering Islam, page xv, Vintage Books

[13]. It is particularly important to understand the difference between genuinely independent media and those media outlets that are primarily propaganda tools for the parties in conflict See the list provided by the world newspapers.com

[14]. Assistance to media should be recognized as an essential part of humanitarian assistance : Report by Department of Democracy and Social Development (Sida) and UNESCO. Stockholm 2004