Media in Kashmir has come to stay as an instrument of shaping public opinion and as a potential influence on people’s precepts and practices. In the backdrop of the conflict that has dogged every aspect of life in Jammu and Kashmir in a muted way for the better part of the past century and significantly over the past one and a half decades, the media has played the role of a catalyst not so much at the sub-continental or international levels as at the domestic level. With an appreciable groundswell in literacy, more and more people are keen to keep themselves abreast with day-to-day events and developments, especially with reference to their own region.
In a cut-throat competition, electronic and print media vie with each other to impact the people. The official electronic media comprising radio and television in both India and Pakistan project the viewpoints of respective countries, while the private television channels and newspapers by and large mirror the happenings with comparative independence.
However, the print media in the Kashmir valley, as distinct from that in the winter capital, Jammu, has been working in dicey circumstances attributed to the conflict situation that has been prevailing here for around 16 years past. Because of the unabated violence in which the overall situation remains unpredictable most of the time, the press has not been able to evolve a well calibrated strategy to take care of professional obligations while sustaining itself financially. Lack of resources in terms of men and material has been the Achilles heel of the Kashmir press all through its existence. The valley does not have a vibrant private sector because of which most newspapers have to fall back upon the government for advertisement support which, more often than not, comes with strings. In the process, they are expected to fall in line by compromising their independence.
Dissemination of news about the day to day happenings in the state in general and in the Kashmir valley in particular in an objective manner is a major area of concern. Because of the nagging financial stringency most newspapers suffer from, objective reporting of events falls in the realm of mere idealism. They have to depend almost entirely on what the state authority or its outfits spoon feed them chiefly because they do not have enough resources to gather first hand information.
In most cases, such newspapers end up relay-ing the government handout to their audiences without ever being able to project both the versions of a happening. By disseminating half-baked and one sided view of events, the newspapers, willfully or unintentionally, become the tools of state power to manipulate public opinion. Indeed, it would be tantamount to deliberate suppression of truth. And, once the news is managed thus on a sustained basis over a period of time, the fall out can be absolutely negative.
Yet another area of the press in Kashmir is its outreach. Barring a few largely circulated dailies and weeklies, the circulation of most newspapers published from the valley may be almost negligible, in certain cases confined to the files of the concerned government department only.
According to official sources, of the more than a hundred newspapers published from Srinagar , around a dozen hit the news stands in the city and elsewhere in major towns across the valley. It is an open secret that not many newspapers brought out from Kashmir cross over to the other two regions of Jammu and Ladakh. Their clout has remained by and large confined to the valley. Part of the blame for the sad state of affairs would go to the government whose lopsided advertisement policy has led to a mushroom growth of what is generally perceived as gutter press. It is common knowledge that those with hardly any professional background in journalism have managed to bring out newspapers and periodicals with the sole objective of making a quick buck in the shape of government advertisements. In fact, many a newspaper are known to have been floated by various shadowy groups to serve their respective interests.
However, the few dailies and weeklies that enjoy a comparatively wider circulation in a highly competitive atmosphere have been impacting the public opinion to a large extent in face of heavy odds. They have almost appreciably withstood the onslaught of official electronic media by retaining a high degree of credibility among the audiences. Even as the All India Radio, the Doordarshan India and the Pakistan TV are available round the clock, some of the local newspapers continue to have an unquestioned sway over the public opinion being viewed as unbiased and independent mirrors of the day-to-day events within the valley. Indeed, the readers would dub them as pro-India or pro-Pakistan if they failed to bring out the truth in an objective way as compared to the official media who churn out doctored and one sided versions of the happenings, particularly that related to law and order situation. Although the state police bring out details of daily violence which are faithfully carried by press, most people would still look for an independent version put out by the local newspapers. And, to this extent, the print media have lived up to their expectations with a fair amount of success.
Nevertheless, the odds against the print media are no less inhibitive. The state authorities seek to influence them through what could be termed as ‘coercive public relations’ in that the release of government advertisement is done selectively, at times in a way that boosts the sales of some newspapers at the cost of others. For instance, the result notification of the Board of Professional Entrance Examination or similar other courses can shoot up the circulation of a newspaper many times. Lately, various government outfits, particularly in engineering, rural development and social welfare departments, have been releasing huge advertisements, albeit
inconsequentially, to notify even their routine activities to provide an indirect financial support to those toeing the government line or furthering the ruling parties’ interests.
Ever since the eruption of militancy in late nineties, most journalists have been exposed to nagging security threats routinely hurled by the separatist militants, counter insurgent groups and various shadowy groups some backed by the intelligence agencies of the two rival countries. Many a noted scribe have fallen to bullets during more than 16 years past.
There have been occasions when blanket restrictions were imposed on local newspapers leading to their closure for weeks on end. Some times, such forced closures were engineered by the state authority as well as they asked the newspapers not to carry statements of militants. Barring a few newspapers who asked for official security, most local scribes declined the facility for fear of
being labeled. It should go to their credit that most newspapers survived the efforts aimed at gagging them and managed to come out in spite of all the impediments and personal peril.
But for its inherent resilience which stood in good stead to help the print media withstand all the pulls and pressures, the impact of the local newspapers could have been even more profound had the state authority taken it more earnestly. Not long ago, the government being fairly sensitive to press reports would take prompt cognizance of the issues raised and
grievances voiced through the newspapers.
Apart from providing it an objective and credible feedback, they would serve as a bridge between the government and the general public. Lately, however, the press is not taken as seriously with the result that its relevance as a vehicle of a sustained interface between the people and the authorities has been reduced a great deal. While the newspapers will continue to mirror the urges and aspirations of the people at large, all the stake holders need to devise short and long term strategies for the healthy growth of the press as one of the most important pillars of the democratic edifice.