Friday, November 13, 2009

Which way now for Afghanistan?

Afghanistan today is a site where several momentous decisions are being played out involving numerous actors, each seemingly less able than the other of dealing with these historic burdens of choice.
Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, had the choice between putting his seven-year record in power to an authentic popular test, and remaining in power as figurehead for a confederacy of warlords who managed to make the Taliban look attractive when earlier they fought bitterly for power.
For the U.S., which is currently in the throes of deep internal turmoil over health care, a burgeoning deficit and a seemingly jobless economic recovery, the choice was between nearly doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan just to make life more secure for the many who are already there, and accepting that its civilisational mission, doomed from the moment it was launched, needed serious rethink.
For the U.N. and other multilateral agencies, the challenge was to ensure that the institutions built up with significant aid inputs, would meet the test of free and fair elections and establish their credibility with the larger Afghan public.
Every actor’s choice was contingent on the others’. And as things have turned out, all have seemingly opted for what ultimately would do them least credit.
As a Pashtun from a powerful southern tribe, Karzai clearly believed he had a presumptive right to the presidency, especially after he tied up alliances with powerful warlords from two of the country’s other major ethnic groups – the Tajiks and the Hazaras. The U.S. was willing to see this ambition through to fruition, but eager that the process was seen as fair, so that the serious questions of legitimacy that bedevilled Karzai’s first term would be dispelled. The international community likewise wanted the election to be recognised within Afghanistan and its near and far neighbourhood, as a milestone in the country’s rapid evolution out of external tutelage.
Karzai was convinced that he merited victory in the first round of elections against a diverse slate of nearly forty candidates, among whom Abdullah Abdullah, a former associate of the slain Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massood, was the most prominent. The U.N. which has a high profile in Afghanistan’s internal matters and provides financial and technical assistance across a range of activities, believed that a hands-off approach which placed the onus entirely on Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), would enhance perceptions about the legitimacy of the elections. And the U.S. was preoccupied with internal debates about the growing costs and consequences of military engagement, and unable to see political subtleties, such as the different consequences that could emerge from the means employed to secure Karzai a second term.
Following nation-wide polling on August 20 and conflicting claims of victory from the main candidates, the trend as votes were counted seemed in Karzai’s favour. By late-September, Karzai was ready to proclaim himself president for a renewed term. Public scepticism was widespread and the temptations of silence strong. The deputy head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, broke the silence, only to be swiftly dismissed for his effrontery. But as the political paralysis deepened, the U.N. saw the wisdom of not acceding unconditionally to the Karzai game-plan.
Within three weeks of Galbraith’s ouster, Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) – a body sponsored by the U.N. – went public with its estimate that upto 15 percent of the ballots cast nationwide, could have been fraudulent. Taking these into account, Karzai was seen to fall short of the 50 percent vote share needed for an outright first-round victory.
There was brief but spirited resistance, including the public questioning of the ECC’s credentials and the resignation of a Karzai loyalist from the body. But Karzai seemingly saw the writing on the wall when the U.S. after its initial deference, leaned hard on him to go in for a runoff election against Abdullah. The demand was conceded with obvious reluctance, but without any assurance that the conditions that vitiated the first round would be remedied. Meeting with a firm rejection of his demand for a reconstitution of the IEC, consisting almost entirely of Karzai appointees, Abdullah withdrew from the contest. Karzai gained a tainted victory and the U.S. saw little amiss in welcoming the outcome as one that was fully in consonance with Afghanistan’s national law.
Meanwhile, the debate in the U.S. on future military engagement in Afghanistan has acquired ugly partisan overtones. Shortly after the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, submitted a situation report to President Barack Obama, right-wing partisans in the U.S. media blazoned his recommendation that troop presence in the country be significantly increased. The military establishment had obviously planned a strategic media leak, which the civilian head of the U.S. Defence Department was swift to reprimand. But the political leadership could seemingly do nothing to stem the rising tide of adverse media comment.
Obama has affected an air of detached deliberation, but he will soon have to reckon with the noisy Republican right-wing -- still loath to admit the magnitude of its misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will need to respond to the military assessment, though he seems more inclined to heed his domestic political constituency, which opposes further escalation.
The U.S. President meanwhile, rescinded an 18-year ban imposed on media coverage of the funeral rites for military personnel killed in overseas operations and flew early one morning, while most of his country slept, to an airbase to salute the coffins of 18 soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The humbling experience, he said, would have a bearing on his decision on the future course of the U.S.’s overseas military operations.
October 2009, which was supposed to mark Karzai’s triumphal return to power, has turned out to be a stormy and contentious month. It has also, in terms of military casualties, been the worst month for the U.S. since it began its offensive in Afghanistan eight years ago. After going in with disinterested professions of bringing civilisation to a country under the sway of religious bigots, the U.S. today is increasingly, hostage to the whims of numerous Afghan warlords. Without their indulgence, U.S. military personnel deployed in Afghanistan, whatever their number, would just be so many sitting ducks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Netanyahu's pleading that Israel - or 80% of historic Palestine - be recognised as Jewish territory, cannot be conceded

A review article from July 2003, soon after the U.S. had declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq and cursorily acknowledged "the road map" to peace in Palestine.

How Road Maps Can Kill

Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, 2003, (Various Publishers).

Ahron Bregman, Israel's Wars, A History Since 1948, 2002, (Various Publishers).

MAPS are charted to aid in navigating territory. Never have maps been designed to imprison communities or lock them into irrevocable steps totally divorced from the free exercise of their will.

The latest effort to restore a semblance of normality in Palestine goes under the appellation of a "Road Map" to peace. At a meeting at the Red Sea port city of Aqaba in June, the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, sealed their acceptance of the Road Map under the watchful gaze of U.S. President George Bush. After the Mitchell Plan drafted by a former U.S. Senator, and the Tenet Plan assembled by the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the "Road Map" represents the third effort since the current Palestinian uprising began to put the so-called "peace process" back on track.

The Road Map enjoins a number of reciprocal steps on both sides to the conflict. The Palestinian side is expected to cease all violent attacks on Israel and its citizens. In return, Israel is committed to implement measures that improve the humanitarian situation in Palestinian towns and villages, notably by easing restrictions on movement. Israel would also end hostile actions against civilians and stop the demolition of homes and the seizure of Palestinian property. While freezing fresh construction activity, "outposts" to Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, which point towards an intent to confiscate larger tracts of Palestinian land in the near future, are to be dismantled.

In the month since the Road Map came into force, Israel has continued with the construction of its wall of separation across the West Bank. This 25-foot wall, from which the U.S. has chosen to delicately avert its eye, signifies the final fortification of the Jewish state. It has divided Palestinian families and cut off villages from the agricultural land that sustains them. It has involved the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes and the dispossession of numerous families in the security interests of Israel. Once completed, the wall of separation would effectively end all but the barest minimum of movement between Palestinian towns and villages. The control of the social, economic and political interactions of an occupied people - now an arduous task performed by thousands of Israeli soldiers - would be accomplished by simply shutting them into a giant, walled prison encampment.

While this symbol of apartheid comes up, Israeli raids and incursions into Palestinian habitations continue unhindered. Fresh detentions are being made even as the Palestinian Prime Minister bargains with his Israeli counterpart for the release of prisoners held in the course of the uprising and earlier. A few settler outposts were dismantled in a blaze of publicity but a larger number were constructed in that interval. The settlements themselves have been expanding continuously, recognising few restraints even in confiscating Palestinian lands.

Tanya Reinhart, a recognised expert in linguistics, was not among the many Israelis who saw the Oslo accord of 1993 as a new beginning for the people of the region. But while expressing her scepticism about the new forms of apartheid enshrined in Oslo, she was prepared to hope. As the peace process wound down in acrimony and horrific violence, she has dared to go against the tide of opinion in her country. Rather than reflexively blame the Palestinians, she has held up the Israeli record to the light and found a chronicle of illusory concessions, evaded responsibilities and betrayed promises. Underpinning all this was a growing mood of disdain for the Palestinian people and outright contempt for their rights.

Reinhart began her career in political writing with Oslo. Her book is perhaps the most accurate account available of the course of negotiations that followed. Israel, she warns, is now, more than ever, in thrall to a militarist cabal that believes in the most extreme solutions. The public mood has been unsettled all through the years of negotiations with the Palestinians, and in the absence of a forceful popular assertion of sanity, the "political generals" in the Israeli Defence Force have established themselves as the most stable pole in the polity. Where any sensible person would seek solutions to the endemic conflict in the region in redressal and atonement for the ethnic cleansing of 1948 which brought the Jewish state into being, the "political generals" today speak unabashedly about "the second half of 1948". The message is clear and unequivocal: Israel's survival now demands the completion of the unfinished agenda of 1948. Lands occupied then and since in warfare would have to be purged of their Arab populations, so as to safeguard the ethnic identity and character of the Jewish state.

"What was until a short while ago the lunatic right wing of the Rehavam Zeevi school is now becoming Israel's political centre'', writes Reinhart, referring to the Israeli Minister who was assassinated in 2001. Leader of the right wing Moledet Party, Zeevi was a former General who rather implausibly held the Tourism portfolio in the Cabinet of Ariel Sharon. Not inclined towards hospitality or verbal finesse, he was known to refer to Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza as "lice". His place in the Cabinet has since been taken by the Moledet Party's Benny Elon, whose most recent flirtation with world headlines came from an open call for the "carpet bombing" of Palestinian settlements. Reflecting the rise of the lunatic elements to political prominence, opinion polls taken among the Jewish citizens of Israel have indicated an alarming rise in the public endorsement of "population transfer" as a solution to the problem of Palestine.

Reinhart does not record the actual practice of the policy of "transfers". That has been done ably and with a wealth of documentation by other authors, notably Nur Masalha (A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-96, Faber and Faber, London, 1997). But Reinhart does provide a terrifying picture of conditions in the occupied territories, a situation deliberately engineered by the Israeli government to make life sufficiently intolerable to induce a large outward migration of the Palestinian people. A South African Minister is cited to emphasise how the Israeli occupation is worse than the unlamented system of apartheid in that country: "The South African apartheid regime never engaged in the sort of repression Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians. For all the evils and atrocities of apartheid, the government never sent tanks into black towns. It never used gunships, bombers or missiles against the black towns or Bantustans. The apartheid regime used to impose sieges on black towns, but these sieges were lifted within days".

To this quite chilling catalogue of atrocities, Reinhart adds her own account of an Israeli effort to bring the Palestinians to heel through a "systematic policy of starvation". "What we are witnessing in the occupied territories," she writes, "is the invisible and daily killing of the sick and wounded who are deprived of medical care, of the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and of those who are approaching starvation".

Reinhart's narrative is suffused with the sentiment that the Jewish nation somehow lost its innocence with the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967. It is a basic premise with her, that if Israel had stopped with the ethnic cleansing of 1948 - known in the collective memory of the Palestinians as the Nakba or catastrophe - she could have "probably lived with it". "As an Israeli," she writes, "I grew up believing that this primal sin our state was founded on may be forgiven one day, because the founders' generation was driven by the faith that this was the only way to save the Jewish people from the danger of another holocaust".

Israel was formed, she recalls, by a "haunted, persecuted people" who "sought to find a shelter and a state for itself, and did so at a horrible price to another people". This is of course the dominant truth, though it overlooks the basic point that the "Jewish question" - as it was known in Europe - was an effort to steer between two hazards. On one side, there was the challenge of exclusion posed by European societies, the denial of basic rights to the community. On the other, there was the lure of assimilation, of community identities being diluted in the process of modernisation and Jewish communities being incorporated into newly coalescing national elites in Europe.

As Bregman points out in his account of Israel's wars, the troubles in Europe in the inter-war years of the 20th century greatly accelerated the Jewish migration into Palestine. But this was not the destination of choice for most of the victims of Nazi persecution. "Many of these Jewish immigrants," writes Bregman, "would have preferred to go elsewhere, especially to America, one of the most sought-after destinations for immigrants, but the gates to America were half-shut. Among other reasons, this was because the leaders of the Zionist movement exerted all the influence they could muster to make sure that the U.S. did not open up immigration to these Jews for the simple reason that they wanted to herd these same Jews to Palestine."

Walter Laqueur has observed in his standard history of Zionism that the Russian Minister of the Interior in the 1880s, responsible for instigating many of the worst pogroms of the day, strongly encouraged Jews to migrate to Palestine. The alternative of migration to the U.S., he told them, was not especially attractive. Palestine offered the Jewish community the option of maintaining a distinct identity, while the U.S. did not.

Zionist ideologues seeking to persuade the main imperial powers of the merits of their case, worked with the notion that Palestine was "a land without a people" lying in wait for "a people without a land". In 1914, Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first President of the state of Israel, invoked the idea of an "empty country" which was the staple of Zionist campaigners: "In its initial stage, Zionism was conceived by its pioneers as a movement wholly depending on mechanical factors: there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?"

In 1969, Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, denied that the Palestinians existed as a people. This perception exerted a powerful influence till as recently as 1984, when Joan Peters published her infamous book From Time Immemorial on the non-existent Palestinians. As the Palestinian-born social theorist and commentator Edward Said observed, the book "represented a natural analogue to the concerted, sustained Israeli attack upon Palestinian nationalism, the invasion of Lebanon, and the unstated desires of the Jewish state... that the Palestinians do not exist, or, if they do, they are to be wished away, expelled, or slaughtered''.

Jewish expansionism and Arab dispossession in Palestine ensured that circumstances turned rapidly hostile. The fiction of a "land without a people" was rapidly unravelling. Laqueur later recorded rather plaintively that the "tragedy of Zionism" was that "it appeared on the international scene when there were no longer empty spaces on the world map".

As with much else in Zionist ideology, this perception reflects a skewed morality. The true dilemma for Zionism, as the Jewish dissident and holocaust survivor Norman Finkelstein has observed astutely, was that it appeared at a time when the methods of securing "empty spaces on the world map" - extermination and expulsion as practised in the North American and Australian continents - were no longer acceptable.

Later Zionist revisionism dropped the extravagant notion of an "empty land" and spoke of establishing "friendly cooperation between two Semitic peoples which, in the Middle Ages, had together been the torchbearers of progress and science". But the author of these lines, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, was intolerant of the Palestinians and disinclined even to grant basic rights to the Arab citizens of Israel. And as Bregman points out, Ben-Gurion presided over a policy of ruthlessly hunting down and eliminating all refugees returning to the land Israel claimed in 1948. Though a resolution of the United Nations made the return of the refugees a necessary condition for Israel's recognition, the challenge they posed to the ethnic identity of the Jewish state had to be extinguished at the very source.

Those were days of a policy of heavy-handed retaliation for real and imagined attacks on Israel, with Ariel Sharon, a young Army officer leading an infamous commando task force, being its main executor. The acts of provocation went far afield. Bregman points out, for instance, that Israeli Army operatives went so far as to plant a series of deadly bombs in various Jewish quarters of Baghdad to create an ambience of terror and induce a wave of migrations into the newly constituted Zionist state.

As he made the seamless transition from military service to politics, Sharon became an outspoken advocate of expulsion as a final solution to the Palestinian problem. He was also firm in his belief that all talk of a Palestinian state was so much misplaced clamour, since Jordan already fulfilled that function.

The Israel that was moulded by its early leaders was an expansionist state, driven to relentless hostilities against its Arab minority and its neighbouring nations. It was not directly threatened by Syria in 1967, but attacked that country after disposing of the Egyptian and Jordanian challenges, because it had to capture the Golan Heights to secure the head reaches of its water sources. In the process, it risked the antagonism of the U.S. by attacking an American surveillance ship, the USS Liberty, sailing just off the Sinai coast, killing several servicemen. Bregman sheds valuable light on this affair, which in the audacity of the Israeli attack and the subdued U.S. response, captured the essence of the new strategic relationship emerging between the two countries.

Since 1993, Israel, with the active abetment of the U.S. and under the protective gaze of the world media, has kept up a pretence of negotiations with the Palestinians to partly appease global outrage at its policies. But the purpose, Reinhart argues, has merely been to negotiate endlessly without yielding anything. In explicitly recognising the existence of a people long denied, Israel was seeking little else than to make them accomplices in their own subjugation. And in tackling the popular impression that Israel made an offer of unprecedented generosity at the Camp David summit with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 2000, Reinhart does a convincing job of exposing the insincerity and disingenuousness of the posture.

Far from offering to return East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, to serve as the capital of a future state, Israel managed through a clever drafting ploy to reduce the scope of this concession to a few villages far removed from the city, which would be renamed to foster the illusion of Palestinian control over the seat of their social and cultural life. And in defiance of the common sense that Gaza represented little of value to Israel - being "one of the most densely populated and poorest areas of the world, with little water or natural resources" - Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted on retaining not only a number of settlements in the territory, but also on annexing the land surrounding and connecting them. The offer made on the West Bank was, as Reinhart convincingly demonstrates, far worse.

All this was programmed into the Oslo accord. In 1993, the principal Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin concluded a memorandum of understanding with Mahmoud Abbas (alias Abu Mazen) of the PLO, laying out the scope of the territories in Gaza that would be returned to Palestinian sovereignty. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was aware of this memorandum, but hoped that better would be on offer after hard negotiations. What he got in the Gaza-Jericho accord that followed the Cairo summit later that year, was in fact, much worse.

Reinhart provides convincing evidence that quite contrary to his pretensions, Barak was essentially a soldier, sharing the perceptions of the militarist cabal that Sharon best represented. By commandeering the two main political formations in Israeli politics, the two former soldiers managed between them, to squeeze out the constituency for peace in Israel. The alarming growth of the constituency that actively advocates ethnic cleansing has been an immediate consequence.

Reinhart and Bregman offer differing prognoses on where Israel and the Palestinians are headed. The former is much more critical and sensitive, alive to the deep ethical dilemmas that confront the Jewish state. The latter discerns a greater sense of fatigue with warfare than before, and suggests that the Israeli volunteer army may not quite be the force that it was in the past. The economic crisis in the country is also dealt with by both authors as a factor that could potentially have a crucial bearing on the future of the state. Both these books have been republished for the Indian audience after fairly successful debuts abroad. With a serious reappraisal of India's relations with Israel now under way, both these books - Reinhart's in particular - would reward serious study.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Narco-imperialism, the opiate of the west

Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the New Opium Wars, Hachette India, Delhi, 2009, pp xvii + 302, Rs 495, ISBN 978-93-80143-02-6.

Imtiaz Gul, The Al Qaeda Connection: The Taliban and Terror in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, Penguin India, Delhi, 2009, pp ix + 308, Rs 499, ISBN 978-0-670-08292-6.

Eight years ago, a poor and impoverished nation, devastated by decades of strife, was being pounded by the U.S. in a ferocious aerial bombing campaign. Many then thought the whole war strategy disproportionate and ultimately rather pointless. It seemed that the purpose was to “shock and awe” (though the phrase only entered the strategic vocabulary a little later, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) rather than to achieve defined military objectives. Dissent was actively discouraged, but the few voices that managed to make themselves heard above the din of righteous nationalism, did point out that the didactic value of high-tonnage explosives launched from safe distances, was limited and short-lived.

George Bush, the U.S. president who ordered thousands of soldiers into action, knew they were doing nothing else than “pounding sand”. And clearly, he and his inner cabal – notably Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz – were half-hearted about the whole enterprise.

Richard Clarke, then principal counter-terrorism adviser to Bush, has written of how from the very moment that four aircraft were hijacked in U.S. airspace, of which three crashed into iconic structures in New York and Washington DC, Wolfowitz was busy planning an invasion of Iraq (Richard Clarke, Against all Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press, New York, 2004). That was perhaps an ideological commitment for the hyper-Zionist Wolfowitz, though his boss Rumsfeld, who carried none of that baggage, put out a rather more interesting and pragmatic rationale for the focus on Iraq – that it had a surfeit of targets that could be bombed, unlike Afghanistan, which had very few.

The September 11 havoc was promptly ascribed to Al Qaeda and the principal target of the U.S. military campaign that ensued was identified as Osama bin Laden. In the event, the fearsome aerial bombardment of Afghanistan, never too scrupulous about what came rather delightfully to be called “collateral damage”, did not manage to find and fry Osama bin Laden. The cordon that had been laid by land-based forces proved altogether too porous, since the U.S. could never commit enough troops to the mission. The Bush cabal chose, rather, to sub-contract the job of capturing bin Laden to a syndicate of local Afghan warlords who just happened to be, contingently, on the same side then.

Far from decapitating the Afghan regime, the U.S. left sufficient room for it to flee the battle and reconstitute itself. The prevalent wisdom is that the regime though locationally scattered, still has a coherent and centralised chain of command. The term “Taliban” is still an accepted description for the insurgent groups that continue to inflict a price in blood on the U.S. and allied military forces deployed in Afghanistan.

The resilience of the Taliban in turn is ascribed to infirmities in the transition process and the ineptitude and insincerity of those who were entrusted with the mandate of effecting a credible democratic transformation. Gretchen Peters, a journalist with long years of experience covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, now offers a rather different answer: the Taliban perhaps owes its survival to incompetent military strategy by the U.S. and its allies. But the Taliban resurgence and its continuing ability to threaten the regime of President Hamid Karzai, comes from its control over the flourishing narcotics trade that originates in Afghanistan and has linkages all over the world.

Afghanistan, says Peters, grows over nine-tenths of the world supply of opium poppy. In a book that documents the sordid history of fierce religious puritanism coexisting with the world’s most disreputable trade, Peters establishes that the Taliban has been among the most important sponsors and beneficiaries of the boom in opium cultivation. Indeed, “Taliban” has itself become something of a catch-all term, applied to every manner of entity. Beyond these entities’ single shared attribute, that they all oppose the Karzai regime in one form or the other, they have little else in common, except perhaps their active engagement in the narcotics trade.

A world audience that suffers from a chronic attention deficit may not have the inclination to piece together a pattern from media reports of the numerous attacks on occupation forces in Afghanistan. Peters reveals that insurgent actions in Afghanistan are “most often diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as ‘Taliban’”.

The “new Taliban” as Peters puts it, is a world removed from the old. It is now a “fragmented, transnational force devoid of many of the group’s prior characteristics and political aspirations”. And as recounted by a senior Afghan security official: “These are not old Taliban. We don’t even know who they are anymore”.

Peters revisits the terrain of the initial emergence of the Taliban in an Afghanistan devastated by the virulent civil war that followed the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992. Najibullah had defied western estimations and survived almost four years after the withdrawal of his Soviet backers in 1988, warning just as his regime was tottering, that fundamentalism once ensconced in Afghanistan, would stay for “many years”. “Afghanistan (would) turn into a centre of world smuggling of narcotics drugs. Afghanistan (would) be turned into a centre for terrorism”, he said.

Najibullah’s warnings went unheeded. And the cabal of Islamic warriors who took the reins in Kabul under a deal brokered by Pakistan, soon carved the country up into a patchwork of warring fiefs, each of which became a quasi-autonomous state that zealously guarded rights of transit through the landlocked country. Levies imposed on the transit of legal goods through Afghanistan became the main sustenance for the warring tribal chieftains. But the yields from this traffic were modest. Transporting goods of great bulk and volume through Afghanistan’s wrecked transportation network was a logistical challenge that the warlords were unequal to. What they needed was a commodity with high value and relatively low volume.

If Peters had been familiar with the history of imperialism, she would have identified the strong connections between the Afghan Taliban’s response to this challenge and the pathway that British colonialism found in the mid-19th century, to settle its balance of payments problems in India. Opium, the British colonialists discovered then, was just the right stuff, with the optimal combination of both value and volume.

During the latter years of the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was rapidly increasing its area under opium cultivation, particularly in the southern province of Helmand. A pivotal figure in the opium traffic was Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, a Pashtu tribal chief and the main sponsor of the anti-Soviet resistance in the south. Opium grown in Helmand fed the refining centres in the east of the country, controlled by another powerful Pashtu chieftain, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

This arrangement of convenience was underwritten by the theological dictum that growing the narcotic substance was no sin, and neither was its trafficking. Vice lay rather, in the consumption of the substance. And as long as the “infidel west” remained the main locus of consumption, the conscience of the Islamic faithful remained unsullied.

In one of the few efforts by the U.S. to intervene in the situation, a top official from the embassy in Pakistan demanded a meeting with Akhundzada in Quetta, at which the deeply pious Pashtu warlord was shamed into issuing a diktat against opium cultivation. The crop in Helmand started dropping almost immediately, much to the ire of Hekmatyar, whose refining units were suddenly obliged to pay much higher prices for their basic input.

Akhundzada was assassinated in 1990 in Pakistan’s north-western frontier city of Peshawar. And his brother, who assumed leadership under accepted rules of tribal succession, lost little time in ordaining that opium cultivation should resume with all the earlier vigour.

Chaos deepened and commerce entered increasingly into conflict with territorial ambitions. The numerous warlords who had carved up Afghan territory began to be seen as obstacles to the free flow of the narcotics commerce. With a certain attitude of revelation, Peters tells us that the received wisdom of the Taliban being sponsored, promoted and given their entire start-up capital of money and firepower by Pakistan’s military intelligence services, is only half the truth. And like many half-truths, it obscures the greater reality: that it was the smuggling mafia that underwrote the emergence of the Taliban. The brief pretence that the Taliban made, of ordaining the end of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, was mere smoke and mirrors. The market-savvy Islamic militia was only seeking to cash in on the inevitable spike in prices that would ensue – and at the same time, harvest the aid bounty that it was promised if it were to accede to western demands to end opium cultivation.

Peters tells her story well, with justified moral indignation. Pakistan features heavily in her story with all its low intrigues in sponsoring the drug trade and the rise of the Taliban. But the larger geopolitical game, in which Pakistan was merely a link, is hardly dealt with. In this respect, it is best always to go back to original sources, written immediately after epochal events have taken place, when journalistic objectivity is yet uncompromised.

How else does one account for a silence that echoes through Peters’ book: on the role that the U.S. oil companies played in the rise of the Taliban?

This omission seems to be part of a larger pattern. The reader of Peters’ book for instance, would never guess that President Karzai’s regime itself is under the scanner for its possible involvement in the narcotics trade. Hemmed in by the obduracy of the warlords that he has been forced to talk terms with, unable to make much of the vaunted quantities of western aid that have been flowing to Afghanistan – because much of this flows back into western coffers through the corrupt rules of the international aid racket – Karzai himself has chosen to make his peace with the drugs trade.

Elements of the western security establishment are perturbed that their man in Afghanistan is quite so blatantly doing deals with the drugs cartel. In July 2008, a former counter-narcotics envoy for the U.S. wrote a mammoth article in the New York Times, documenting with a wealth of detail, how Karzai had made the opium fields in Helmand – a bequest of the Akhundzada clan -- a personal protectorate (Thomas Schweich, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?", The New York Times, July 27, 2008). There was no other source of revenue that he could tap to keep his regime afloat. And his western backers were never quite willing to crack down on the narcotics trade with the zero-tolerance attitude that they were apt to show towards weapons of mass destruction.

Peters acknowledges these realities rather cursorily and puts them down to corruption and incompetence. The reality, though, maybe more complex. Devoid of political authority, starved of resources through which he may seek to buy needed legitimacy, Karzai has brought back several old confederates of the Taliban into positions of power. To ensure that he is not toppled off his precarious perch, he has also decided to cultivate the favour of the drug-lords in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Bound by common ethnicity, Karzai and his Pashtu kinsmen in the south of Afghanistan, see the Helmand opium crop as perhaps their only sustenance in an unrelenting battle for political preeminence in Afghanistan, against the Tajik-Persian cabal that controls most other sectors of Afghanistan’s governance and commerce.

Meanwhile, a country conjoined with Afghanistan by history, has begun to be sucked ever deeper into the geopolitical trap. Pakistan, once regarded in the west as part of the solution – whether in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the September 11 attacks in the U.S. – is now decisively, part of the problem.

When the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996, the U.S. had no more fervent wish than to see a new day dawn for Afghanistan, in which transit rights from the Central Asian oilfields for its multinational companies would be assured.

More reasonable commentators warned that the dangers of a fundamentalist takeover in Pakistan were more alive than at any time before.

It it comes, that fundamentalist takeover will not be inspired by any kind of overarching loyalty to an Islamic theology. Rather, there would be multiple affinities that propel the movement on, most important among them being the cross-border tribal ties that bind Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the arbitrarily drawn frontier that is increasingly seen as an illegitimate bequest of British imperialism.

Imtiaz Gul’s work shows with a wealth of detail, how the cross-border ties – which have been encapsulated under the rubric of two convenient terms, “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda” – are really rich in complexities. But for the global strategic affairs community, they have all been reduced to two terms that are expected to summon up the unthinking allegiance of all right-thinking folks.

Surely, there can be no more certain pathway to chaos, that could soon envelop India and the entire south Asian region.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The many dimensions of India's media crisis

A mid-year economic recovery has seen some of the gloom abate and the festive season may have imparted an added buoyancy. But the mood in the Indian media industry as it heads into the new year, remains sombre.

The industry faces serious questions today about the sustainability of the current upturn. Does it really have the momentum to overcome multiple adversities -- a global economy mired in debt, currencies prone to violent gyrations, a possible surge of inflation and a real erosion of living standards? Or will a recovery that has rather too hastily been proclaimed, prove all too illusory?

Early-2009, market forecasters were prepared to bet on a growth of advertising spending in the Indian economy of no more than 7.2 percent. This was well below half the growth rate registered through 2008 and considerably less than the trend figure of the last decade or so, which has been over 20 percent. Bottomline concerns were also sharpened by prices of newsprint, which were at historic highs till about September 2008.

This was the context in which the chief executive of Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd – India’s largest media group with interests in print, TV, radio, online and outdoor advertising – wrote to his staff in March 2009, indicating that the crisis was unlike anything he had “seen in his working life”. The chief editor and chief executive officer of the Indian Express, in a similar moment of revelation, described the slowdown as a crisis with no end in sight. Around the same time, HT Media, publishers of the second largest circulated English newspaper, the Hindustan Times, informed staffers that salaries would remain “unchanged” into the foreseeable future.

By mid-year, forecasts were even more downbeat. An international market research agency put the growth of advertising spending in the Indian economy at a fairly dismal 4.7 percent for the year. And as the harsh summer of 2009 wore on and the storied Indian monsoon remained elusive, drought conditions were declared in much of the country, engendering still more anxiety. The expected shrinkage of demand in the rural sector, it was rather dolefully said, could hit ad spending by consumer goods majors.

There is for the first time now, a prospect that ad revenue accruing to the print media could actually shrink. The print media has for long held its share in total ad spending, defying predictions that its fortunes would plummet as a consequence of the growth of cable and satellite TV and the internet. But now, perhaps for the first time since the boom in broadcasting began in the early-1990s, the print media faces an actual prospect that the bleakest of predictions about its future will come true.

The situation today indicates that the share of print in total ad-spending could fall below the 47 percent level it has been at for almost two decades. Print could soon be getting a steadily smaller share of a pie that is growing much slower than before.

Salary cuts and austerity have become the norm in the media industry. And most seriously for an industry that has always prided itself on a public appearance of fierce independence, four of the country’s most prominent newspaper editors and publishers in February went hat in hand to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to plead for a special dispensation to avert the crisis they were facing. It did not pass notice that this happened just days before national elections were notified. And once that threshold was crossed, a model code of conduct would have become operative, prohibiting any policy change that could be construed as an undue favour to any particular lobby or business, particularly one such as the media, with the power to influence electoral outcomes.

The newspaper industry beat that deadline and secured concessions ranging from a waiver of import duties on newsprint and an increase in the rates paid for government ad placements.

Earlier petitions from the newspaper industry for elimination of the customs duty on newsprint had been partially met in April 2008, when the rate was cut from 5 to 3 percent. This was followed in September by an upward revision of 24 percent in the rates paid by the Government for its advertisements. The bargaining between the print media and the government had in other words, been going on for quite a while. But following the softening of newsprint prices that began in September 2008, the Ministry had been resisting further demands for an upward revision of ad rates, on the grounds that the softening of newsprint prices had taken a great deal of pressure off the newspaper industry.

Though devoid of immediate practical consequence or profit, it may be time to revisit some of the strategic choices the news industry made over the last two decades. For starters, the industry needs to ask whether it did the right thing by itself and its customers from about the mid-1990s, by increasingly tying its commercial success to advertising rather than circulation. To have bet on circulation as the growth option would have meant making a commitment to quality news and content. Attention spans were becoming shorter, in part because the growth of the fiercely competitive electronic media sector was creating a clutter of information that most news consumers did not have the patience to sort their way through.

The print media lost its status as primary news source for the majority of consumers, once 24-hour news channels began sprouting all over the country from about 1997. But circulation levels still kept increasing, because of rising literacy and social mobility. Again, the print media retained relevance as a source of information in depth. The 24-hour news channel, with its bite-sized coverage, only whetted the appetite. It took the unhurried study of the print media to fully satisfy the need to know.

In its rush to rake in the advertising by emulating the TV news-bite, the print media disregarded this inherent strength. The trend was set in 1994 by the country’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman – publishers of the Times of India (ToI) – when it slashed the price of its flagship paper in Delhi, forcing market leader Hindustan Times (HT) to follow suit.

With its near monopoly in the commercial metropolis of Mumbai, the ToI by 1994 was estimated to have an ad ratio, measured as the proportion of total printed area devoted to ads, of 55 percent. In comparison, the HT in Delhi and The Hindu in Chennai enjoyed much more modest ratios in the lower 40s. This was the initial advantage that endowed the ToI with the confidence that it could launch a price war and stay the course better than the competition.

In the event, HT was driven to the wall, suffering steadily dropping profits and going into a loss for two successive years, before it sued for peace. The ToI also took its price warfare strategy to the cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, forcing the established newspapers in these cities into reluctant emulation. And the final frontier in the ToI’s assault on the English-language market was breached when it launched in Chennai in April 2008, again with an aggressively priced product that shook market-leader The Hindu out of its glacial, other-worldly attitude.

The newspaper industry would almost certainly not have embarked upon this trajectory if sales and imports of the most vital of its material inputs, newsprint, had not been totally decontrolled in 1995. Till then burdened by the requirement that they buy a fixed quota of their newsprint demand from domestic sources, newspapers after 1995 were at liberty to source their supplies from any vendor of choice. This allowed the bigger enterprises to build up inventories when prices were low to hedge against future uncertainties. It also permitted them greater leeway in pricing their final product, so that any price that was close enough to the resale value – as measured in the market for waste-paper – would be good commercial sense.

Content became a side-issue in other words, since there was no value on it from the point of view of the publisher. Expenditure in news gathering and quality content could be dispensed with. Competition, that much vaunted process of striving that is supposed in the free-market theology to ensure consumer sovereignty, would pivot around the sole parameter of selling price. For the rest, the challenge for the editorial content producers was nothing more or less than providing the best environment for advertisers to sell their wares.

Media content meanwhile has mutated to accommodate the concerns of the upper demographic strata, the prime segment for advertisers. TV news channels according to a recent survey, devoted close to a third of their air-time (exclusive of ads) to stories on crime. Sports was a distant second with just over 13 percent of total air-time, followed closely by politics and entertainment news. Bringing up the tail-end, though with a significant share, is astrology, with over 3 percent.

A roughly similar order priorities is evident in the print media, which in the days before the TV news channel, devoted perhaps 40 percent of front-page space to politics. That has come down to just under a quarter of the total for the English-language press. A close second is crime with 21 percent of front-page space. The economy, sports and entertainment, all figure in the middle-single digit range in terms of the proportion of front-page space claimed in the English language press.

With advertising spending now in recession, the media and in particular – the newspaper industry – faces the prospect of having to rethink its comfortable belief that the race to the bottom is the surest pathway to profit. Charging for content is an option that is talked about though few have ventured down that road yet. Objective circumstances indicate that consumers would perhaps pay for news content, if the quality of information obtained can bear the burden. Surveys in the west have shown -- and the situation in India is likely similar – that internet users are increasingly spending their time online browsing through news sites. Typically, the first site that this traffic passes through would be the news aggregators, such as Google. But they finally come to roost on the website of an old media company.

That would be an opportunity for any media company that chooses to prioritise quality of content. Unfortunately, that variety of thinking does not seem to have yet dawned.

An issue that has emerged in the foreground of discussions on media policy in the context of the recession, is that of foreign investment. After long having resisted the entry of the foreign investor on lofty grounds such as national sovereignty, the print media effected a dramatic switch in 2004. This was in part because the Hindustan Times, after standing firm in opposing foreign investment along with two other majors – ToI and The Hindu – switched loyalties after the beating it received in the price wars. But foreign investment was still confined to less than a 25 percent stake in news and current affairs publications.

Today there is a buzz in policy circles over raising the foreign ownership ceiling to 50 percent. And unlike in earlier junctures, when they were quick to mobilise and shoot down any hint of a change in policy, the industry lobbies seem strange quiescent. This is not surprising, since all the holdouts have in recent months shown greater receptivity towards foreign investment. Once the change of policy was effected in 2004, ToI was quick to spin off its magazines into a separate company and tie up a minority share sale with a major global media company. Even The Hindu, which had been the most obdurate in its resistance, has of late been in talks with foreign media groups for perhaps selling an equity stake of upto 24 percent.

Apart from the stories of competition in the media, there is a parallel narrative of collusion too. In March 2005, HT and the ToI entered into a compact, raising cover prices and ad rates. That was the formal truce and disengagement after the bitter price wars of the decade prior. Shortly afterwards, the two got into a phase of active engagement, launching a joint venture newspaper, Metro Now, targeted ostensibly at the youth demographic. The venture never reached anywhere near a viable level of circulation or ad support and was in 2009, converted into a weekly. As with other publications in the past, this is regarded as most likely, the precursor to imminent closure.

The Hindu’s decision to close down its freesheet, Ergo, launched in December 2007 and targeted at Chennai city’s large and growing community of information technology professionals, underlines yet again the fallibility of the of low-cost media model, driven by advertising rather than quality. It is also a measure of the depth of the crisis facing India’s media that a paper targeted towards a professional strata of high and growing purchasing power, failed to attract and hold advertiser interest in a major metropolitan centre such as Chennai.

What are the pathways that then lie open if the Indian media should choose to persist with its attitude of disregarding the quality imperative? Shifting the lines demarcating editorial and advertising is one possible option. In March 2003, the ToI announced a new initiative – “Medianet” -- that was professedly part of its effort to stay current with journalistic practices in rapidly changing times. “Medianet” was in the words of the ToI management, part of their “desire to drive the market, to constantly break new ground”.

The deficiency of traditional news-gathering, the ToI explained, was apparent especially in new areas of audience interest – such as “lifestyle, fashion, entertainment, events, product launches, social personalities and city happenings”. This was in part, because public relations agencies, which had a much more sensitive feel of the pulse in these areas, had always had a rather uneasy interface with journalism.

Subtlety aside, this was a reference to the pervasive journalistic practice of accepting and even actively soliciting, various forms of gratification for news and editorial coverage that might be of material benefit to particular individuals or entities. Through Medianet, the ToI professedly, was curbing this corruption of the trade by institutionalising it. Objectivity and integrity of editorial content would no longer be at risk from the susceptibility of individual journalists. The organisation itself would bear that onus of carrying content that was paid for, though only with explicit acknowledgment.

After making “infotainment” a staple of the media industry, the ToI now fostered a new hybrid entity called “advertorial”, which would allow sponsors to feature stories of special interest in its news columns. Needless to say, the early assurance that this new operational philosophy would respect traditional walls of distinction between advertisements and editorial, has not quite been fulfilled.

Two years later, the ToI introduced another innovation, called “private treaties”. And it involved the acquisition by the ToI group, of shares in enterprises in exchange for advertising space. When the concerned enterprise grew to a level where it could conceivably go public, the media company that had freely advertised its merits would cash in.

The ToI was the pathfinder and most media enterprises, including the broadcast companies, have eagerly followed. “Private treaties” is now accepted practice for numerous media groups.

Since the stock market boom of the 1980s, professional bodies have actively engaged themselves with the ethics of individual journalists reporting on corporate entities that they hold a stake in. That engagement has yielded much of value, including guidelines on disclosure and transparency, applicable on every journalist. The “private treaties” phenomenon again, displaces this ethical issue, taking it out of the domain of the individual journalist or his professional peer group. Conflicts of interest have now been institutionalised and the norms on corporate disclosure are even more lax. Peer pressure might have worked at the level of the individual journalist. But the shared complicity of media companies seemingly ensures that the public will remain in the dark about the many motivations that drive the tone and content of reporting on financial matters.

Part of the crisis of the media today is the severe loss of credibility of the readership and audience measurement process, which is in turn an outcome of the enormous pressures it has suffered from interested media groups. The National Readership Study (NRS), promoted by India’s main newspaper industry lobby, was discontinued in 2006 after serious discrepancies and inconsistencies in its findings. The Indian Readership Survey (IRS), a creation of the advertising industry, continues on an annual basis, though its findings leave ample room for interpretations of convenience.

A Broadcast Audience Research Council was set up late in 2007 as a joint venture of the industry and the advertising agencies. It is expected to begin its work soon, after a long and arduous process of negotiating appropriate methodologies. Few seem to have any regrets about the older system of TV ratings, always prone to erupt in unseemly controversies, fading away into history. But few again, have any hopes that the new venture will bring in a more accountable and transparent system.

With all these changes, the print media today faces a dearth of options. After the progressive devaluation of the editorial function and news gathering, quality of content does not justify charging a price for access. Paid content, which is the option currently being explored as a last-ditch survival bid by the global newspaper majors, does not seem a viable proposition for their Indian counterparts.

An alternative scenario, of a brutal bout of blood-letting and the survival only of the fittest, seems ever more likely. Diversity and consumer choice look the likely victims of the current downturn in media fortunes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Situation Report: Journalists in the North-East Pressured by Multiple Insurgencies and Ethnic Divides

On November 17, 2008, Konsam Rishikanta, 22, a junior sub-editor with the Imphal Free Press (IFP), a daily newspaper published from Imphal, capital of the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, was found shot dead in the city.

Rishikanta had left home early that morning after informing his family that he would be reporting for work around midday. His first call that day was supposedly at a small desk-top publishing establishment he had worked in till September 3, where he was believed to be owed some back wages. An alarm went out when he failed to report for work at the appointed time. He was discovered, fatally shot, in the Langol area of Imphal that afternoon.

The media community in Manipur, led by the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU), declared a general closure of all newspapers in the state for six days from November 20 to protest Rishikanta’s murder. After six days, the strike was extended indefinitely. It was only after 11 days that local authorities conceded a key AMWJU demand – that the investigation into Rishikanta’s murder be entrusted to the police agency controlled by India’s Union Government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Manipur is among the smaller states of India, with a population of about 2.5 million. But it is among the most troubled, with an estimated 28 armed groups operating with impunity. Part of the reason for the AMWJU’s insistence on the investigation being handed over to the CBI was its belief that the state government often makes strategic use of one insurgent group to bring others to heel. If Rishikanta had been killed by one of the armed groups operating in Manipur, then the state government – and its police force – could conceivably have had a problem viewing all suspects with the strict neutrality required for a fair investigation.

Subsequent events have not quite borne out the early belief that the CBI would pursue the case with the required seriousness. First, it took till January 20 for the agency to acknowledge its willingness to take the case up and issue a communique to the Manipur Home Department to hand over all records and material evidence. The CBI has an office in Imphal, which is limited in its jurisdiction merely to cases of corruption. With the Imphal establishment of the CBI reporting that it was in no position to handle the case, the matter was entrusted to the Kolkata office, which is the hub of the agency for all of eastern and north-eastern India. The first investigating team inquiring into the Rishikanta murder visited Imphal in May.

Shortly after his first visit to Imphal, the CBI official in charge of the investigations spoke to a representative of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and mentioned important leads that had been gained. Essential evidence though was missing, he said. The bullet cartridges from the murder, which would have been necessary to do a ballistics match with the possible weapons used, were not in the possession of the state police since they had gone missing from the scene. The investigating officer, who is of the rank of a Deputy Superintendent in the CBI, said he suspected that media teams that reached the murder spot first may have taken the cartridges away. This, he warned, was a serious matter, since it amounted to tampering with evidence.

The IFJ has inquired with various media organisations and persons in Manipur about this allegation. All of them say they had no knowledge of such a suspicion on the part of the investigation agency.

Rishikanta’s body was found in a tightly guarded spot, which has four approaches, all protected by security pickets. Entering the area would have been easy, though anyone bearing arms would have been at risk of arrest under the special security laws that apply in the state. For someone to have made an exit from the area after shots had been heard, without encountering a security check, would be, in the judgment of most journalists, virtually impossible.

On the morning of his death, Rishikanta had visited a commercial establishment engaged in desktop publishing, where he had worked till two-and-a-half months before. Opinions are divided on the circumstances under which he left. Some among Manipur’s journalists tend to believe that the establishment could have been used for printing publicity material for some of Manipur’s underground groups. The official investigation is yet to arrive at any conclusions on this question. And most local journalists say that they would prefer not make any inference without definitive confirmation.

According to sources in the AMWJU, the police took an inordinately long time to question the owner of the publishing business where Rishikanta had worked. The business owner was also reported to be conspicuous by his absence from the crowds that gathered at Rishikanta’s home to offer condolences.

Investigators have put together a pattern of telephone threats that begin on September 6, just three days after Rishikanta left the desktop publishing shop to take up full-time assignment with the Imphal Free Press. Mobile phone records unearthed by the investigators reveal a number of calls made to Rishikanta, purportedly from a mobile phone that has been identified with elements of the banned insurgent outfit known as the KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kann Lup or Organisation to Save the Manipur Revolutionary Movement). Rishikanta’s own calls to this number are occasional, sporadic and short. The calls he receives from the same number are frequent and long in duration.

The day he was killed, phone records reveal Rishikanta received several calls from this number.

All this was known and widely talked about in journalistic circles at the time that the CBI team made its first visit to Imphal. But the investigations took a while gearing up. Finally, as reported in the Imphal Free Press, the CBI began the “intensive” phase of its investigations much later – on June 16, 2009, or close to seven months since the murder – with the interrogation of five members of the newspaper staff and Rishikanta’s immediate family. In all, the CBI, which was conducting its investigation from the local office in Imphal, intended recording the statements of 29 key persons with possible knowledge of the case by June 23, reported the newspaper.

On July 10, the Manipur police put out a press release which said that an arrested activist of the KYKL had confessed during interrogation that Rishikanta had been a key figure in the organisation and had recruited him to the cause. Individuals who knew Rishikanta have reacted with disbelief, since he showed little political inclination through all the months that he was working as a journalist. There are reasons to believe that the arrest and subsequent confession of the KYKL activist implicating Rishikanta was not procedurally sound. Rishikanta’s family, who have sought to meet the activist and query him, have been denied permission. But with Rishikanta now officially characterised as a political activist and possibly a militant belonging to a proscribed and much-dreaded insurgent group, public interest in ensuring that his killers are brought to justice, is expected to abate.

Within a few weeks, the Manipur Government was facing a fresh challenge, with the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka publishing a grisly sequence of photographs depicting an incident on July 23, when a young man was taken in by the elite commando corps of the state police, hustled into a commercial establishment in a busy thoroughfare in Imphal city, and shot dead with ample premeditation and little motive. Imphal city erupted in violent demonstrations against this enactment of summary justice, which occurred at a distance of less than half a kilometre from Manipur’s legislative assembly. The photo montage was reproduced in a leading newspaper in the national capital of Delhi, leading to worried queries from the Union Government.

Four policemen from the Manipur commando force were immediately suspended. But with public unrest refusing to ease, the state government announced a judicial commission of inquiry, close to a month after Tehelka featured the horrific tableau of death.

Under the force of these events, the Rishikanta murder was virtually forgotten. This would have been a circumstance of some convenience for the investigators. CBI investigations have often been seen, in situations where local authorities are either compromised or suspected of complicity in wrongdoing, as the best manner to ensure justice. Under India’s Constitution, state governments have exclusive jurisdiction over law and order. There are exceptional circumstances though, in which the Union Government’s resources, including the CBI, can be called in to investigate crimes, though this would require the consent of the state government. In recent times, this process has acquired a ritualistic quality and been reduced to a means of defusing serious tension at the state level, while not holding out any assurance of better results.

Assam: Most hazardous terrain for journalism in India

Even as the criminal investigations into the Rishikanta murder foundered, a cautionary tale was emerging from neighbouring Assam – the largest of the north-eastern Indian states – of how CBI investigations into the murder of journalists are often worthless. On July 29, a trial court in Guwahati, the largest city and capital of Assam in all but name, acquitted the sole accused in the murder of Parag Kumar Das, executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin, the largest circulated daily in the Assamese language. Das was a respected journalist and public intellectual, active in human rights campaigns and an outspoken critic of the security strategy adopted by the government authorities in the state, which often involved the covert use of underground elements to carry out targeted strikes. He was shot dead in May 1996, in broad daylight in a busy part of Guwahati as he fetched his son from school. It was by coincidence or otherwise the very day that a new government was being sworn into office in the state. At the time, the state government responded to widespread public outrage over its handling of the case by calling in the CBI.

Four persons, all surrendered militants of the separatist insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), were indicted for the crime in 2001. As an analyst has noted, the “surrendered ULFA” (or SULFA) formed the “core of the ‘secret killings’ strategy, comprising certain members of the security forces and surrendered militants, that created terror in Assam from 1996 to 2001”. Two of the accused were dead by the time the charge-sheet in the murder case was filed. Another was killed in an act of mob vengeance in 2003 while on bail. By the time the trial began in 2004, only one of the accused, Mridul Phukan, remained alive to face charges, and there were widespread concerns among journalists and the human rights community that several key witnesses had not been interviewed, that key evidence had been tampered with, and that the case had been constructed to ensure a guilty verdict was a remote possibility.

In rendering his 60-page judgment, the trial court judge reserved special words of censure for the investigating agency, pointing out numerous procedural lapses and a conspicuous failure of witness protection, which led several crucial witnesses to withhold evidence or turn hostile. Das’s family reacted with dismay and shock to the verdict, resolving to appeal before the Guwahati High Court. Various journalists’ bodies in Assam have also resolved to undertake a public campaign until there is greater seriousness shown in investigating the crime.

Where the hazards of journalism in India are concerned, Assam is ground zero. Das is one name among a grim catalogue of 20 journalists who have been murdered in the state since 1990. The two most recent cases bear close attention, since both involve journalists who walked a tight-rope between the state’s numerous insurgent outfits – those willing to talk terms with the government and those unwilling to do so, those that were allied in contingent fashion with state security agencies and those that were not. Both journalists seemingly worked beyond the border-line of journalistic ethics, though it remains to be established whether this was out of compulsion or choice.

Case of Jagajit Saikia

On November 22, 2008, Jagajit Saikia, a correspondent for the Assamese language daily Amar Asom, was shot dead outside his office in a busy commercial area of Kokrajhar, a district town in Assam. Police sources said that based on a preliminary examination of the used cartridges recovered from the spot, any one of the militant groups active in the area could be responsible for Saikia’s murder.

Kokrajhar was among five towns in Assam targeted by a series of bomb blasts on October 29, in which more than 80 people were killed. Security agencies took into custody several militant cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the principal armed outfit fighting for the political sovereignty of the Bodo tribal group in Assam, over territory north of the River Brahmaputra. India’s Government re-imposed a ban on the NDFB under a law covering “unlawful activities”. The NDFB, which entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government in 2005, denied involvement in the bombings.

Sources in Assam then informed the IFJ that Saikia maintained contacts with the NDFB as part of his professional work. When an IFJ representative met with top police officials in Assam state late in May 2009, they indicated a much deeper nexus between the journalist and the insurgent group. Saikia, they said, had been engaged in fundraising activities for the NDFB. Top officials in charge of law and order in Assam suggest that whatever his reputation elsewhere, Saikia was known in Kokrajhar as an extortionist and journalist in equal parts.

Following the October blasts in Assam, the NDFB went through an internal schism, culminating in the formal split of the organisation in January 2009. The faction that operates from within Assam denounced the founder and president of the organisation, believed to be based in Bangladesh, for his culpability in the bombings. Saikia may have fallen victim to this faction fight within the NDFB. An alternate theory that the police are working on, after taking into custody one person for the murder, is that the more moderate Bodo political group, the Bodoland Liberation Tigers, which disbanded in 2003 and entered into a territorial autonomy arrangement under the Indian constitution, may have been behind the crime.

Senior members of the Journalists’ Union of Assam, based in Guwahati, remain sceptical about the police account, since they had no basis to believe that Saikia was engaged in contacts with the NDFB that went beyond allowable professional limits. Even if true and as widely known in the local context as the police claim, the question arises about why the police and the management of the newspaper with which Saikia worked, chose to turn a blind eye to his alleged role in a proscribed organisation.

This points to a wider malady with the media in Assam and the north-east of India in general, which can be directly attributed to the abysmally low levels of compensation for journalists and their poor working conditions. These make journalists potential accomplices in the political and business agendas of those willing to provide them with the means for a basic level of material security and well-being. This is known to the civil and police authorities, as also to newspaper managements, who choose to do little about it. The malaise has become so deep rooted that journalists in recent times have been known to volunteer their unpaid labour in several of the more troubled districts of Assam, since the greater rewards lie in parlaying the identity of a media person into material gain.

Case of Anil Mozumdar

A host of issues, ethical and professional, are involved in the case of Anil Mozumdar, Executive Editor of the Assamese language daily Aaji, shot dead near his home in Guwahati, late on the night of March 24, 2009. Mozumdar bought Aaji from the Ramdhenu Prakashan group of publications in 2006 and functioned as its Executive Editor ever since. He was earlier the publisher and editor of the Natun Din daily and Saptahik Janamat weekly. He began his career as a local correspondent for Ajir Batori, an Assamese daily in the district town of Nalbari. Local sources who have spoken to the IFJ describe his rapid rise to being the owner and editor of a newspaper as being propelled in part by his willingness to wade into controversy and cut ethical corners in pursuit of business success.

Mozumdar was widely respected for the elegance of his writing in Assamese and the courage with which he often espoused causes that risked earning him the ire of state authorities, often winning him a place in official perceptions, within the league of sympathisers of the banned insurgent outfit, ULFA. He was also a prolific writer, who would not hesitate to lend the power of his prose to a cause that promised him material gain.

Through October and November 2008, Mozumdar featured a series of reports in his newspaper about a prominent Guwahati couple, Matang Sinh and his wife Manoranjana Sinh, whose bitter falling out over control of the NETV media network was a key business story in the region. Aaji took a clear side in this business dispute and marital spat, mixing into its coverage, salacious details of an alleged liaison that Manoranjana Sinh was carrying out with a top police official in Assam. Police officials interviewed by the IFJ were convinced that the coverage granted to this affair in Aaji was far out of proportion to its public interest value, indicating that there were clear pecuniary motives underlying Mozumdar’s editorial decision. In December 2008, the Guwahati High Court, acting on a petition by Manoranjana Singh, issued an injunction against Aaji, restraining it from publishing any further material about her.

A senior lawyer of the Guwahati High Court has disclosed in a media interview that Mozumdar reportedly received a threatening message from a senior police officer a few days before he was killed. But police investigators discount this claim, and have been working on the assumption that the murder had either a political or a business motivation. As the top police official of Assam claimed, Mozumdar’s involvement in activities outside journalism were so numerous that the investigation is unsure about which lead to follow. Assam’s Director-General of Police though is prepared to rule out the involvement of ULFA, since Mozumdar was very close to the insurgent outfit and had in fact once been arrested on precisely those charges. ULFA had been displeased with Mozumdar’s involvement in the Matang Sinh-Manoranjana Sinh spat, but nevertheless issued a strong statement about his murder and vowed to trace those responsible. Assam’s police investigators believe that ULFA’s publicly articulated interest in investigating the murder arises probably from its anxiety to recover the funds raised by Mozumdar, which have been intercepted and diverted since his killing.

Mozumdar’s newspaper was taken over by his brother and shortly afterwards carried an editorial announcement that it was launching its own investigation. The motive that it mentioned as the prime lead in its investigation was a purported conflict between Mozumdar and a big Guwahati based businessman over a land dispute, which is now pending decision in court.

Dangerous insurgencies

The two most dangerous insurgencies in Assam are those of ULFA and the Bodo groups, which are known to cooperate in a contingent fashion, despite their sharply conflicting political and territorial agendas. Strife in the Bodo areas claimed the life of Badosa Narzary, owner the local channel BL TV in Kokrajhar in April 2008. A former activist of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), Narzary had taken up active media work after the insurgent group laid down arms to become a partner in a negotiated constitutional settlement. Under the settlement, a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was set up with a degree of self-governing autonomy in districts where Bodos have a major presence. It is believed that Narzary may have been murdered by militants who were not reconciled to the peace process of which he was a part.

Indra Mohan Hakasam, a reporter for the Amar Asom newspaper, went missing from his village in 2001, shortly after writing several reports on extortion and abduction allegedly involving ULFA elements. He has since been pronounced dead by the village headman, but his newspaper refuses to provide benefits to the bereaved family in the absence of a formal certification by State authorities.

A different set of factors is believed to have been at play in the murder of Prahlad Goala, Golaghat district correspondent for the daily Asomiya Khabar, in January 2006, shortly after he published a number of articles linking local forest officials to the illicit trade in timber products. A minor official of the state’s Forest Department is in custody for this murder, though a formal charge-sheet is yet to be filed.

Besides ULFA and the Bodo groups, Assam has a multiplicity of other militant groups and political movements with the potential to break out in insurgency. Most of these are constituted on ethnic lines, and allegiances shift frequently. An instance is the Koch Rajbongshi community, found on both banks of the Brahmaputra, which is now campaigning for a separate state of Kamatapura. A fortnightly newspaper that seeks to advance this cause, the Voice of Kamatapura, is supposedly printed in the distinctive language of the community, though it is in script, vocabulary and syntax, virtually identical to Assamese. In a pointed gesture designed to underline its distinctness, the newspaper prints a separate section in the Assamese language.

Ethnic separatism in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar cuts along multiple and divergent lines, creating unending tensions between the numerous tribes and linguistic communities that share this common living space. Reporting in these areas is a constant struggle since extortion, abduction, attacks on public infrastructure and murder, are common tactics of the various groups that are locked in contention. In May 2009 targeted attacks on a particular tribal grouping in the North Cachar hills district, led to a mass exodus of the community to the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Manipur. The state authorities then ordered an evacuation of a number of villages, corralling their inhabitants, estimated at some 50,000, into special security camps, to enable a more targeted attack on the insurgent groups.

These events taking place in the distant borders of India are not featured prominently in national media. And reporting from these districts is an unending battle against overt threats by the militant groups and the natural human tendency to take sides in a war that seemingly pits all against all.

Security and intelligence agencies are known often to make strategic use of the rivalries between insurgent groups for officially sanctioned ends. This has created a dangerous and volatile mix, with journalists often pressured by insurgent groups to suppress information about rival groups, or to portray them in an unfavourable light.

On the reverse side, government forces and the security and intelligence apparatus have been deployed to ensure that any mention of militant groups promptly attracts adverse attention, including possible punitive action. These measures are often used inconsistently, depending on the precise nature of the allegiances of the insurgent groups concerned at any given time. This makes the job of a journalist additionally difficult and hazardous.

The repercussions for the functioning of the media were evident in a cycle of events beginning July 31, 2007, with the delivery of a mortar shell, gift-wrapped, to a newspaper office in Imphal, as a warning to stay away from reportage on certain of the armed insurgent groups in the state. Various militant groups have been sending press releases to newspaper offices, demanding that they be published.

This was followed, within days, by an order from the Manipur State Government, imposing new restrictions on the local media, particularly on reporting the activities of armed insurgent groups in the state. In this manner, the armed confrontation between various militant groups was being played out in the newsrooms of the Manipur media.

Confronted with these multiple pressures, the entire media in Manipur ceased work. It was an unprecedented general strike by journalists and other media workers in the state, that went on for four days and was only called off following assurances from the highest level of the political leadership in the state. The next occasion when Manipur’s journalists had to resort to mass strike action was the aftermath of the Rishikanta murder in 2008.

Journalists’ organisations

Journalists in the hill districts of Manipur have constituted themselves into the Manipur Hill Journalists’ Union (MHJU), closely aligned with AMWJU in most actions. The media here, concentrated in the district town of Churachandpur, south of Imphal, is linguistically distinct. Most use the Roman script and publish in the Paithe language, which is spoken and read in these parts of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and the North Cachar and Karbi Anglong hill districts of Assam. Since they cater to a widely dispersed linguistic community in a very heterogeneous and volatile mix, these newspapers often face extreme pressures. For instance, the Lamka Post, one of the newspapers published from Churachandpur, was fined Rs 100,000 in December 2007 for carrying a report about the mass arrests of the cadre of one of the armed groups in the region. Since this sum of money is far beyond the capacity of the small newspapers in the district to mobilise, the owner of the newspaper had to borrow the amount at a monthly interest rate of 5 percent. At the moment of writing, he is still repaying that loan.

Journalists in Manipur’s hill districts report the same problems of unending harassment and threats and physical intimidation that their colleagues elsewhere in the state face. In 2005, factionalism broke out between one of the major armed groups in the region and all factions sought to impose their will on the press to ensure that other viewpoints were not heard. The Churachandpur press shut down for a week. Colleagues in Imphal joined them after two days.

With all the pressures they face, AMWJU and all its allied unions recently adopted a comprehensive code of conduct on how to utilise material pertaining to underground armed groups. This code, which enjoys wide endorsement among Manipur’s media community, prohibits the publication of personalised threats of violence against particular individuals. Material from the underground groups would only be published if it is clearly of a political nature, advancing a particular viewpoint or demand, without the advocacy of violence. It should also have a clearly identifiable source. Anonymous material will not be used and neither will anything issued by a group that has no clear political identity.

Elsewhere in the North-East

Aside from Manipur and Assam, the other north-eastern states of India have not seen much overt violence against journalists, although the situation in Tripura and Nagaland in particular is far from happy.

Physical intimidation and obstruction of journalists seeking to perform their duties is a common occurrence in India’s north-east.

In January 2008, two senior journalists were stopped on a public thoroughfare near the Hawaibari camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the State of Tripura. The CRPF has been deployed in most states of the north-east and assigned to special security duties and anti-insurgency operations. The two journalists were ordered out of their car at gunpoint. Despite presenting their press credentials, they were subjected to full-body searches in a rough and humiliating manner.

The bags of the two journalists and their vehicle were searched. Although nothing suspicious was found, the CRPF personnel insisted on the journalists and their driver being presented before their camp commandant. The commandant reportedly offered no explanation, other than a supposed intelligence report about an insurgent group using a car bearing the same licence number. He then ordered another search of the two journalists, their driver, and the vehicle.

In September 2007, journalists in Imphal received information that personnel of the Assam Rifles, another anti-insurgency troop detachment deployed in large numbers in the north-east, had committed a rape in a village in Senapati district of Manipur. Five journalists went to interview the victim. As they were returning to Imphal, they were assaulted by uniformed members of the Assam Rifles, who inflicted serious injuries on them and detained them for five hours. The AMWJU sought the intervention of the Public Relations Department of the local army command to secure their release. The Assam Rifles personnel involved have since been committed to trial, although there is little information on how the matter is proceeding.

Mass unrest broke out in Imphal and other parts of Manipur following the July 2009 publication of a grisly sequence of photographs depicting the killing of an unarmed youth in Imphal, ostensibly in an armed ”encounter”. In August, personnel of the Manipur Police commandos – the same force that was caught on film carrying out the killing – lobbed a teargas shell towards a group of journalists covering a protest demonstration in Imphal. Almost at the same time, police stopped a vehicle carrying journalists back from coverage of a protest demonstration elsewhere and questioned them at length at gunpoint.

State and non-state restrictions

Militant groups also often seek to impose “bans” and other means of denying the media its audience. In February 2008, a political party “banned” circulation of the Assamese daily newspaper, Asamiya Pratidin, in all areas within the jurisdiction of the BTC. Armed vigilantes belonging to the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) intercepted a delivery van belonging to the newspaper in Kokrajhar district of Assam, and destroyed its entire cargo of the day’s edition, before setting the van ablaze.

The BPF is a former insurgent group that now is the principal constituent of the BTC. It was allegedly reacting to a report that appeared in the February 24 edition of Asamiya Pratidin on an extravagant wedding ceremony held the previous day for the group’s leader.

Obtaining essential supplies for the media industry is also an unending battle. Newsprint for Manipur’s presses for instance, has to be purchased from distant Guwahati, from where it is transported in part by rail and then for a considerable length of time, by road. As it traverses the narrow and mountainous roads, the commodity is subject to a variety of levies by the numerous armed groups that operate in the terrain. The final price of a tonne of newsprint in Imphal is higher than at its source by close to Rupees 10,000.

Civil society organisations are also known to exert pressure on the media to ensure that certain approaches to social problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, are not questioned. Two organisations in Manipur are known to favour a policy of ostracism and stigmatisation of people found engaged in alcohol or drug abuse. They often seek to pressure the media into endorsing their approach.

With the proliferation in the region of militant outfits that seek to question the sovereignty of the Indian State, common folk are under diktat not to cooperate with even basic welfare activities of the Government of India. In a region of retarded development and endemic poverty, this means a violation of human rights. It also means that media coverage of human rights abuses is a risky proposition. It is common practice for militant organisations in the north-east to issue directives to the media to suppress certain aspects in their coverage and to highlight others.

The situation is rendered additionally complex by the large number of special security laws in force. These laws, including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, allow for summary detentions and denial of due process under certain broadly defined conditions. These conditions remain vague enough to allow virtual impunity to the security agencies. At this writing, the Act applies to all or part of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. Only Mizoram, among the north-eastern States, is not covered under the Act, although it remains on the statute and can be invoked at any time.

Although abuses of the Act have been reported, the media have to be especially cautious in documenting these cases, since the judiciary tends to give the armed forces wide latitude in implementing the law.

The situation for the media in India’s volatile north-east illustrates the common tendency displayed by parties locked in conflict to deny opposing sides a voice and to target journalists who may be suspected of harbouring contacts with rival groups, even if such contacts are of a professional nature. The outcome is to seriously impair one possible means through which the media could contribute to conflict resolution, by promoting a public dialogue between contending groups.

What can be done?

The IFJ believes that state security agencies and militant groups in India’s north-east should respect the right of journalists to access information from all sides of a conflict situation. This would require, above all, that the non-combatant status of journalists in zones of armed conflict and insurgency be treated as an inviolable principle, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1738 which obliges all parties to a conflict to protect journalists reporting in conflict areas.

Working conditions, including the prevalent standards in implementation of the Working Journalists’ Act and the statutory wage awards for media workers, remain an area of serious concern in India’s north-east. With the exception of one major newspaper group in Guwahati - the Assam Tribune, which publishes in both English and Assamese - and has a tradition of respecting journalists’ rights to fair compensation and a voice in business decisions, the north-east is a dismal place for journalism as a profession.

Few journalists are given letters of appointment or clearly defined terms of employment. Most are appointed on ad hoc retainers, subject to termination without notice. Many are paid in accordance with the volume of words they file which are deemed worthy of publication. Several get their monthly compensation by filling up receipts vouchers and some are obliged to obtain advertising for their publications on the understanding that they would be eligible for a fixed percentage of the revenue accruing.

The dangerous liaisons that journalists then develop with various militant groups, becomes an income source that they are forced to tap, because of their appallingly poor levels of compensation. A code of ethics for journalists dealing with complex insurgency situations is perhaps a survival imperative. But such a code would have little prospect for gaining wide traction, were the media houses not more attentive to the basic needs of their employees to a fair wage and decent working conditions.

Situation Report: In Troubled Environment, Media in Kashmir Force Open Several Doors

Just around daybreak on May 30, 2009, two women, Niloufer Ahangar and her sister-in-law Asiya Jan, were found dead at different spots in a stream near the district town of Shopian, 52 kilometres from Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Tension gripped the area and the local administration promptly deployed security forces in strength in an effort to deter possible mass protests. As the numerous independent news channels in the Kashmir valley – the largest of the three cultural regions that make up the state of Jammu and Kashmir – stepped up their coverage, residents of Shopian came out on the streets, protesting what they were convinced, was a case of rape and murder, in which security agencies controlled by the Indian Government were directly culpable.

The local police put out a clumsily worded press release that day which announced the two deaths but recorded that “post-mortems conducted revealed no marks on the dead bodies including private parts”. This release was reportedly withdrawn quickly, though without an alternative explanation given for the deaths. No first information report (FIR), the first recording of a suspected crime, was filed. In other words, the document that formally records the beginning of an investigation was not in existence till well after the first signs of a suspected crime emerged.

On May 31, Greater Kashmir, the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in the valley, reported the incident in the following words: “Two young women were (yesterday) found dead in mysterious circumstances in South Kashmir’s Shopian district triggering massive protests as their family and local people alleged that the duo were raped and murdered by the armed forces. The authorities clamped curfew in the town which the protesters defied. Fifty persons, including several policemen, were injured in the clashes.”

As the issue caught fire, local news channels carried lengthy reports on May 31 involving accounts from the family members of the two women. Also featured was the official explanation, given by the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, the top official looking after civil administration in the Kashmir valley.

For various reasons, not unrelated to intrinsic credibility, the official narration on the deaths remained subdued all through this cycle of events. The news channels and print media meanwhile, reconstructed the sequence of events leading to the death of the two women, seemingly from interviews with local residents and family members. Media accounts of the tragedy – in a situation of active information denial by the local and state authorities – mutated rapidly over the first two days, while conforming to the broad template of an atrocity perpetrated by the security forces that have been deployed in strength in the valley.

Since the atrocity came to light when Kashmir’s newspapers had closed their editions for the day, the news emerged in print only the following day. As reported in Kashmir’s three largest circulated English-language dailies – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times – the two women had gone out to the family orchard to attend to work at 5pm on May 29. When they failed to return at a reasonable hour and with darkness setting in, Shakeel Ahmad, Niloufer’s husband, set off in search for them. From various passers-by and acquaintances, he gathered that the two women had been seen on their trudge back home, till at least the time they passed an armed patrol deployed in Shopian for night-time security.

Shakeel then made an official complaint at the local police station and secured the voluntary assistance of a police constable. Together with this policeman, he and Asiya’s brother, Zahoor Ahmad, set out on a search until 3am, when they retired for two hours. Shortly after resuming the search, they found the two women, dead with serious marks of injury on their necks and heads – one on the bank of the stream and the other about a kilometre downstream on a mound of gravel near the middle of the stream’s width.

A day afterwards, with state and local authorities seemingly caught flat-footed by an eruption of public anger, this basic account acquired a few embellishments. It is not clear where they came from, but the intervention by Kashmir’s political dissidents had an undoubted role. According to the newer version that came to be accepted as authentic in most of the Kashmir valley the following day, Niloufer and Asiya were working at the orchard till just before dark on May 29. As they were returning on foot, Niloufer phoned her husband, Shakeel Ahmad, to tell him that they would soon reach home, though there was a group of uniformed personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) supposedly stalking them.

For the rest, the media version that emerged on day two did not seriously amend or contradict the account of the previous day. Zahoor Ahmad’s testimony was critical in the construction of events following the discovery of the women’s bodies. Reportedly, the bodies were first taken to the local medical centre for autopsy. Zahoor was, according to Kashmir media reports, present when a team of doctors after a first examination confirmed rape. However, the medical team was soon afterwards forced to abandon its task. The police reportedly made an urgent request that the bodies be handed over to the families, since they feared that with rape being certified, there would be a serious deterioration of the situation if the last rites for the deceased were not swiftly completed. However, as the media in Kashmir reported it, there was shortly afterwards a virtual diktat by the same policeman that the doctors performing the autopsy should omit all references to rape in their report. This exceptional request reportedly leaked out to the assembled crowd since the immediate family of the two women was present when it was made. The crowd that had gathered outside the medical centre erupted in anger, forcing the doctors to abandon their autopsy.

Subsequently, another team of doctors arrived from the nearby town of Pulwama to complete the procedures. Their conclusion, despite urgent police requests that a contrary conclusion be returned, was supposedly that the fact of rape was established, before death by strangulation. For an authoritative opinion, forensic samples gathered from the bodies were referred to the Forensic Sciences Laboratory under the Home Department of the J&K State Government.

The police continued to insist that the two bodies bore no scars of injury at the moment of their discovery – other than bruises that may have been inflicted by being dragged into a river and colliding against rocks. The claims in this narration indicated death by drowning.

Blaming the messenger

An IFJ representative who met with senior officials in the Kashmir Home Department on June 1 found them virtually unanimous in holding local news channels and print media responsible for the escalation in public tensions. The media, they said, had gone beyond reasonable limits of free reporting in reconstructing the Shopian deaths and had become part of the problem, with its disinclination to respect honoured lines of distinction between reporting and editorial comment.

To the question of how the police agencies and government authorities believed the women died, the answers were equivocal. One very senior official confessed ignorance, while insinuating that the women may have strayed away from their normal routine to fulfil some assignation. The implication was that the women may have ventured into enterprises that were inherently hazardous, involving motives and passions that could put them in danger.

As stated by J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at a press conference on June 1, the media had been irresponsible in putting out the worst possible stories on the deaths. They had erred in avoiding the standard convention of using the term “alleged” to describe situations where there was no firm determination of fact.

As he said in the course of a press conference that was telecast in real time by Kashmir’s numerous news channels: “Different people give different interpretations. Some say they (the women) were raped and murdered. But no one is waiting for the factual report.”

Immediately after the press conference, Kashmir’s news channels switched to Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the leading voice of the valley’s constituency for Pakistan. It is a measure of the freedom that the Kashmir media has won for itself through the years of the insurgency that Geelani, who has been under house arrest since March 25, as the Indian general elections process got under way, was able to address almost the entire media corps of Srinagar with few impediments. Nothing in what he said could have been pleasant to the ears of the administration, since he rejected the chief minister’s offer of a judicial commission of inquiry into the Shopian deaths, ridiculed the notion of a “special investigation team” set up by local police - since as he put it no agency could be a credible investigator in a case in which it was the main accused - and called for a three-day general strike in Kashmir.

On June 2, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which has been a major player in electoral politics and was till recently part of the coalition that ruled the state, took out a demonstration in Srinagar, marching toward the principal town square in defiance of police efforts to restrain protests. The demonstrators, who included the party’s top leadership, announced their intent to march toward Shopian the next morning to challenge the state government and compel it to come out with the truth behind the killings. On the march back to their party office, the demonstrators swerved into a police station about halfway along the route, with the obvious intent of challenging the police.

Kashmir’s live news channels - after covering the demonstrations in real time - were soon reporting the arrest of the PDP leaders as fact. This led, in the eyes of the administration, to much avoidable tension. The police officials in charge were nonplussed, since they had in their own account, no intent to detain the demonstrators and indeed, no purpose other than controlling any possible violence. But the administration’s inability to clarify the status of the demonstrators yet again badly compromised it in the public eye. A senior official of the state government’s Home Department denounced the Kashmir news channels for their coverage and denied there were any arrests. However, by the evening a top police official was describing the status of the PDP leaders as one of “protective custody”.

At his June 1 press conference, the J&K chief minister had admitted that there was a trust deficit between the administration and the people of the state. This was not specific to his tenure, since it applied to much of the state’s recent history. He also suggested that the deficit was in part a creation of the media. This was a refrain that other state officials took up all through the days of the Shopian crisis.

Restraints on the media

In practical terms, this attitude resulted in a clumsy effort to restrain journalists from going about their jobs. On June 2, journalists seeking to travel to Shopian from Srinagar, individually and in groups, found it virtually impossible to get through. Invariably, it took them more than three hours to reach the town of Pulwama, which would usually be no more than an hour away. Once there, they were typically advised to go no further, as numerous roadblocks and security cordons had been set up.

From the point of view of Kashmir’s journalists, the events unfolding after the Shopian tragedy showed yet again that any ground they claim will have to be zealously defended. Official outrage against the media invariably boils over every time there is a serious political crisis in the state, involving mass unrest and protests. In the fraught atmosphere of Kashmir, the media has held up the administration to certain standards of public accountability. The state administration, at various key moments, has failed these tests and then made a scapegoat of the media.

In the case of the Shopian deaths, the “blame the media” attitude was misplaced. Under relentless public pressure, partly arising from wide coverage of the matter by Kashmir’s media, the state government finally relented and empowered a judicial commission of inquiry to determine the facts.

Information trickled out from state sources, through selective leaks rather than open media briefings or releases. On June 8, NDTV, a news channel that broadcasts nationally in Hindi and English, ostensibly got the full story of the post-mortems conducted on the women. On that day’s main news bulletin, the channel’s Srinagar correspondent reported that the post-mortems were inconclusive, since the doctors “could not complete their report because of the hostile atmosphere”. The doctors’ reports though did confirm “the presence of semen on both bodies”, though no “firm conclusion of murder” could be drawn. All that could be said was that the deaths occurred on account of “haemorrhage and neurogenic shock”.

Great outrage ensued. NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi was specifically targeted by political groups then in the vanguard of the agitation over Shopian, which read into his news report an insinuation that the women had been engaged in consensual sex shortly before they died. Local activists demanded that Masoodi be ostracised and expelled from the Kashmir valley. Others cast aspersions on his intentions, his supposed proximity to the J&K chief minister and his entire family genealogy.

The schism that has always been present between Kashmir’s local media and the national media came glaringly into focus at this point. On June 10, a local web-based daily, Etalaat, called the NDTV report a “twisting” of facts which severely eroded the credibility of journalism in Kashmir. The paper also accused the channel of saying something that it had not said: “that the cause of death was brain haemarage (sic) caused due to excitement”.

The following day, The Hindu, one of India’s top English language dailies, published from 12 centres including the national capital of Delhi, reported Masoodi’s travails in the strongest possible language, characterising these as “a grim illustration of the culture of unreason generated by the leadership of ongoing protests against the still-unexplained deaths of two young women in southern Kashmir last month”. In its rendering of the NDTV report though, The Hindu was selective, omitting any mention of the reference to traces of semen. Masoodi was, in this account, suffering from public opprobrium in Kashmir merely for reporting that the autopsies had been “inconclusive” and had not definitively pointed to the mob-dictated consensus that rape had preceded the murders.

On every significant detail, the media reports at the local and national levels showed sharply divergent attitudes. For The Hindu, the location where the women’s bodies were found was a “fast-flowing mountain stream”. The implication was that death by drowning was a possibility. For local journalists reporting in the national press, it did not seem credible that the women could have been drowned in “ankle-deep water”. For local journalists reporting in the local press, the question did not seem worth spending time over, at all.

What emerged with great clarity through this episode was the “blame the messenger” attitude, seemingly shared across all shades of political opinion in Kashmir. Just as the state administration began its crisis response to Shopian by blaming the media for supposedly blowing up an issue “out of proportion”, political dissidents in Kashmir showed little hesitation in targeting a particular journalist for a news report that he had obviously filed on the basis of a non-attributable briefing by state government officials.

Ultimatums to ‘behave’

Meanwhile, the Directorate of Information in the state government issued notice to all local cable TV channels to suspend their news broadcasts. This diktat, issued on June 5, was partly diluted a month later, when the channels were allowed to air the 15 minutes of news they were permitted at the time of their registration. As the editors and owners of the channels put it, they were summoned early in June and given a virtual ultimatum by the authorities that they needed to “behave properly”. Several were told that their fiduciary relationship with the the secessionist political formation, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, was well known, and that the dossiers available with state intelligence agencies provided ample grounds for their prosecution under the special security laws in force in Kashmir.

An account of the content that was broadcast by the Kashmir news channels through those days does not establish clear grounds for this extreme action against the media. The various news channels in Kashmir may indeed have only done what the authorities failed to do: take note of a serious crime and document the public concern that those responsible be brought to account.

When the judicial inquiry into the Shopian killings by Justice Muzaffar Jan submitted its report, there were special words of censure for the media. The entire report of the inquiry commission was published on the websites of Kashmir’s main newspapers on July 11. The judge identified several instances of misreporting by the media. In an indication yet again of the divergent perceptions of the national and the regional media, The Hindu on July 12 reported that “Justice Jan’s report highlights disturbing evidence that some journalists may have fabricated elements of their stories.”

In fairness, Justice Jan did not at any point accuse the media of “fabrication”. What he did rather, was to observe that there could be occasions when “unconfirmed and incorrect information is fed to print and electronic media to flare up (sic) the sentiments of the public”. The inaccuracies that were specifically identified by the judge included:

· The report that the two women had called their homes over mobile phone to say that they would soon reach back, though they were bothered by CRPF personnel stalking them. This report had been decisively disproved by all the evidence that the commission had heard, including from members of the victims’ family. The commission, with the assistance of police investigators seconded to it, examined phone records, and in none of these was there any evidence of a call made from a “phone that may have been in the victims’ possession”.
· One constable from the police station in Shopian came in for a great deal of attention from the media, for supposedly making several calls to his superiors when the first missing persons report came in, alerting them to the possibility of an explosive situation developing. However, the phone records that had been accessed by the inquiry found that the policeman concerned “had made only four calls during the day and no calls … from 10.00pm on 29th of May to 6.00am on 30th of May 2009”, i.e., between the times that the women were first reported missing and the discovery of their bodies.
· Reports that Neelofar was pregnant at the time of her death, again widely featured in the media, were found to be untrue;
· Her body moreover, showed no visible signs of external injury, contrary to reports in the media that she bore multiple wounds;
· Although “gang-rape” was widely reported, “no (such) evidence was found by the team of medical experts.
· Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, the media had reported that Asiya had a mark of “sindoor” (a deep vermilion coloured powder regarded as a mark of female chastity in Hindu custom) on her forehead, which was found during the inquiry, to be a bleeding wound. This said, the commission, was a “shameful” distortion of the truth.

Kashmir’s media came in for serious censure from counterpart organisations at the national level for real and perceived transgressions. As The Hindu reported, “For the most part, Justice Jan found, the media misrepresented forensic evidence.” There was also an allegation in The Hindu’s interpretation that the media may have been guilty of inciting “hatred by broadcasting communal propaganda”. The suggestion that one victim’s forehead had been smeared with sindoor “suggested that the rapists were Hindus” and the rape itself “a macabre religion-driven hate crime”.

The commission’s report also included a section on the immediate family of the dead women, rife with references that the public took to be an attempt at “character assassination”. Under pressure of public questioning, the judge was quick to disclaim responsibility, ascribing the entire section to the sole responsibility of the police official seconded to assist his investigations. The police insisted that the judge was fully in the know about the inclusion of this material.

The judge may have withdrawn his remarks on the media though there seem to be two opinions on this. His report however does not identify the specific source of the report on the smearing of vermilion on one of the victims’ foreheads. None of the three English-language newspapers with significant circulation in Kashmir – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times – carried anything suggesting this in the first reports of May 31. All three seem to have taken elaborate care to record that “rape and murder” was not established, but a belief of the people of Shopian, arising from the circumstances in which the women were found and the conduct of local authorities immediately afterward. All three newspapers gave front-page prominence to the official response, represented then by a senior minister in the state cabinet, Ali Mohammad Sagar, who held out the assurance that the crime would be solved within 48 hours.

It is not feasible to scour through all the reporting that emerged on the Shopian tragedy in the print and electronic media and to identify where journalistic irresponsibility may have fuelled public anger. Justice Muzaffar Jan, for his part, does not identify any particular news organisation for the many breaches that he has identified in the norms of fair reporting.

Even the reporting on the phone calls that the victims allegedly made was not something that the journalists “fabricated”, as the inquiring judge seemed to suggest and sections of the national media seemed firmly to infer. Rather, it was a claim that had been made in a public statement by a political personality, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, which the media should have been at liberty to report. The story that a victims’ forehead had been smeared with sindoor came similarly from PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, a politician with a considerable following in the Kashmir valley. Viewed purely in terms of a politician’s obligation that he or she should assume responsibility for words uttered in public, whether in anger or in reason, the media was entitled to report these utterances. That the media did not cross-check this account with members of the victims’ families, or indeed with anybody who might have been in the know, is a professional lapse. But considering the severe impediments to free movement faced by journalists in Kashmir during those turbulent few days, it is one that can be understood.

The Shopian issue continued to smoulder for over a month-and-a-half. Mid-August, the Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Delhi reported that the DNA samples it had been sent – ostensibly of the two victims and the four policemen who had been named after the judicial inquiry as suspects in the destruction of evidence – were all fudged. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tendered a public apology for his administration’s mishandling of the case and vowed to bring a superior authority – the police agency controlled by India’s Union Government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – into the case. At the time of writing, the bodies of the two victims had been exhumed under the supervision of the CBI, after the explicit consent of the families had been granted. What course the investigations will now take, is a matter of conjecture. But the key issue that emerges is that after advancing numerous alibis and seeking to make the media a scapegoat, the state administration finally had to admit that it had hit a wall in its inquiries. Presumably, if it had listened to what the media was reporting, rather than shrink into a defensive “blame the messenger” stance, things might have been different.

Resort to threats and curbs

Early in July, another violent death in Kashmir – this time in the capital city of Srinagar – sparked a further furious round of contention between the administration and the media community. Asrar Mushtaq Dar, 19, was went missing from his home in Srinagar on July 3. His body was found on July 8, bearing marks of a brutal end. Initially believed to be a custodial killing, Dar’s murder sparked protests and strikes across the valley, which was already tense after the killings of other college students and an alleged desecration of a nearby mosque by personnel of the security forces. When the police arrested an estranged friend of his on July 15 and procured his confession, the protests ended, along with speculation from separatists and politicians that Dar was killed in police custody.

In the eight days between the discovery of Dar’s body’s and the arrest of his one-time friend, journalists in Kashmir faced the brunt of police aggression. On July 8, Fayaz Bukhari, of NDTV, was verbally assaulted by the Director General of the J&K Police for publicising allegations of Dar’s parents that their son had disappeared in police custody. On July 10, Bukhari and Rasheed Rahi, of CNS news agency, received threatening calls from various police authorities. The police had already registered an FIR against Rahi for allegedly creating panic during the Shopian murders, and he had been assaulted in the Kothi Bagh police station in Srinagar just days before.

A statement from the Srinagar Journalists’ Association noted that the police threatened Bukhari, even though he had reported the protests in a professional and balanced manner. “His fault is that he aired both police and family versions of what led to Asrar’s mysterious death,” it argued. Meanwhile, the J&K Council for Human Rights urged the administration in Srinagar to respect the working independence of Kashmiri journalists at all costs. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a statement reminding the state police that “reporting all sides of any matter is part of the professional commitment of journalists”, and reiterating that there could be “no justification in any event for threatening journalists with arrest under the special security laws applicable in Kashmir”.

It must be observed here that several among Kashmir’s journalistic community are privately willing to admit their unhappiness that a similar display of unity and resolve did not follow the threats that were made against NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi by dissident political forces in Kashmir, just a few days before.

The restraints on local cable TV channels remain in force at this writing. Explaining the restrictions, the head of local administration in Srinagar said, “As per Section 6 of the Cable Act, the local cable TV operators are not allowed to telecast any news or current affairs programs … (T)he Cable Act of 1995 and Section 6 says ‘operators cannot telecast anything which promotes violence’ … They were unabatedly showing the scenes that were not in sync with the program code. By telecasting the footage of violence continuously on their channels, they were creating a law and order problem for the government and we had to restrict them. They were showing violence against state and paramilitary forces for hours. Government will not allow them to show whatever they want. After all it’s a friendly concession that we have given to them that they are showing news, which otherwise they are not entitled to show”.

Media pressured in tense environment

Since mid-2008, Kashmir has witnessed a degree of political turbulence that brought back memories of 1989, when mass demonstrations and a long threatened and dormant insurgency broke out. The year 2008 was especially crucial in that elections were scheduled to be held by October to the state legislative assembly, and these occasions invariably feed a tense contest between the Indian Government and parties that have accepted the Indian constitutional scheme on one side, opposed by the forces that believe the political status of the state is yet unsettled. Mass disturbances over the allotment of land in the Kashmir valley to a Hindu religious trust ensured that the elections could not be held as scheduled. When held in December, the polling was relatively peaceful, with a high voter turnout.

The high degree of suspicion with which journalists are viewed was however on ample display. On December 7, a group of journalists reporting on local perceptions on the election campaign were attacked by security personnel in the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. Six of the journalists suffered injuries, two seriously. They were reporting on a street demonstration involving a number of local residents, mostly youth, who had come out in support of the ongoing campaign to boycott the state-wide elections. The IFJ was informed that a senior police official on duty instructed his men to beat the media persons covering the demonstration, supposedly as a means of dispersing the protesters. Journalists at another northern Kashmir town, Baramulla, were told the same day, to leave the area since their presence was supposedly inciting the local people to engage in demonstrations and slogan-shouting.

These incidents illustrate some of the dimensions of governmental pressure on the media to suppress an alternative narrative on the elections in J&K. The media has had to balance this out against pressure from armed militant groups, which were determined to deny the electoral process all legitimacy.

Early in November 2008, the State Government sent an advisory to all media organisations within its jurisdiction, warning against the “publication of certain objectionable material”. Recipients were put on notice that they were to “refrain from publication of such objectionable and seditious material”. Failure to comply would result in “action” under rules which allowed for the withdrawal of official advertising from non-compliant media organisations. The warning came as the nominations process was opening for the assembly elections, amid calls by certain political elements for a boycott.

The IFJ, with the support of its affiliate organisations in India and the media community in Kashmir, issued an appeal to the State Government in J&K to de-link its advertisement placement policy from the editorial stance of particular newspapers.

Close to two decades since the militancy in Kashmir erupted, the media has gone through various phases in its fraught relationship with state agencies. In 1996, when elections were under way in J&K, the only means the media had to deal with the multiple pressures it faced was to shut down. In the 2002 electoral cycle, the media managed to function with relatively little pressure, since the contest for the first time seemed to offer the people of J&K choices that went beyond the parties officially sanctioned by Delhi.

The 2008 elections took place in the aftermath of prolonged and widespread civil disturbances, following the land allotment controversy. Beginning with mass protests in the valley, the political crisis was qualitatively transformed when retaliatory actions began in the Jammu region.

On August 9, police seized all copies of an Urdu-language daily, Etalaat, for allegedly carrying a report of a village being razed by a mob in the Jammu region. At the same time, state authorities warned staff at the English-language daily Rising Kashmir not to carry certain kinds of reports. The Jammu offices of another English-language daily, Greater Kashmir, were attacked by mobs. One of Kashmir’s best-known journalists, who went out into the Jammu region for a reporting assignment, recounted how he felt compelled then to travel under a false identity card, for fear of being attacked on grounds of his religious identity.

In this context, a conclave of Kashmir valley’s most senior journalists resolved on August 9 that the state authorities should adopt a policy of complete transparency with the media and the general public in Kashmir about all ongoing incidents of violence and lawlessness in both the Jammu region and the Kashmir valley.

However, the situation deteriorated seriously and a blanket curfew was imposed in the Kashmir valley on August 23, 2008. Newspapers in Srinagar failed to print for six consecutive days on account of severe restrictions on the movement of journalists and other media employees. Security agencies also compelled local cable news channels to suspend broadcasts or to air only entertainment programs.

Fifteen journalists and media workers were reported injured on August 24 in targeted attacks by personnel of the CRPF. The injured included journalists from India’s two main news agencies, the Press Trust of India and the United News of India, who had been trying to go to their workplaces.

The IFJ’s inquiries with journalists in Srinagar revealed that security forces persistently disregarded media accreditation cards and curfew passes, in some instances snatching and destroying them. Armed CRPF personnel were reportedly heard remarking that they had orders to prevent journalists in particular from proceeding to work. Despite State Government assurances that media accreditation cards would be considered good for passage through curfew-bound areas, security forces disregarded these credentials during that turbulent period.

Three English language newspapers in Srinagar – Greater Kashmir, Etalaat and Rising Kashmir – posted notices on their websites regretting their failure to publish because staff could not travel to work. The Urdu language press was also paralysed. News websites during this period were updated sporadically only because some employees were confined to their offices by the curfew imposed in the entire Kashmir region.

At the same time, in a cycle of attacks and retaliation, copies of the Daily Excelsior, published from the city of Jammu, were burnt in a locality of Srinagar, for its ostensible indifference to the protests in the Kashmir valley.

Managing conflicting perspectives

As in most areas of conflict, Kashmir also witnesses a tendency for contesting parties to deny others a voice, except where it suits their interest. A central question confronting the media community in Kashmir is whether the voice of ordinary people has been heard through the media or stifled, all through the years of conflict and insurgency.

One of the principal areas of concern is the relative concentration of the media community in the state’s two main cities, Jammu and Srinagar. In the Kashmir valley, journalists are concentrated in Srinagar. Among journalists in Kashmir there is recognition that the voice of the people, as reflected through the media, has been subdued to an extent. However, over the years the media community has evolved strategies of representing the local situation in a manner that has retained readers’ loyalty. This has involved multiple skills, such as evolving a particular vocabulary that will be understood by the media audience, following codes of attribution for news stories that reveal the layers of meaning that can be read into them, adopting a protocol of story placement and prioritisation that will minimise the pressures on the media from the contesting sides, and providing higher visibility to commentators who are sympathetic to the civil liberties discourse and enjoy credibility within the larger Indian media audience.

The main difficulty encountered by journalists in Kashmir is the overlapping of several narratives: the local, the national and the global. Linked to this is the narrative that emerges from Pakistan’s longstanding political intervention in Kashmir, and that country’s seemingly unending turbulence. These complicate matters further.

As in most other parts of India with a history of conflict, the state and the security agencies are a major source of news in Kashmir. Journalists are often under compulsion to report in accordance with the state’s views. This sets up a conflict in terms of ethical practice, since the inputs received from official sources are often at variance with the points of view that the press gathers from its interactions at the local level.

In reconciling these conflicts, the media community in Kashmir maintains the tough language of confrontation. But it has also had to accommodate the officially determined narrative and provide it with adequate space, though often with attributions clearly spelt out, so that the audience is clearly informed that certain stories are being featured only under duress. It has been a long and hard process of negotiation, but because of the high international visibility of the Kashmir issue and the greater degree of scrutiny that agencies in the state function under, the authorities have been compelled to yield ground. This ongoing process of negotiation does not however ensure the security of journalists. In many ways, the threats that journalists face from insurgent groups are more difficult to deal with, because it is quite often out of their hands to meet the stringent conditions on reporting that this side of the conflict imposes.

These tensions begin with the basic vocabulary of conflict reporting, in the choice between the use of “dispute” or “problem” and between “terrorist” or “militant”. Journalists’ dispatches are commonly edited, headlined and laid out on the page by colleagues in distant centres such as Jammu and New Delhi, who may not be aware of the daily compulsions faced by colleagues working on the ground.

The militancy imposes its own restrictions on journalists and the media, which often amount to censorship. News reports that inconvenience militant groups and, in particular, call into question the commitment of Pakistan to the cause, are severely restricted. When respected political leaders in Kashmir are reviled by state agencies on the other side of the Line of Control that divides India from Pakistan-controlled territory, or when training camps for militants are shut down under the pressure of coercive diplomacy by India and its western allies, media outlets in Kashmir come under pressure to ensure that public perceptions of the objectives of the militancy are not undermined. Commonly faced with the threat of lethal force for reporting in a manner that displeases one side or the other, journalists opt for self-censorship rather than truth-telling.

There are numerous cases of journalists being harassed and threatened by both sides in the conflict. However, the two deaths recorded in the state in recent months – of press photographer Ashok Sodhi on May 11 and news videographer Javed Ahmed Mir on August 23 last year – were the consequence of being caught in the crossfire in armed encounters.

Media growth and conditions

Despite recurrent threats, Kashmir’s media continues to grow. Two decades ago, there were an estimated five newspapers published from Jammu and Srinagar. Today, there are 11 English- and 46 Urdu-language dailies in Srinagar city alone which have been registered with the government and approved for placement of official advertising. If the number that have not been approved for ad placements are added, the total number of dailies in the Kashmir region would be 81. Local news and entertainment channels have sprouted, and except in situations of dire emergency, as recently seen, manage to evade the scrutiny of state security agencies. At the most recent count, there were six cable channels operating from Srinagar, all of which were in the business of broadcasting news when the situation demanded and when the authorities relaxed their vigil.

Representative of the vigorous media culture in evidence in Kashmir, a monthly magazine was launched in June 2009, with a cover story that was sharply critical of elections held under the Indian constitution as “disempowering” of Kashmiris. In addition, the inaugural issue also featured an investigative article on how some of Kashmir’s most influential political families had managed to buy up the title to the most prime real estate in the valley, in defiance of revenue rules.

Kashmir University’s Department of Mass Communications in Srinagar turns out more than 20 graduates each year. They in turn become eager job-seekers in a growing industry. However, wage scales and working conditions remain undefined for the most part, especially in Kashmir’s growing Urdu-language press.

Another feature of media growth in Kashmir has been a proliferation of “news agencies”. These are typically one-person operations in district towns, which serve as freelance news-gathering resources for newspapers in Srinagar. They are a means for newspapers to economise on news-gathering costs, since few can afford to retain journalists on their payroll outside the State’s two main cities. The provenance of the news stories emanating from these agencies though, is often problematic, though media persons in Kashmir have learnt to identify the interest groups using these as fronts to disseminate news and information..

The absence of salary structures and insurance cover for journalists and media workers is of serious concern. Additionally, certain areas, such as Uri and Tangdar, are out of bounds, even for journalists. Reporting about these places, which are close to the Line of Control where Indian armed forces face Pakistan’s in an uneasy, seemingly never-ending confrontation, is next to impossible. The news-agents who perform news gathering in these areas typically service numerous clients in Srinagar and work under conditions of extreme stress.

What to do?

There is an association of journalists in Kashmir but its membership is rather modest in relation to the large and growing community that it seeks to represent. Differences in perception on what a professional body can achieve in the circumstances that prevail in Kashmir account for the failure of the existing body to achieve wider enrolment. This issue could be dealt with through a wider dialogue among journalists and agreement over a charter that covers the various professional choices and contingencies they face. The body could then also engage the broader public, including state and non-state actors in Kashmir’s political landscape. Given the spirit of civic engagement that still remains strong in Kashmir despite two decades of insurgency, there is a possibility that a consensus could be achieved on non-coercive methods of grievance redressal in matters involving journalism. There are strong possibilities that journalists could evolve such norms and ensure their acceptance by media managements and Kashmir’s various political actors.

Issues of wages and working conditions also need to be addressed on a priority basis. The media in Kashmir has grown significantly in recent times, though unevenly. The differences in compensation that exist between the English and Urdu-language media need to be addressed. Common norms could be agreed on employment and contractual terms that eliminate some of the sense of discrimination that journalists in particular sectors may have. This would also serve to sustain the enthusiasm that the youth in Kashmir still evidently harbour for the profession of journalism.