Reporting Kashmir's summer of discontent

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Special Reports | 18/12/2012
MAINSTREAM AMNESIA--- A three-part series on conflict and media on The Hoot. Part 1, Kashmir. Overall it is clear from the coverage that the media was donning it's familiar ambulance chaser hat while covering J&K, post Shopian,
Says NUPUR BASU

MAINSTREAM AMNESIA  Part 1

Which conflicts are the most visible in the multi-edition English dailies which circulate in metropolitan India?  Is it a skewed visibility? Which ones are invisible?  What are the policy implications of such invisibility?  What are the implications for the country when insurgencies on borders are far removed from national consciousness? How culpable are the country’s leading dailies in perpetuating this amnesia?

A two-month period of monitoring commencing right after the national elections (May 15-July 15 2009) seeks to compare the conflict news reported within three states Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur--with news reported on these states in five English dailies.  It seeks to study primarily the degree of visibility of conflicts in the national public sphere, and the manner of reporting on them. The newspapers taken were the Delhi editions of The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Times of India, DNA in Mumbai, and Telegraph in Kolkata.

Researchers

Analysis

 

Kashmir: Nupur Basu   

Kashmir, unlike the conflict ridden states of the North East, gets coverage. In the two months under review in every newspaper except the Indian Express, it got substantially more coverage than the states of the Northeast.  In the Express the level of coverage was pretty much equal in both conflict regions, and its Northeast coverage went beyond Manipur and Assam to include Meghalaya and Nagaland.

 Stories and edits May 15-July 15

  Newspaper

    Kashmir

  Northeast

   TOI

      48

21,   16 assam,  2 manipur

    Hindu

      60

33,   16 Assam, 11 Manipur

    IE

      64

65,   49 Assam,  9 manipur

    DNA

      25

 3,    All Assam

  Telegraph

      11

 5,    2  Assam, 3 Manipur

Kashmir got much more coverage, but as our analysis will show, it was skewed coverage.

It was to have been the peak months for tourism in the Valley for all those who wanted to escape the heat of the plains. But it turned out to be the opposite instead of cooling nerves of visitors from the plains, the Valley itself burned. The rape and murder of two women in Shopian allegedly by security forces, spread like wildfire in a forest consuming everything in it’s wake. The media brought the story or did not bring the story, as the case maybe, to the rest of the country/the world.

Most newspapers had a news blank on Kashmir till the Shopian story broke. Clearly the elections in the rest of the country and national government formation occupied the media’s imagination and it had little time to report J&K.

But in Kashmir this was also a period when opposition rallies were taking place and several incidents of violence and death were reported. At least 30 people were injured in clashes with CRPF in the old city on a Friday when police fired teargas shells and used batons to disperse protesters demanding release of Kashmiri prisoners. There was also the human interest story of  the 10 year old girl Khusboo Gayoom who was crushed under an army vehicle, whose  family was trying to keep up pressure for justice during this period.

It is only after the rape and murder of a teenaged student and her pregnant sister-in-law in Shopian, that events in the valley suddenly captured the imagination of the press. What followed is coverage that can best be described as uneven - from too much to too little. The week that followed Shopian saw intense political activity in the valley with separatists demanding demilitarisation, government emissaries coming to Srinagar, demand for withdrawal of troops by Mufti and demand for revoking of AFSPA by Omar Abdullah and the home minister’s arrival in the valley on June 11 all this finally culminating in some kind of announcement about the phased withdrawal of AFPSA planned in the future.

Our study looks at whether or not the mainstream English newspapers had their ears to the ground in Kashmir, and were the events unfolding in the Valley and elsewhere being reflected in their true spirit in the news/opinion/edit pages.

To begin with, the Times of India (TOI) begins did not have a single story on Kashmir in the period May 15-29 . The coverage in the paper kicks in only from May 30th after the Shopian incident takes place. (Ditto DNA).  A trend that will be seen in most other publications tracked as well. This is followed in the next 45 days by coverage which includes two front page stories  first one on June 8 “ 2 J&K women were raped and killed autopsy” and another on July 5 : “ Bodies of J&K rape victims to be exhumed”.

Stories and edits May 15-July 15

  Newspaper

     Kashmir

 Shopian related

  TOI

       48

        23

  Hindu

       60

        31

  IE

       64

        41

  DNA

       25

         9

  Telegraph

       11

         6

On June 7 M J Akbar wrote in a column  -All that Matters- about Obama’s policy for Kashmir and Palestine in an article titled “ Some dangerous liaisons in July”. The TOI in this two month period published two special reports on June 14 titled “Beating the Retreat”, and a special Guest Column by Sanjay Kak “Men in uniform are Kashmir’s problem-not solution” (June 15) . The paper had an editorial aptly titled “Kashmiri Roulette”. Most of the reportage and comments and opinion pieces remained focussed on the Shopian incident and it’s fallout for the Valley, barring Akbar’s piece on Obama’s Kashmir policy.

On June 19 the paper in it’s Nation segment carries an interview with the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah admitting that the Shopian incident is his first big time crises in governance and the realisation that a crime event can catapult the fragile valley to total chaos and anarchy. There are several column inches dedicated to the Special Armed Forces Act in J&K and whether there is any rethinking on it, the reports on discussions regarding it with Army chief and also the Home Minister and the suggestion is that the AFSPA is not being disbanded anytime soon. The news pages put out daily reports on the unrest, arrests, statements from various political actors in the Valley and also from national government and defence quarters.

The Hindu had ten items of reporting or commentary in the pre-Shopian period, many more than other newspapers under review, including the Indian Express.  After the Shopian incident the majority of stories on J&K were located around the rape and murder of the two women and the reprisals and reactions.  In the months of June and July The Hindu carried at least six front page stories from the valley : “Special Cell to probe death of two J&K women” beginning on June 3 and going onto the following headlines in subsequent weeks : “30 injured as clashes erupt in Kashmir”, ”Report confirms Shopian women were raped” ,”Police open fire on Shopian protesters” , ”Shopian officials sacked for lapses” and “Shopian: Two doctors suspended”.

In this period the newspaper carries three commentaries on J&K once again pegged to recent events in the Valley “Shopian tragedy” , “ Kashmir’s rising tide of hate” by Praveen Swami and “New thinking on J&K security”. It’s news columns report the actions and reactions on the ground and reports on the CPI-M’s allegations of a ‘cover-up’ in Shopian and Farooq’s demand for a thorough probe .It also reports on the threats issued to the Srinagar correspondent of NDTV,  Hurriyat’s successful strike call and the judicial probe. However there are some inexplicable news blanks over certain periods in the paper even as the Valley is burning giving  rise to observations of a somewhat uneven coverage of events in the news pages.

The Indian Express newspaper like all the others also picks on the double rape and murder as it’s peg to hang it’s Kashmir coverage on from the first week of June. Sixty four percentage of its total coverage in the survey period is on Shopian. Starting in early June with a front page photograph captioned “Police firing as Shopian explodes” it goes on to carry in its Delhi edition four more front page stories in the subsequent weeks : “ Shopian women didn’t drown were raped” ,”Shopian double rape and murder:probe begins” “Shopian: witness say they heard cries “ ,”Judicial probe confirms Shopian rape”.

The DNA newspaper had a news blank between the period of May 15 to May 30. There is not a single story from J&K in that period. And then from May 31 the continuous coverage begins on the Shopian incident with the first four column report on May 31 titled “Two women dead- Kashmir tense” followed the very next day  with a DNA Big Story. Between June 2 to June 5 the focus was on the major political players in the state and their responses to the Shopian incident as protests rage through the valley. But overall it was much less focused on Shopian in its Kashmir coverage. On June 9 DNA carries two stories one on page 1 titled “Major among 5 killed in J&K ambush” and another on page 13 “another rape and murder rocks Kashmir”, on the baramullah incident which followed. 

From June 15th for the next 8 days DNA did consistent coverage of J&K with seven stories under the category DNA India Top News and one under DNA Opinion. These included two reports from the newspaper’s foreign correspondents Uttara Chowdhury in New York “J&K bedevils US policymaking” and from Amir Mir in Islamabad  "Pak sees glimmer of a resolution”. DNA did  deviate from the news on the  Shopian unrest and on June 20th their Srinagar correspondent did a story “Refugees in their own land” about how Hindu Kashmiri Pandits recount the murder of their families. It appears clearly as the newspaper’s attempt to do “balanced” reporting out of J&K, except that it looks out of place from the reality on the ground that is playing out here and now.

The coverage in the Kolkata based Telegraph newspaper shows that Kashmir for Kolkata is as far away in the psyche as its physical distance. The coverage on Kashmir as a whole and even Shopian in particular appears clearly to be a non - story for this publication . Kashmir does not feature even once on the front page during this two month period, though there are two editorials during this period, one of them on Shopian. All there are, are occasional reports, mostly one column. In the period between May 15 to July 15 Telegraph has just 9 reports in the news pages, 5 of which were just one column stories.

 What the media missed:

Even post Shopian, statistics tell a story that clearly shows the extent of human suffering in the Valley . It reveals that 15 civilians are killed and as many as 618 hurt in the protests and unrest that follow Shopian. The number of militants killed stands at 14, troopers killed is five and 10 are injured. But did the coverage  actually reflect the bigger picture? The answer to this question again lies in the uneven and often moody coverage of the Shopian aftermath.

A very significant media story about government restriction on cable news channels was either totally ignored or pushed into corner by some papers . Following the Shopian tragedy the J&K government had directed all private channels to restrict their news bulletins to 15 minutes daily, an unprecedented media ban in recent years. The story certainly deserved to be played out in national papers and commented upon which was not done.

Arrested Hurriyat (G) Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s call to thousands of school and college students across the valley drew a huge response .At least 40 school and college students, many of them girls, were injured in Pulwama when police fired tear gas shells on them could have been pictorially highlighted by the newspapers in the age of satellite television when channels were beaming these images, but majority of the papers did not carry them . The human interest stories and the socio-political implications of young Kashmiri school girls taking to the streets braving bullets of the armed forces failed to get written about and evoke empathy from the plains.  Opportunities in doing special reports from the ground, that went beyond the day’s headline, were not seized even by the best in the business ,thereby making journalism poorer for it.

A significant development with the Kashmiri Pandits breaking their silence on the Shopian tragedy with Kashmiri Pandit Sangrash Samithi, a non-migrant Pandit organization condemning the rape and murder of two women in Shopian , remained confined to the papers in the valley and failed to make it to the mainstream English dailies. A slightly in-depth report on this may have helped heal some wounds in the Valley. But again the papers missed this opportunity.

One of the main macro stories which the newspapers failed to fully explore in all it’s dimensions is the raging issue of impunity enjoyed by the armed forces which results in sexual assaults against women never getting justice . The PUDR , a rights group in Delhi, did raise the issue but there were no takers . Also the issue of the phased withdrawal of the armed forces from J&K which did get mention both in news pages and opinion columns in most of the papers ,merely scratched the surface, confining it’s reporting/comments to the various utterances of the different players post-Shopian.

Once again the media failed to look at the larger picture- rise above Shopian and argue whether such a move is feasible , should be feasible or whether the noises being made by the different political actors on this issue was a lot of hot air to cool temperatures in the searing Valley.

The AFSPA is one big question that could have been explored. Another was related:the militarization of Kashmir. But the momentum that Shopian provided for this analyses was not seized by the media in any meaningful way, though there was the occasional piece, such as Sanjay Kak’s in the Times of India, mentioned above.

Overall if one sees the coverage it is clear that the media was donning it’s familiar ambulance chaser hat while covering J&K post Shopian  picking up by the way some of the obvious issues that it was throwing up in it’s wake. Barring small pockets, the coverage stopped short of being sufficiently investigative, or out-of- the-box, or bold.

With the Shopian investigations once again headed for a dead end for the usual ‘lack of evidence’ and the criminal negligence of the medical records, the opportunity to raise tough questions in the coming days and weeks is still there. This tragedy can become a test case for justice in similar cases of sexual assault on women if the media chooses to keep up the pressure.

On June 13 Arathi R Jerath did an important page 1 five column policy shift story “Government may reduce troops in J&K” .It refered to the references/hints in that direction given by the Home Minister Chidambaram in a press conference.

The Express also ran two editorials during June and July: “Shopian files” and “After Shopian” . To add to the edits there is a Political Pulse column titled “Shopian row hits Cabinet expansion”.  How the Shopian protests spiral into a reunification of the Azadi groups, the street protests by Mehbooba/PDP and the flashpoint that the Valley becomes after Shopian is documented on the paper’s newspages sticking very much to expected lines of coverage. There is some evidence of the paper’s  investigative thrust, (“Series of blunders over 12 days” June 11,) but not that much. Though a story titled “When I saw her I put my jacket on her body” personalised the tragedy for Express readers through its interviews with different members of the families of the two women.

Ahanthem Chitra (Manipur), Uddipan Dutta (Guwahati),  Rinku Dutta (Calcutta), Naseer Ganai (Kashmir), Sumegha Gulati (Delhi),  Aditi Ravi (Mumbai), Furquan Siddiqui (Delhi).

 

Also read:

Part II: Reporting Assam's ethnic couldron

Part III: Manipur: violent, yet out of mind

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