‘Managing’ Media

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The constitution of an advisory committee is yet another extension to the “media management” policy that started decades back, observes Masood Hussain

Press Council of India Chairman Justice C K Prasad relaesing the report of a PCI sub committee on Kashmir. Photo: J&K government

Everybody is not required to know it but last week was intensely interesting. It was dominated, albeit indirectly, by the idea of “managing media”. There were three instances which were directly or indirectly aimed at that: How to manage Kashmir media?

The first was a sweet surprise. The Press Council of India (PCI) under the leadership of its Chairman Justice (retired) C K Prasad flew all the members to Srinagar for its last meeting. The Council members have completed their term and October 9, was its last day. After a hectic day, they had interactions with various journalist bodies and later in the evening they released its report on the media scene in J&K.

It was only after going through the report the reality dawned. The report by its sub committee was not the outcome of the crisis that Kashmir media has been witnessing while covering a conflict. It was actually aimed at probing three allegations levelled by the three interlocutors against Kashmir media: certain newspapers publish “unsubstantiated stories and engage in a vilification campaign”, “inflate their circulation figures to engage in malpractices” and, most importantly, “the sources of funding of newspapers are also a matter of unhealthy speculation.” It is tragic but interesting that while the report of the interlocutors was thrown into the dustbin by the Home Ministry, the PCI thought it proper to investigate.

The three interlocutors faced lot of criticism and most of it passed through the front pages of the newspapers. So in its countless suggestions, they also thought, it was good to pay back. So they made these allegations as part of their “media management”.

It was actually aimed at probing three allegations levelled by the three interlocutors against Kashmir media: certain newspapers publish “unsubstantiated stories and engage in a vilification campaign”, “inflate their circulation figures to engage in malpractices” and, most importantly, “the sources of funding of newspapers are also a matter of unhealthy speculation.”

S N Sinha led sub committee visited length and breadth of the state and investigated all the three allegations. Inflated circulation figures of newspapers, PCI report says, “is a country-wide phenomenon”.

On “substantiated” stories, the PCI report has said that “non-availability of information from government agencies compels the journalists to find out news from unauthorised sources, which creates a wrong impression among the readers or viewers.” It has suggested “a combined Information Centre” in all three regions to provide all relevant official information without wasting time to the local media persons. The fact is that while this allegation of concoction has been in air for almost 30 years, the first instance that will prove it is yet to come. Editors told the PCI twice that Kashmir media will love to get the first instance in which an event or a happening has been under-reported or exaggerated or, completely ignored.

On the serious allegations, the report said: “As for the issue of unhealthy sources of funding of some media organisations, we can understand that conclusive evidence of such funding is difficult to come. Even the government agency could not provide any evidence in this regard, though there is some talk about funding from across the border. They alleged that funding across the border was there some 25 years ago, but it cannot be verified or crosschecked now. There is no major complaint about such funding of newspapers now, but there are such suspicions because of “anti-Central / State government or anti-armed forces writings” by some newspapers and journalists. The government and their agencies should file complaints in such cases with the PCI, which could then consider these on merit and decide the issue. The committee was told by media representatives that government agencies should use all their resources to check and trace any dubious funding and take strong legal action if there is any credible evidence.”

“As for the issue of unhealthy sources of funding of some media organisations, we can understand that conclusive evidence of such funding is difficult to come. Even the government agency could not provide any evidence in this regard, though there is some talk about funding from across the border. They alleged that funding across the border was there some 25 years ago, but it cannot be verified or crosschecked now.

These few paragraphs from the PCI report is a clear vindication of the Kashmir media stand that it does not exist as a proxy but a real being that is serious in every operation that makes it a vibrant institution. But the certificate has been issued by an institution, well respected for its mandate, but was itself once used to “manage” Kashmir media.

File Photo

In their two meeting with the PCI – first with sub committee and then with the full commission last week – the Kashmir Editors Guild told the Council that while the Srinagar media corps was waiting for some sort of support from the media watchdogs, the PCI attempted hitting the credibility of Kashmir media, at one point of time. They referred to the infamous report of the PCI Crisis and Credibility in which the media coverage of the Kunan mass rapes was hurriedly dubbed propaganda. That was the first attempt of “managing” the media. The copies of this report were printed by a publisher and purchased in bulk by the governments in Srinagar and Delhi and distributed free to subvert an institution, the editors said. Insisting that the PCI’s renewed attempts to engage Kashmir media is welcome, the editors sought more investment by the council. They suggested that either the PCI should withdraw the report or investigate the media coverage afresh.

As the Kashmir media was happy over the findings of the PCI on the funding front, the state government came with an interesting order. For “better management of media of the state in future”, the government graciously accorded sanction to “the constitution of state media advisory committee”, which shall “examine the broader aspects of the proposed state media advisory council and shall submit its recommendations for better management of media of the state in future.” The three member committee comprised Director Information, and two of his very senior predecessors Kul Bushan Jandial and Mohammad Sayeed Malik. Unlike Jandial, Malik was specially picked by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to head the department after which he returned to media and retired as an editor of a Delhi based newspaper.

At the same time, another interesting development took place. The government said it detected certain problems in the conduct of an officer and attached him. It launched an enquiry into the allegations he faced, as per the government statement. Instantly, it led to the closure of information department as the staff locked the offices of the state’s image-making and public relations. The striking employees said the government decision was taken at the behest of some “small time editors” who wanted the bulk of advertisements, disproportionate to their entitlement and market presence. For two days, the department was locked but has resumed its operations. While its PR work has resumed, its advertisement distribution, it is said, will take some more time. (By now the officer has been restored to his position and the full operations have resumed.)

Off late, there has been an emphasis in the state government in informing people that the government has spent this much of funds on newspapers advertisements. Apparently done to sustain the transparency claims the idea fetches an unintended goal: to continuously feed with “crores” and the “media” so that it eventually becomes a “reality” that media is in fact an extension of the government. People may not know that a state which has a yearly kitty of Rs 80,000 crores has total budget of less than Rs 50 crores for media including the salary of its PR department. They also do not know that the advertising money which J&K should get as a consumer market from private manufacturers is almost missing because governance structure usually interrupts this natural cycle.

What is not being appreciated that all this is being conveyed to the people using the good offices of the media. This must speak volumes about the objectivity of the media in Kashmir that though the journalists know the entire game, they still have not refused even a single line. They even used the “small time editors” just because they have rarely intervened in news as it comes to them.

Media is not supposed to be managed, internally or externally. This type of manipulation is an insult to the profession and its independence.

While various things have happened in between these events between 1990 and 2017, three planks of the media “management” are starkly clear.

Firstly, the “credibility” was attempted to be made the suspect. It did not help because the neutrality and objectivity of the Kashmir media was appreciated throughout the world. For the last almost 15 years, any major conflict spot on earth will essentially see a Kashmiri reporting for some international agency. Libya, Philippines, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and now Myanmar- everywhere Kashmir media corps had somebody to report. As on daily basis, Kashmiri scribe continued proving his competence and objectivity – despite reporting the home conflict, nobody actually listened to the fifth columnists debates.

Secondly, the allegations were thrown around that Kashmir media is basically as extension of Pakistan’s deep state. That was precisely what the PCI was looking at in its latest report. It requires no discussion now.

Thirdly, now the systems are evolving to deny the rightful share from the small kitty that state and the central government has. That is a complicated process and still work in progress but its shadows are visible even when braid choppers are not. This is the new media management set up that has many masons but still short of brick and mortar. The policy makers have deliberately skipped the larger dichotomy that exists in publishing sector: all publications are real but quite a few are read. It is a strong sector with more than a thousand heads working in Kashmir alone. Had it not been there, how can three universities in Kashmir and one in Jammu, sustaining its media education classrooms?

But credit goes to Mohammad Sayeed Malik, the veteran. A day after he was nominated to the committee, he reacted.  “Firstly, no one from the govt approached me, therefore, the question of my prior consent just does not arise. I, honestly, don’t know how to react to a brazen sarkari atrocity, concerning me personally, that smacks of arrogance as well as incompetence,” Malik wrote on in his facebook post. “Media is not supposed to be managed, internally or externally. This type of manipulation is an insult to the profession and its independence. I wish to make it clear that I have no intention to serve on the said committee.”

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