Kashmir and the notorious world of TV News

PCRRam Gopal Verma’s movie, Rann, released in 2010, and has a conversation between a journalist Anand Prakash Trivedi, played by Raj Pal Yadav and an aspiring Bollywood filmmaker Nandita Sharma played by Gul Panaag. Yadav asks Panag what she does? After hearing that the woman is a part of the film industry, Yadav tells Panag: “Madam, filmain toh hum bhi banate hain, magar hum usse NEWS kehtae hae (We (journalists) too make films. The only difference is that we call it NEWS).”

Till July, 2015, there were as many as 403 TV news channels operational in India as per the figures put forth by the Indian government’s ministry of information and broadcasting. The only priority for these 24×7 news channels is to keep their screens buzzing with ‘Breaking and Exclusive News’ reports.

Ahead of the 2014 polls, the BJP presented Narendra Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate, declaring him as India’s promising face who could usher a revolution in economic development and upliftment of the downtrodden. The TV cameras started zooming their lenses at Modi’s every rally and every meeting. The prime ministerial candidate in return started selling the ‘Gujarat Model’. The news channels accepted it in its very form of originality- caring little to uphold the principles of journalism and confirm the veracity of Modi’s claims. Not even a single TV journalist dared to visit Gujarat, its far flung areas, its hamlets and its countryside to confirm the truth behind the model being marketed to India’s millions of voters, young and old, rich and poor, who were aspiring to find their country prosperous and worthy to live. The news channels accepted the BJP claims without even an iota of efforts to scrutinize them, despite knowing well how such claims would decide the future of India for next five years.

Solid ground reporting remains elusive in today’s TV journalism in India. Gone are the days when reporters would tread the treacherous paths to capture truth, that often nestles under the shades of grey. It is now the Studio talk- the cheapest way to keep feeding the 24×7 beast.

When CAG slammed the UPA regime over numerous ‘corruption gates’, news channels found it easier to copy paste the CAG findings. They worked little to examine the facts. The SCAM, SCAM, SCAM was the cry every news channel was making then. But how many of them have themselves gone through the documents to verify and ascertain?

The foundation of journalism lies in the principle that Governments lie. In today’s world of TV journalism in India, the arguments, counter arguments, bizarre claims and jibes by governments and opposition are the prime sources of news. Tickers buzz with quotes, allegations and rants. “The CAG said the country had lost 1.76 lakh crores in spectrum allocation; we believed it, almost uncritically,” writes eminent Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai in his book The Election that changed India.

2014 was the year of floods in Kashmir. Ravaging waters of Jehlum wreaked havoc in Valley’s most parts, submerging houses and destroying government as well as private properties worth thousands of crores. The TV News Channels turned blind eye towards the hardships people faced in the midst of the nature’s fury. The screens started showing the selective areas, housing mostly tourists, being rescued by the army. Army later charged 500 crore rupees from state government for its rescue operations in Kashmir but who gives a dam. The beast had a breakfast, lunch, dinner and he had slept that day quietly.

Contrary to what TV cameras revealed to their audience about Kashmir getting entirely marooned, there were still major areas where waters didn’t reach. One among them was Hyderpora where anti-India resistance Syed Ali Geelani resides. However, the breaking news in the prime time was about Geelani being rescued by army from his house. When I later went to interview the octogenarian and told him what TV channels claimed, he laughed and laughed. I had interviewed Syed Ali Geelani for more than six times till then but never witnessed such a notorious laugh on his face ever. “Didn’t they say I hugged the army tightly when they came for my rescue,” he said and laughed again.

During flood relief operations , a short video clip of approximately 3 minutes of duration was captured by an anonymous person in which an argument between the local Congress workers and JKLF activists was recorded. The TV news channels had to split their screens into 10 boxes and an issue of JKLF stealing the rescue boat was discussed at threadbare. India’s ‘eminent faces’ including the former army Generals, writers, self proclaimed social activists were roped in to ridicule ‘PAK Agent Malik’. A former army general even shouted during the debate that it is Pakistan that has mandated its agents in Kashmir to create disruption in relief distribution so that it could regain a constituency in the region.

The channel that was first to air this anonymous video with the hashtag ‘Exclusive: PAK thief exposed’, didn’t even bother to confirm the authenticity of the video ahead of airing it to millions of its viewers. It was finally the Bureau Chief of that channel who threatened to resign if views of the ‘accused party’ aren’t included. Furious, Yasin Malik was finally given a chance to appear as a guest on the channel. What we saw before the JKLF chief’s screen turned blank was he furiously telling the news anchor ‘You are a mental patient and you immediately need a psychiatrist.’

Post 2014 witnessed the emergence of ISIS and Pakistan flags during protests in old city of Srinagar. Such pictures turned enough for the TV news anchors to declare ISIS presence in Kashmir. As the first protest got a massive prime time chuck, next Friday saw the number of these flags doubled. I asked a stone thrower in old city about the reason behind the waiving of such flags during protests. “We eagerly wait for 9.P.M news in our homes every Friday. We see people fighting and screaming over the issue. We see how flags are encircled with red colour and shown for hours with commercials staring celebrities,” was how he put forth the reason. But does he and others, waving such flags know what it really means? “It means nothing for us but everything for the news channels.”

Today, when Kashmir is reeling under constant curfew, strikes and clashes, the TV news channels have exposed their Kashmir correspondents to serious threats. These ‘sound-bite hungry soldiers’ can’t freely walk in civilian areas, leave alone covering any public event. If you watch them on TV giving Piece to Camera (PTC) on Kashmir’s roads, believe it that the road is either deserted or guarded by the forces’ personnel.

We have seen how TV journalists were thrashed and beaten up by people in hospitals where injured were rushed after post July 8 protests. We have seen how resistance leaders have barred these correspondents from covering any of their events. We have seen people sensing India’s mood about Kashmir’s plight through these media houses results in more anger, more protests and more killings.

Whether these channels would ever rise up from the wild accusations, bizarre claims and uncalled for provocations is yet to be seen. All we can say at present is that these channels whose screens keep buzzing like the monitors at the airports announcing flight schedules, have so far contributed much in brewing up the anger that we witness sauntering on Kashmir’s every street. May Journalism prevail in its true sense and meaning!

(Umar Shah is a journalist based in Kashmir. If you wish to contribute to Kashmir Dispatch, please send your submissions to news@kashmirdispatch.com)