Shooting the messenger; rarity to habitude

Caught in multi-layered conflict, a life of misfortune of millions of people in Jammu and Kashmir has in the recent years become an, unintended, great business model for few media houses and a fast growing tribe of ‘experts’ in Delhi and Mumbai. The primetime news television has a good share of its earning from discussions on various facets of Kashmir turmoil. In television industry, a panel discussion is the cheapest software where you don’t have to spend money on news sourcing and filmmaking. This thriving studio industry which takes most pleasure in examining ‘nationalist credentials’ of a variety of persons and institutions actually ends up doing disservice to the nation; the nation of which they masquerade as self appointed custodians. This disservice is mainly in the form of deepening the divide between people of Kashmir and rest of India. Sorry, ‘deepening the divide’ is a very polite assessment. Actually, the news television channels are responsible for manufacturing hatred which sometimes suit particular political agenda but in the long run emerge as a culture of disastrous proportions. Within Jammu and Kashmir, the historical regional divide has its phenomenal deepening. The media could play great role in bridging the divides but as pointed out above why should media do that if it has commercial and social incentives in doing the reverse.

The messenger

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has recently appealed for an end to negative portrayal of Kashmir. There is also strong desire for enhancing interactions and deepening understandings between various regions and communities within Jammu and Kashmir. This is one of the various challenges that make the government of Jammu and Kashmir most extraordinary of all governments in the states in India. Governance alone is not the task of the government of Jammu and Kashmir which is literally, and traditionally, facing a non-traditional war on various fronts. In non-traditional wars perception is an important battle arsenal. Appeals, as the Chief Minister often makes, always carry an emotional and moral value but at the same time one needs a strategy to change things. For dispelling misconceptions and creating positive perception, the government of Jammu and Kashmir has a gigantic department of Information and Public Relations which got its newest director –fourth in a month and thirteenth in last 36 months –just a few hours ago. Muneer ul Islam (aka Muneer A Raqeeb) is not new to the media fraternity. He has served as the Director of Information Department twice in the recent past. It was a five-month long wrangle between two ‘directors’ from Omar Abdullah’s government –Mukhtar-ul-Aziz and Saujanya Sharma –that was sought to be ended by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s government by appointing Muneer as Director in March 2015. He stayed on for four five months before being replaced by Zaffar Ahmed, a veteran. Upon Zaffar’s retirement, Muneer returned to the Department in April 2016 and this time his tenure was as slim as 23 days. With three months as average tenure of a Director over last three years, the government has revealed that how well it has used its perceptional arsenals in the multilayered battle that it fights on daily basis. The government has particular disdain for such type of criticism from the media of its handling of the Department of Information on the pretext that appointment of officers is a prerogative of the government. That is not disputed. Doing the same thing over and over again develops into a culture. The latest cultural meaning of the Department of Information and Public Relations has been reduced to a PR agency which also doubles up as an advertisement agency. On these counts the department has been doing perfectly well. The journalist community as well as the owners and managers of the newspapers are pretty happy with the newswire business of the Information Department. A day’s bulletin is sufficient for publishing a newspaper which is essentially meant for staking claim to the government advertisements. That is perhaps the kind of relationship the government and a lot many newspapers also want. Recently the department released statistics about the amount it paid to various newspapers in 2016-17 against advertisements published over a certain period of time. Ten newspapers (2.7% of all empanelled with the department for the purpose of advertisements) have taken away 30% of all budgeted amount. The remaining 70% has been distributed among the rest of 97% newspapers. The government has taken huge pride in this transparency. On a closer look, one finds this mechanism wrought with flaws. Firstly, the distribution of advertisements is highly discriminatory as a lot of papers with no newsstand value have got away with lion’s share. There is no honest and scientific categorization of papers. Secondly, the government has tried to give out an impression, which is also a factual reality that it helps sustain newspapers. This is not an impressive policy and has all portends of creating an unhealthy atmosphere for journalism. There should be a two way standard of professionalism. In case of advertisement that newspapers are platforms and the government a client. But here, by way of creating a culture of entitlement and nepotism, the relationship has been reversed with newspapers being seen as clients of the government. There can be only PR and no journalism in such an atmosphere.

Epilogue

Muneer-ul-Islam is the fourth director in last 33 days –after Shahid Choudhary, MH Malik and Arun Manhas. The government, as we are told, is fully competent in making more frequent changes without being accountable to the press. The point, however, is about looking at the challenges the government faces and the roles that Department of Information can play. The reversal of the situation where we find ourselves at this point needs efforts of massive scale. Great efforts need stability of institutions and clarity of purpose. The Department of Information can be that crucial messenger to amplify the message. With the multiple marring of its messenger sometime it looks like the government doesn’t have a message at all. In one of rare moves, the Chief Minister has recently parted herself of the charge of the Information Department. The new Minister, Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali, says that the Chief Minister has done so for more focused attention to the Department. A fix all solution for a long while, MH Malik, who has been made Secretary of the Department, also holds out great promise. Now it is to be seen whether the government finds time to fine-tune the message or keeps on killing the frustrations by repeatedly aiming at the messenger.

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