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Where to draw the line?

Where to draw the line?

Author: Anuradha Dutt
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 19, 2002

It is time the print media started some rigorous monitoring of editorial content before the State feels compelled to initiate remedial action. While press freedom is indisputably integral to a democracy, it should not be misused by undiscerning editors to publish seditious reports, under incendiary headlines. A leading daily, which prides itself on its over century old tradition of making and breaking news, committed a terrible gaffe in its Sunday section (December 15). Under the heading 'Cry Freedom', it carried an adulatory profile of Yaseen Malik, Jammu- Kashmir Liberation Front chief, a known terrorist and advocate of Kashmir's secession from India. The practice of idolising criminals, conmen and terrorists is an old one, gaining currency with the coverage of Charles Sobhraj, and later, the Chambal dacoits, notably Phoolan Devi.

More recently, the film industry's involvement with the underworld, and culpability of filmstars in crimes as well as anti- national activities, have been viewed with ambivalence, verging on amorality, by a glamour-struck media. In this case, since Malik, by no definition, can be termed a star celebrity, even if it is of the criminal kind, the offending newspaper needs to answer some hard questions. Who commissioned the report? Was it not vetted before being published? Are none of the senior editors aware of the kind of writing going in to the daily? Do they not know where to draw the line?

It may be another terrorist outfit chief, a sworn enemy of India and the mastermind behind hundreds of deaths of security men and ordinary citizens, who might be glorified in a future installment. The report in question suggests that the paper's obsession with glamour seems to have blunted its sensibilities and powers of judgement. For, even as the militancy in Jummu & Kashmir continues to capture attention around the world and gradually shift sympathies towards India, the blurb in the report states: "He has survived six assassination attempts and spent eleven-and-a-half years in confinement. But Yasin Malik, Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front supremo...says nothing stands in the way of his faith."

If this were not provocative enough, what precisely this faith connotes is spelt out in the profile of the man, against whom a non-bailable warrant was issued by a designated POTA court the very day that the profile appeared. The court's decision was also reported by the same paper the following day. Malik was arrested under POTA this March for alleged complicity in smuggling a huge consignment of dollars. He got out on bail in July but was immediately rearrested under the Public Safety Act. He again got bail but failed to appear before the POTA court during his bail period. As a senior executive member of the Hurriyat Conference, he has been giving inflammatory speeches in the Kashmir valley and openly questioning the legitimacy of the recently concluded elections in the troubled region. But India's leading English daily seems to have a different idea of this dangerous enemy of the state. A few excerpts would suffice to demonstrate its topsy turvy view of things. The report begins on an approving note by touching on the paper's pet concern: "A Japanese modeling agency picked him up from a college full of teenage Kashmiri boys in Srinagar, many moons ago." The writer does not trace how the aspiring glamour boy graduated to terrorism - strange, but going by the examples of some Mumbai heroes, it seems a logical transition - but adds: "These days, lensmen complain how difficult it is to capture him on camera as he rarely makes eye contact." Shifty, by any reckoning.

There is some talk of "the freedom movement", and how Malik came to realise "that we were slaves". In between, staring at the wall of his death cell in Agra's Central Prison, he loved Kahlil Gibran, Iqbal and Faiz. He clearly managed to escape that sentence since he is now on the move, even visiting that Mecca of civil liberties, the United States, as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. This proves that the Indian State could not be as repressive as he makes it out to be. His lament that democracy here is a sham because people were not allowed to boycott the Assembly elections is also hollow as he mentions in the next breath that the total vote cast was a mere 28.53 per cent. He blames intellectuals and the media for being "guided by blind Indian nationalism". But the paper that profiled him can plead innocent of the charge.

The contrast with the incessant diatribe against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindutva manoeuvres of the Sangh Parivar in the English press becomes all the more glaring. The BJP's return to power suggests that the elitist media needs to do some quick self-appraisal to attain objectivity.
 


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