It had been just another day at Srinagar’s daily newspaper Kashmir Reader’s office on Sunday. But then policemen arrived late in the evening, with an order from the Srinagar District Magistrate, directing the printer, publisher, and the owner of the newspaper to discontinue publishing till further orders.
“On the basis of credible inputs it has been observed that the daily newspaper namely Kashmir Reader published within the jurisdiction of district Srinagar contains such material and content which tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquility,” read the order, a copy of which was provided by the newspaper.
The outrage was spontaneous.
On Monday, editors of valley based newspapers held a meeting and condemned the government’s order, which they said was “vague and unclear about the charges for which such a harsh step has been taken.”
Meanwhile, dozens of journalists came on the road in solidarity with the newspaper. The journalists, holding placards, marched along with the staff of the newspaper towards the office of the Director of Information.
But they were not allowed in, following which they held a brief sit-in outside the office, Hilal Mir, editor of the Kashmir Reader said.
“The police tried to stop us at Regal Chowk itself," Mir said. "Then we told them we only have to go till [the office], then they allowed us. A police vehicle was escorting us till the gate,” he added.
The ban on Kashmir Reader comes as the unrest continues into its third month.
Earlier, in July, the police had seized copies of several newspapers in a late night raid at printing presses, and prevented newspapers from publishing for three days.
"It would have been helpful if the gag order had made a mention of a specific report so that we could answer it," Mir wrote in a column in the valley's largest circulated newspaper, Greater Kashmir.
But in the absence of such communication, we assume that it is a generalised accusation. Newspapers were not published for three days but the ‘violence’ persisted. Who incited the violence during those three days? The government’s mishandling of the media springs from its wilful refusal to accept the reality on the ground. The state should take a hard look within to seek answers to who incites violence.
It should ask itself whether the street is not further enraged when the chief minister makes a casual remark on the killing of children, rather than blaming the media which only reports her remark.
Back then in July, the Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson, Naeem Akhtar, had played the incident down, saying it was not a ban but an “enforcement of curfew.” Distribution of newspapers, he had said, was not possible since there were apprehensions of trouble. Following a backlash the government pinned the blame on police, and removed a police official who had carried out the raids.
The government couldn't handle the embarrassment triggered by international outrage, Mir wrote in his column about the three-day ban in July. "[T]he chief minister’s advisor first denied that a ban had been imposed and requested the newspapers to resume the publication."
In July, the government had also banned Pakistani news channels on cable television, along with the newspapers. News agency Reuters had quoted a government minister to say that cable television had been blocked because Pakistani channels had “launched a campaign aimed at fomenting trouble here” and “some newspapers were also sensationalising the violence”. However some channels, particularly Geo TV, after a brief blackout were made available on some cable networks under a different name.
"A media gag at the peak of a mass uprising has far reaching consequences," Mir wrote in his column. "The perfunctory manner in which the ban was announced should have spurred some introspection in the government," he added.
Instead, the 'administration' put the muzzle on Kashmir Reader. Only this time the gag order comes with legal armour, apparently to frighten the rest of the local media into submission.
Mir also stressed on the need for "the state functionaries and its PR system" to be responsive and professional, particularly in a situation of strife where almost any version of a report is hotly contested. "A reporter’s job becomes easy when officials are available to answer to their queries. It becomes more important in emergency situations. Will a police officer’s belligerence help a young reporter grow professionally? Will it not colour his perception of the entire police force?" he wrote, pointing out that "no professional organisation would want to publish reports that do not carry as many sides of the story as possible."
Mir also provided a bit of background to the ban orders on Sunday.
A day before the ban was imposed, one of our reporters called a senior police officer for information about a story. The officer told him that he should start looking for a job as Kashmir Reader would be shut down sooner or later. The officer labelled the newspaper as “Lashkar-e-Toiba’s own organ”. The conversation, which the officer would probably dismiss as a joke, is frightening. If a senior police officer perceives a newspaper as the property of a militant outfit, we naturally become the legitimate targets of a ‘surgical strike’.
On Tuesday, journalists were back on the streets, carrying placards in protest against the ban on the newspaper.
Amnesty International too reacted on Tuesday in a statement, pointing out:
"Under international human rights law, any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression on the ground of public order must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate."
“The District Magistrate’s order does not specifically mention any news items in the Kashmir Reader that incited violence,” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director, Amnesty International India. “This vaguely-worded shutdown order suggests that the newspaper is being targeted for its reporting.”
The government and the local press have had confrontations in the past as well, said Bashir Manzar, editor and owner of a newspaper and printing press that was raided earlier in July. “Even this year you see in the beginning of [the unrest] they raided printing presses, they seized whatever printed copies were there," Manzar said. "So it was not an official ban anywhere, but they didn’t allow us to print – it is tantamount to a ban.”
In 2013, copies of the Kashmir Reader featuring a full page picture of Afzal Guru along with the headline “Afzal Hanged. India’s ‘collective conscience’ satisfied” had been seized by the police.
Reporters Without Borders had then said:
“Use of such generalised censorship has increased in recent years and shows that the authorities have no qualms about isolating an entire segment of the population in an attempt to prevent protests. In so doing, they are guilty of grave discrimination against the Kashmiri population’s right of access to news and information.”
Another aspect of how the government tends to control the press is by using advertising as leverage. Most of the valley’s newspapers are dependent on the revenue generated through government advertisements.
Historically too, the press in Kashmir has seen difficult situations. Independent newspapers were disallowed over much of the Dogra rule in the state. Newspapers had to be smuggled into the valley via Lahore, then the centre of the Urdu press. Post-1947, press in the Kashmir valley has functioned under pressure from state and non-state actors.
Many newspapers had been patronised by political parties and survived. It was during the tenure of Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, first as the state’s prime minister during 1964-1965 and then the chief minister till 1971, that the press in the valley got relative breathing space and functioned independently to an extent. “Not that he was democratic but compared to previous regime there was more breathing space – for both press and political opponents,” said senior journalist Mohammad Syed Malik.
In Kashmir valley, the "quantum of freedom 'allowed' to the press," Malik said, "is directly related to the quantum of freedom that is available in the political arena.”
Section 3 of The Jammu and Kashmir Newspaper (Incitement to offences) Act 1971 (Samvat era, corresponding to AD 1914) has often been used for imposing arbitrary bans.
By the time militancy erupted in the valley in the late 1980s and early '90s, the press found itself caught between state forces, including the dreaded Ikhwanis (pro-government militia), and separatist militants. Both sides intimidated the press to have their versions dominate the news.
Several journalists were kidnapped, illegally detained by state forces, and killed in the initial days of the militancy. Lassa Koul, the then Director of Doordarshan Srinagar became the first victim in February 1990. A year later, the editor of Al-Safa newspaper, Mohammed Shaban Vakil, was shot dead in his office by militants in April 1991.
Yusuf Jameel, former correspondent of the BBC, survived an attempt on his life as a parcel bomb was sent to him. Photojournalist Mushtaq Ali, who opened the parcel, was wounded in the blast and succumbed to his injuries days later on 10 September 1995. Bashir Manzar was abducted by the Ikhwans.
“There was no question of sending you to jail," Malik said. "It was sending you to the next world. Looking back, those people who functioned at that time and maintained whatever semblance of press freedom, were really heroes,” he added.