On October 2, the Jammu and Kashmir government said it had “credible inputs” that Kashmir Reader, a newspaper in the Valley, was inciting violence and barred it from publication till further notice. Two weeks later, the government has not yet said what these credible inputs were.

Kashmir Reader was launched in May 2012 by Helpline Advertising. The business house had stopped publication of its popular monthly magazine Conveyor to enter the newspaper business. The English daily rose to prominence quickly, making a place for itself in Kashmir’s crowded newspaper scene.

Its founding editor Showkat Motta, who was associated with Kashmir Reader for three years, said the newspaper was successful because it was run professionally by full-time journalists, unlike other papers in the Valley that he claimed hired people moonlighting as journalists.

Governments in Jammu and Kashmir are seen as indifferent to the press in ordinary times. The clampdowns start during periods of unrest. This summer, as violence erupted across Kashmir in July, the government temporarily halted the publication of Valley-based newspapers. For a while, it also pulled national and Pakistani news channels off the air.

However, closer scrutiny shows the clampdown started before the unrest began. In April, civil society activist Khurram Parvez was barred from holding a press conference on the alleged molestation of a girl in North Kashmir’s Handwara town. After protests broke over the case, the government also stopped separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani from addressing a press conference.

Recalling the outrage in the national media last week over the Pakistan government's imposition of a travel ban on Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, Motta said, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones on others."

Access denied

In Kashmir, governments use covert and overt ways to influence the press. While there have been instances of formal action being taken, as in the case of Kashmir Reader, they are also know to use indirect methods, such as choking the flow of information or of advertisements.

Journalist Yusuf Jameel, currently with the Deccan Chronicle, said the government usually imposes censorship by proxy. “Proxy in the sense that they would create circumstances in which it would become difficult and impossible for us to work,” he said.

The curbs come in the form of denial of access to locations and government officials. On many occasions, curfew passes issued by the government to the press have not been accepted by law enforcement agencies.

Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir Images, said no newspaper in the Valley can claim to report the real picture on the ground. Given the restrictions, journalists are often unable to do the spot report themselves and depend on sources, who may not be reliable. “This impacts the authenticity of the news in itself,” he said.

Information sharing between the government and the press is also a concern. Zafar Meraj, editor-in-chief of Kashmir Monitor, said there was a trust deficit between the government and journalists in the state. As a result, the government shared information with journalists from outside the state while denying those within.

Jameel said, “There used to be zero flow of information from the government and security side. Now, there is some improvement but they are still trying to sell half-truths.”

Controlling advertisement revenue

Government advertising is another tool that is used in this fight. In the absence of a strong private sector, newspapers in Kashmir depend to a great extent on revenue from government advertisements. How these advertisements are parcelled out is often left to the government’s discretion. "Papers close to the government are given advertisements in abundance while the rest are deprived,” said Meraj.

Some editors spoke of newspapers being set up just to tap this revenue. Tahir Mohiuddin, editor of the Urdu newspaper Chattan, said advertisements had gone down 80% during the ongoing unrest. But a bigger concern was the mushrooming of newspapers set up by “non-professionals”, which had managed to get government advertisements. “Even newspapers that have never been heard of receive Rs 10 lakhs to Rs 12 lakhs [in advertisement revenue],” he said. "The brunt of this is borne by genuine newspapers."

Government advertising dropped from 2.10 lakh square centimetres in June to 32,000 square centimetres in July. Director Information Shahid Iqbal Choudhary told Daily Excelsior this decline was because of the slowdown in official work.

The press in Kashmir faces pressure from other sections too, not just the government. In August, pro-Pakistan Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani took exception to Valley-based newspapers refusing to publish a poster issued by the separatist leadership asking mainstream politicians to resign.

“Everyone agreed to publish it as a poster advertisement but none of them, except Kashmir Reader and Tameel Irshad [an Urdu newspaper], dared to publish it,” Geelani said.

Asking newspapers to come clean on “which hidden hands prevented them to do so”, he said, "Professional assignments aside, we have some more obligations as part of an oppressed nation, which is struggling for its basic rights. Everybody needs to own this movement and share their bit of responsibility honestly.”

Thus, the press finds itself sandwiched between two political forces: the government and the separatists.

Red lines

There are other red lines that prove a challenge to the media in Kashmir. Conflict of interest is one of them.

This emerges when government employees moonlight as journalists. According to Showkat Motta of the Kashmir Reader, many newspapers have editors “who work in different government departments” and hence, cannot take a stand on any issue. "Outside Kashmir, a journalist is always a journalist," he said. "Unfortunately, in Kashmir, we have a different definition – he is either full-time or part-time."

The other problem is censorship, of all kinds. Prominent papers in the Valley carry reports critical of government policies or about the high-handedness of security forces. Chattan's Tahir Mohiuddin said the governments is usually tolerant and “overall, there are no restrictions. We can write almost whatever we want to”. However, he admitted that there were “some limits".

According to Bashir Manzar of Kashmir Images, these limits are the same that editors and journalists reporting from conflict zones across the world face. “Whether there is a censor or not, some censor is always there in your head,” he said. "You know where the red lines are."

While the press has been vocal about governments, separatists largely evade critical examination. Mohiuddin said separatist leaders, except Geelani, were not tolerant of criticism. He said, “Generally there is no debate on the Hurriyat… the newspapers have failed to bring accountability among separatist leaders.”

Finances, to some extent, also play a part in the censorship struggle. Veteran journalist Mohammad Syed Malik said papers suffered commercially if they did not cater to popular sentiment. Being critical of the separatist movement would mean putting one’s life at risk and the governments would not be in a position to do anything about it, said Malik.

Recalling separatist leaders Abdul Ghani Lone and Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, who were killed by militants, he asked, “If they [government] could not save these big leaders, how would they save [journalists]? Since you are in the public field, you are also a target."

A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch on human rights violations by the state as well as by militants said that such abuse by the latter was often not documented because of a wider sympathy for their political cause and a fear of being targeted. “Militant abuses have been brutal, plentiful and continuous against anyone seen to be opposed to their agenda,” it said.

Quoting an unidentified Kashmiri journalist, the report added, "We know what the Army can do. We are familiar with their abuses. They can kill us, but they cannot destroy us. But the militants are gradually changing our very ethos. They are killing with impunity and we can never tell who they are."

Ahmad Ali Fayyaz, a journalist with State Times who has reported on excesses by state and non-state actors, has a different take on this. "Yes, many of us fear reprisals from militants from whose wrath no court or institution can save you," he said. "But it is my personal experience that militants have been tolerant of criticism to a great extent. In the 1990s, people could provoke some of them for vested interests or for settling personal scores."

He added that militants now are better informed about those who write out of conviction, those who write out of professional compulsions and those who write because they are paid agents for one side or the other. In the end, the filter depends on the journalists themselves.

“I did the harshest of stories against militants but give them credit that they never held out a threat or attempted an attack for my reporting,” said Fayyaz. “So I believe that if many of our colleagues are selective and subjective, they are so because of their conviction and sympathy for the cause of azadi, or accession to Pakistan and separation from India. Once you identify yourself with a party, it becomes difficult to report all sides of a conflict.”

The bad old days

Kashmir Reader is not the first newspaper in the Valley to be banned. Even before the 1990s, the state government had a tradition of banning newspapers or detaining editors under the Preventive Detention Act and later the Public Safety Act that replaced it.

In April 1990, the government banned Urdu dailies Al Safa and Daily Aftab among others. In the years that followed, newspapers remained suspended for days as their staff failed to get to work due to curfew or were paralysed into inaction by the threats of the government and militants over coverage.

Militant organisations, too, banned newspapers on several occasions. One such organisation called Shoura-e-Jihad, which was a grouping of various militant outfits, presided over kangaroo courts that issued such bans.

Some papers were proscribed for covering rival militant groups. Srinagar Times was banned for carrying a statement by Akbar Jehan Abdullah, wife of the late Sheikh Abdullah, condemning state violence. Kashmir Images and Chattan, then weeklies, were banned for not publishing militant press releases and for coverage of rivals that offended the Shoura.

Several newspaper offices – including those of Greater Kashmir, Daily Aftab and Srinagar Times – were bombed or sealed. Mohammad Shaban Vakil, editor of Al Safa, fell to militant bullets in 1991.

The government, on the other hand, initially gave newspapers in the Valley a free run, even when their language, editorials and titles were overtly anti-state. The press at that time referred to foreign jihadis as “guest militants” and used terms such as “Indian prime minister” and “mujahideen”. Newspapers called Shaheed-e-Hurriyat, Muzaffarabad Times, Ishfaq Times and Jehad-e-Akbar were allowed to circulate.

“If you check the newspapers of the early 1990s, you will see the government is nowhere, said Manzar. "It does not look like these newspapers had been published from any Union state."

Senior journalists explained that the free flow of information was meant to compensate for the breakdown in the intelligence apparatus in the Valley. As different ideologies competed in the public space, it led to friction between separatist factions.

Fayyaz remarked, “Instead of repressive measures, the government discredited [the press], rather than making it a credible institution."

A change came as the state began to reassert its writ. Security forces and the Ikhwan, a force comprising former militants who had switched sides to fight alongside the Indian Army, put pressure on journalists for favourable coverage. Journalists said the intimidation from militants paled in comparison to the threats of the Ikhwan, who abducted and attempted to kill many in the media.

The central armed forces, on their part, drew a line at naming individual officers or units involved in human rights violations. “Naming the unit and person meant they would wage war on you,” said Zahir ud Din, a journalist with Greater Kashmir. He recalled an incident from 1993 when he reported on the murder of a civilian by the Army. He could not visit his relatives in Anantnag until a decade later, when that particular unit was transferred out.

On September 7, 1995, a parcel bomb was delivered to Yusuf Jameel, then a correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation. Jameel survived the blast but his colleague Mushtaq Ali succumbed to his injuries on September 10.

In 1997, Fayyaz said a company of the Army’s 20 Grenadiers barged into his home and assaulted his family members. He added that on another occasion, a deputy inspector general of the Border Security Force threatened to kill him when he, then the Kashmir bureau chief of Daily Excelsior, reported on a fake encounter in 2003.

Mohiuddin said the breakdown of the 1990s affected the press as “verification was not possible”. Both sides made claims and wanted newspapers to write their version of events.

According to Malik, the civilian administration went missing, leaving the press in Kashmir unprotected from militants as well as the armed forces. “It was survival of the fittest,” he said. “The rule of jungle prevailed at that time.”