On February 22, for the first time in the history of the Kashmir insurgency, the Jammu and Kashmir government stopped advertisements to Greater Kashmir, the Valley’s largest circulated English daily. The newspaper was already blacklisted from getting ads from the central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity since 2008. State government ads have also been stopped to Kashmir Reader, which was banned for three months during the 2016 mass protests by the coalition government of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Peoples Democratic Party.

Why and why now? There is no official order stating the ads have been stopped. When asked for the reason, the state’s officials usually say “the directions came from above”, meaning the Indian government. The state, being under governor’s rule, is currently run directly by New Delhi.

It must be noted that the governor’s administration appears to have acted retrospectively on a letter sent by the Union home ministry to the Mehbooba Mufti government on October 18, 2017. According to the Hindustan Times, which claimed to have seen the contents of the letter, the ministry flagged that some newspapers in the state were publishing “highly radicalised content glamourising terrorists and anti-national elements”, which went against the constitutions of both India and Jammu and Kashmir. It also recommended that the state government refrain from extending patronage to such publications by supplying them with ads.

A government which has all the markings of an authoritarian regime might not be interested in defining what constitutes “glamourising terrorists and anti-national elements” or explain to a newspaper why it will not be given ads. However, the timing of the state government’s decision, a year after the home ministry’s letter, may be explained by what followed the ad blackout: the Valley was gripped by fear of war in the wake of New Delhi’s tough talk about the February 14 Pulwama attack, which killed 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force. The same evening as the state government announced the withdrawal of advertisements, about 10,000 paramilitary soldiers were flown into the Valley, the food department was told to speed up the distribution of food grains, hospitals were directed to stock up on surgical items and doctors’ leaves were cancelled.

There were no takers for the administration’s explanation that additional troops had been deployed to prepare for the approaching elections. If the state was really going into overdrive to prepare for the elections, how does stopping ads to the largest regional newspaper – Greater Kashmir’s Facebook page alone has two million likes and the daily has the largest online readership in the Valley – serve the purpose? Especially when many of these ads are directly related to elections. What purpose would be served by depriving thousands of students access to important notifications in the publication with the widest reach?

Journalists protest the ban on the newspaper Kashmir Reader. Photo via Twitter

Coercing the media into submission

The ad gag should also be seen against the backdrop of the detention of nearly 400 Jamaat-e-Islami activists in the days before the socio-religious organisation was outlawed on February 28. It could be a pressure tactic to ensure that, should an ominous situation arise, the Kashmir media would have already been cowed into silence. And what better way to ensure that than by stopping ads to the biggest media group in the Valley and to Kashmir Reader, which had already been punished for its coverage of the 2016 mass protests?

The use of ads as a media controlling mechanism is not new in Kashmir. In fact, the strategy was perfected by previous government in Delhi, mainly led by the Congress, which stopped ads from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity to Greater Kashmir.

Other means have also been used to coerce media into submission. Between 2002 and 2008, a period considered to have been relatively peaceful, nearly a dozen first information reports were registered against Greater Kashmir. The courts have quashed most of these cases against the newspaper. In Kashmir, the FIRs are considered an indirect form of media censorship. For instance, one of the FIRs was for reproducing verbatim a report filed by a foreign wire service from Muzaffarabad. No notice was sent to the wire service, which has bureaus in India as well.

Or is the advertisement gag meant to damage a robust institution, one of the few that have managed to thrive in Kashmir against great odds? Established as a weekly in the turbulent early-1990s, Greater Kashmir was the first English daily to grow into a media company that provides direct and indirect employment to hundreds of people. An attack on its financial well-being is consistent with the policies of the ruling dispensation in New Delhi which perceives every institution in Kashmir as “anti-national”. The newspaper has many detractors, some of whom have found sanctuary in the polarised polity of India. A former Army general, addressing a seminar organised by a rightwing group in Jammu last year, ascribed communal motives to the very name “Greater Kashmir”.

Stopping ads to such a newspaper is hardly surprising for a government which has been criticised for its silence on the lynching of Muslims and for espousing majoritarian politics. But it holds lessons for parties such as the Congress, the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference. They made the manipulation of media so acceptable that a party like the BJP could better them only by being more belligerent.

Hilal Mir is a journalist in Kashmir.

Also read: Only ‘Kashmir Reader’ was gagged, but all newspapers in the Valley must toe a tricky line

Kashmir’s weekend of fear has left the Valley with acute shortages: ‘Something bad is brewing’