Early in July, Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo, editor of Greater Kashmir, and Rashid Makhdoomi, its publisher, were summoned to Delhi and questioned by the National Investigation Agency for a week.

The investigating agency did not give an official reason for the summons. Some reports suggested they were questioned for the newspaper’s coverage of the 2016 Kashmir protests, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani. Others suggested Kaloo’s interrogation was related to a terror funding investigation.

Whatever the reason, the interrogation of Kaloo, editor of the Valley’s most widely circulated English daily, is being seen as part of a sustained effort to curb the local press in Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir is currently under Central rule, with the state administration headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik.

A ban and an arrest

Two days after a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide bomber killed more than 40 soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, the state government allegedly stopped advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, another English daily. The order was conveyed verbally.

“When we approached them [the state government], they said it’s from above,” said Haji Hayat Mohd Bhat, who owns and edits Kashmir Reader. “If there was a written order, it would have included the grounds on which the advertisements were stopped but that’s not the case. A written order can be challenged in court.”

In April, the government extended the advertisement ban to Kashmir Uzma, an Urdu daily that is Greater Kashmir’s sister publication.

The virtual absence of a private corporate sector in the Valley means government advertisements are the financial lifeline for local newspapers.

On March 10, Valley-based newspapers published blank front-pages as a mark of protest against the government’s ad ban on two newspapers. Denouncing the ban, Kashmir Editors Guild, which represents 13 media organisations in the Valley, called the government’s “decision against democracy and in violation of principle of free media guaranteed by the constitution”

Kashmir journalists protest against the 'blacklisting' of colleagues at the Republic Day function this year. Credit: Idrees Abbas

‘Anti-national coverage’

Manoj Kumar Dwivedi, who is commissioner secretary to the state government and also in charge of the state’s information department, disagreed with this assessment.

“This is not a curb on freedom of speech and expression,” he said. “The newspapers are still functioning. They have not been stopped from publishing and we have not de-registered them, so how can they equate it with curbs on freedom of speech and expression?”

He added: “If they have a grievance they can represent it and raise it with me.”

Governor Malik’s advisor, K Vijay Kumar, said the government had started “streamlining” its advertisement policy. “A group has also been formed to ascertain if the details of circulation, tax payment, printing and use of machinery furnished by the publishers are correct,” he said.

The government was not “particularly” targeting any newspaper, he said, but conceded “there are certain issues”.

“One is fair reporting and the other is completely biased reporting – that’s also being looked into. We are not into censorship. The government is looking into the issue fairly,” Kumar said.

The Union home ministry has been open about wanting to regulate the information economy in the Valley. In February 2017, an assessment report on Kashmir, prepared by the Union home ministry, suggested “control” of mosques, madrasas, print and television media in the Valley. Later that year, it recommended the state government stop advertisements to papers which published “anti-national articles”.

At a meeting with the state government in March this year, the Union home ministry said the state was to take “sustained action against media houses involved in anti-national coverage”.

‘State can do anything’

While funds were depleted, security agencies acted against individual journalists.

On June 24, Ghulam Jeelani Qadri, the 62-year-old editor of Afaaq, an Urdu daily, was arrested in a midnight raid. For several hours in police custody, Qadri had no idea why he was picked up. Then he learned it was for a 29-year-old case where he and seven other editors had been booked for publishing a statement by Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin.

In October 1992, the police had declared Qadri and the other journalists – three of whom have since died – proclaimed offenders. On June 22, 1993, the Srinagar chief judicial magistrate had issued an arrest warrant against them.

The local police claimed he had been absconding all these years, something that Qadri refutes. “It took the police 26 years to execute that warrant when I was before them all along,” he said. “In these 26 years, my passport was verified twice and I was nominated as a member of many government-appointed committees. How was I a proclaimed offender?” A day after his arrest, he was granted bail by a local court in Srinagar.

Since militancy spread in the Valley in 1989, the local press has frequently been under pressure, both from the state and from militant groups. But Qadri said it was the first time in his four decades as a journalist that he was arrested.

“Being a journalist in Kashmir is always challenging,” he said. “But this was something new. In Kashmir, the state can do anything, so I won’t be surprised if they come tomorrow with something else on me.”

Since 2017, security agencies have started arresting or detaining and interrogating journalists, starting with Kamran Yusuf, a photographer who frequently contributed to Greater Kashmir. The National Investigation Agency chargesheet against him said he could not be a “real journalist” since he did not cover “developmental activity” or government functions.

This August, Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the magazine, Kashmir Narrator, will complete a year in jail. He was arrested for “hatching criminal conspiracy” and “harbouring terrorists.” But the state police had also objected to articles written by Sultan, including reports on Burhan Wani.

Imagining a greater Kashmir

Now, the National Investigation Agency has cracked down on one of the most powerful men in the Valley. Kaloo has been the editor of Greater Kashmir since its inception as a weekly in 1987. The paper he edits has also had a long and emotional relationship with the Kashmiri reading public. Greater Kashmir became a daily in 1993, four years after militancy spread in the Valley, documenting one of the worst phases of violence in Kashmir.

“The distinctive characteristic of Greater Kashmir was that it was a Kashmiri newspaper in English,” said a senior journalist who worked with the newspaper in the early years. “It represented the aspirations of Kashmiri people: we, too, could have a national newspaper in English.”

It was a sense of responsibility to Kashmiri society, the senior journalist argued, which made Greater Kashmir the Valley’s most reputed media organisation. “People actually developed a relationship and trust with the paper,” he said.

Over the years, as Greater Kashmir and its editor became a power centre, the paper had to strike a careful balance between reflecting popular sentiment, most often aligned with separatism, and the state narrative. Among journalist circles, Kaloo became known as a “kingmaker”, increasingly influential in political circles.

It also meant a change in the character of the paper, argue some of its former employees. “It began to compromise on its position as a public mouthpiece and gradually lost its steadfastness to state coercion,” explained a reporter who had started his career at the newspaper. “Greater Kashmir sacrificed its integrity to stay as palatable a mainstream paper as any other in mainland India.”

Kashmir journalists protest the ban on the 'Kashmir Reader' in 2016.

In 2013, a day after Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was hanged in Tihar jail, the paper faced a social media backlash for featuring the news under a flashy ad for a biscuit company.

It was called out for “extreme insensitivity” and “bad taste”. The outrage soon coalesced into a campaign, with a Facebook group called ‘Boycott Greater Kashmir’, followed by hundreds.

“The advertisement was insensitive to Kashmir’s political mood at that time,” said one of the members behind the campaign. “What prompted it was a deep feeling of anger rooted in the idea that they will respond. But GK didn’t even bother to acknowledge its mistake.”

But in 2016, as protests broke out and militancy swelled, the paper documented civilian casualties which mounted as security forces opened fire on crowds, shotgun injuries inflicted on demonstrators and militant funerals.

Kaloo, the newspaper’s editor, was not available for comment and Makhdoomi, its publisher, declined Scroll.in’s request for an interview.

Changing terms

“I don’t think it’s journalism that Greater Kashmir is being targeted for,” said a senior journalist who has worked with the paper. “First, they want to cut its editor and his influence down to size. Second, and more importantly, the crackdown is a message to other independent outlets in the region.”

The ban on advertisements has put a massive financial strain on newspapers. Reporters at Greater Kashmir faced 40%-50% pay cuts. Three senior editors were fired days after the National Investigation Agency interrogations.

But staff at both the Reader and Greater Kashmir confided that the papers had mellowed their criticism of the government. Some stories were skipped altogether.

For example, on June 12, when Amnesty International was barred by the Srinagar administration from holding an event on the Public Safety Act, a controversial preventive detention law, Greater Kashmir carried a brief article online. The next day, the story was missing from the print edition. A human rights report by the United Nations was buried in Page 10. They were all PTI articles, none of them filed from Kashmir.

“What’s actually happening on the ground in Kashmir is not getting reflected in the local newspapers,” said a journalist associated with Kashmir Reader. “I think that’s what they wanted to achieve.”

Meanwhile, social media users pointed to changes in the terms used by Kashmiri newspapers since the advertisement ban, suggesting they now hewed closer to the state line: the “Srinagar-Jammu highway” became the “National Highway” and the “Joint Resistance Leadership” became “separatist” leaders of the Hurriyat.