SRINAGAR: A ban on the Srinagar-based daily ‘Kashmir Reader’ is a blot on Indian democracy, writes Irfan Quraishi.
On 2 October, J&K government banned the local daily newspaper Kashmir Reader saying that it had “credible inputs” that the daily was inciting violence, and barred it from publication until further notice. However, two weeks later, the government has not yet revealed what these ‘credible inputs’ were.
Editor of the Kashmir Reader, Hilal Mir, believes that this time, as he wrote in his column, that the gag order comes with legal armour apparently to frighten local media and force their submission.
A Ban in Legal Garb
“The order invokes local press laws and says that law and order in the state will be disturbed if the newspaper is allowed to be published. It would have been helpful if the gag order had made a mention of a specific report so that we could answer it,” Mir said. The order did not cite any specific examples of the offending coverage.
Section 3 of The Jammu and Kashmir Newspaper (Incitement to offences) Act 1971 has often been used for imposing arbitrary bans. Shrimoyee, a PhD scholar while tweeting on the issue wrote, “The JK Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act 1971 gives draconian administrative powers to authorities to stop presses even ex parte.”
Gagging the Media
The editor of the Srinagar-based newspaper alleged that their printing press were reportedly raided around midnight in THE last three months of unrest, adding that the ban order was conveyed verbally to editors by a government official.
The state, which has 522 papers including 195 approved and 105 unapproved ones in the Jammu region and 222 in Kashmir, is not new to media censorship. In July, authorities had allegedly raided some media offices and detained a few of their employees while seizing printed copies. Newspapers were prevented from publishing for days in a curfew-bound Kashmir.
“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”, said Abrar Bhat, Bureau Chief of a national media house.
He adds that 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.
Dangling the Carrot of Government Ads
In the absence of a strong private sector, government advertising is another tool that is used in such tussles as the newspapers in Kashmir depend to a great extent on the revenue from government advertisements. Slots of these advertisements are solely dependent on the government’s discretion. Newspapers that are close to the government or in any sense pro-government are given advertisements in abundance while the rest are deprived.
Especially during times of unrest, the advertisement tool is being used by the government during the clampdown on the newspapers criticising government, by curtailing their advertisements.
According to the official figures, government advertisements had gone down 80 percent in the ongoing unrest. The advertising dropped from 2.10 lakh square centimetres in June to 32,000 square centimetres in July this year.
In 2013, in the wake of the Afzal Guru execution, printing press owners and hawkers were indirectly threatened to stop circulation allegedly by the government machinery. However, Omar Abdullah, the then chief minister, denied such allegations of any such media gag imposed by the state government.
History of Media Bans
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. Srinagar Times was banned for carrying a statement by Akbar Jehan Abdullah, wife of the late Sheikh Abdullah, condemning state violence.
“Whenever there is unrest in valley, printing presses are raided, and printed copies are seized. Nothing is new in this unrest. Earlier in July the same tactics were repeated to gag the media. It was not an official ban anywhere, but they didn’t allow us to print, it is equal to a ban”, said Bashir Ahmad, Editor and Owner of a Newspaper.
India Almost as Bad as Pakistan on Press Freedom
“Both India and Pakistan rank abysmally among democracies in the World Press Freedom Index. India ranks 133rd out of 180, and Pakistan ranks 147th. The governments of both countries clearly have lines that journalists should not cross, and which most do not cross for fear of repercussions,” Washington Post concluded in a report referring to ban on the daily newspaper Kashmir Reader and the episode involving Cyril Almeida, a columnist and reporter at Dawn, Pakistan’s most prominent English-language newspaper, who was put on the Exit Control List – a roster of those forbidden from leaving the country.
Editorial in Deccan Herald
In an editorial, national newspaper Deccan Herald said that bans on newspapers and media channels, censorship and other methods are against the spirit of democracy and a violation of the fundamental right on freedom of expression. “Governments in Kashmir have resorted to all these methods in the past. The ban on Kashmir Reader was imposed arbitrarily,” it said. It said that the government’s clampdown on the newspaper perhaps was to send out a warning to others.
The media is under heavy pressure in Kashmir. Some weeks ago, the government had shut down all printing presses and temporarily banned all newspapers for three days. Other channels of information including social media have also faced controls and curbs. Violation of normal constitutional rights can only worsen the situation, and it cannot be justified on any pretext.
It’s worth mentioning that historically too, the press in Kashmir has seen difficult situations. Independent newspapers were disallowed through 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.
(The writer is a Kashmir-based broadcast & multimedia journalist. He has previously worked for Day & Night News and Kashmir Times. He tweets @irfanquraishi85. )