Mehbooba govt now holds back ads from Kashmir press to make them toe the line
After unsuccessfully trying to stop the printing and circulation of regional newspapers in early July, the J&K government is up to a more insidious trick to get the Kashmir media dance to its tunes: it has selectively stopped issuing advertisements to a section of the press and drastically reduced the ad share for other papers.
One such paper is Kashmir Observer, one of the valley's oldest English newspapers, which hasn't received a single ad over the past 20 days.
This is the second time in two months that the state has tried to gag the press. The government has refused to give any explanation. Director of Information Shahid Iqbal Choudhary blamed the prevailing situation in Kashmir for the dip ads.
He said the government was conscious of the fact that like other businesses, the newspaper industry, too, is going through a difficult time because of the prevailing situation, and every effort is being made to extend every possible ad support to the industry.
"The inflow of government advertisements has declined considerably during the past two months as development works and other government initiatives have substantially slowed down because of the prevailing situation," he said. "The Information department is trying to maintain a judicious balance in the release of advertisements to empanelled newspapers and periodicals as per the Advertisement Policy to ensure whatever possible financial support to them amid testing times."
Choudhary said his department has released "around Rs 11.50 crore, excluding non-budgeted payments, to newspapers and periodicals in the state till August ending this year, out of the total budgeted allocation of Rs 25 crore for the current fiscal".
The editors of the affected newspapers, however, believe there's a deliberate attempt to reduce the ad share in order to get them to moderate their coverage of the ongoing unrest. At a meeting last week, the local editors were plainly told by the the Information department to drop the photo features about the ongoing unrest if they wanted government ads. And some of them have.
A few editors, however, objected to the direction. "I said that a photograph can't be fabricated. It reflects the situation as it is, without embellishment or exaggeration that can be made in a story," one editor, who did not want to be named, told Catch.
On the brink
The unofficial ad ban has further strained the resources of Kashmir's local newspapers, traditionally dependent on the government ads in the absence of a robust private sector. And with the few corporate ads drying up due to the continuous hartals, shutdowns and curfew, withholding of the government ads has signalled a death knell for the newspapers and brought them to the brink of closure.
"The government has hit upon another idea to shut us up: deny us ads for reflecting and articulating the situation as it is," said Sajjad Haider, the editor of Kashmir Observer. "If the government has a case, let it make it publicly. Let it challenge us on facts. But withholding ads selectively without giving the reason for it makes the entire exercise appear motivated."
Haider said despite the scarce resources, his paper had done the "most balanced reportage possible" of the ongoing uprising.
In a piece he wrote recently, Haider said attempts were being made to starve and strangulate the Kashmir Observer by denying it its ad share and force its readers to turn to other newspapers for information.
"We at the Kashmir Observer will continue to do what is right and exercise our freedom of expression," Haider wrote. "And if starved and strangulated, the denouement will not be a commentary on us but on the government in particular and democracy and freedom in general."
The local newspapers have become the only source of news for the people in a situation of continuing e-curfew in the valley. Though the government had left BSNL broadband untouched, albeit banning it for days together now and then, even this facility has been shut down now. This has virtually cut the valley off from the world, even severely affecting the reportage from the districts where the journalists are entirely dependent on broadband to file their reports.
State of censorship
The government has already banned the cable broadcast of local TV news channels, including KBC, Gulistan TV, Munsiff TV, JK Channel and Insaaf TV, apart from Pakistani channels, for their allegedly "one-sided coverage" of the current situation.
An order by the district magistrate of Srinagar on 2 September asked all private cable operators to stop providing these channels to the customers, failing which action will be taken against them under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation Act, 1995).
"Cable operators in Srinagar are transmitting various programmes which have created law and order problem in the valley and Srinagar, as they transmit programmes which promote hatred, ill-will, disharmony and a feeling of enmity against the sovereignty of the state," the order stated, justifying the ban.
In July, the government, in a midnight swoop, had seized the editions of several newspapers in Srinagar and prevented their distribution. Around 20 police personnel had barged into the Corporate Office of the state's largest English daily Greater Kashmir and taken away its plates. They also seized over 50,000 copies of its sister publication, the Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma.
The police had also arrested the paper's press foreman Biju Chaudary and two other employees, and misbehaved with the employees working at the press.
The police similarly raided the printing presses of Kashmir Reader, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Observer and several other English and Urdu dailies and stopped their distribution.
Ironically, the state government later feigned ignorance of the deed, albeit three days after the ban was imposed. The veteran PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and the advisor to the chief minister Amitabh Mattoo, in interviews to some TV channels, denied any knowledge of the gag.
The ban in July was lifted after a public outcry. Now, the state has adopted a less overt, but equally effective, tactic to silence the newspapers, said Haider. "With the government unable to reign in the current unrest, the attempt to muzzle the local press has become an easier option," he said. "They cannot challenge us on the factuality of our reportage, so they are trying to force us to play the situation down."