Ban on daily 'Kashmir Reader' marks worst-ever media gag in Valley

It seems to be the brainchild of J&K state government under CM Mehbooba Mufti.

 |  4-minute read |   07-10-2016
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Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has many firsts to her credit. But then, not every maiden development of her government is worth being appreciated as a milestone, except for her being the first woman CM of the state.

Her government imposed the first-ever 52-day curfew in restive Kashmir, pushing more than seven million civilian subjects into a crisis.

It is for the first time that within three months, more than 12,000 people have been wounded and around 1,000 blinded in government action against civilian protesters. Arrest of more than 7,000 youth in such a short span of time, is another first.

Another feather in Mehbooba's cap is that for the first time the government has banned publication of a newspaper in Kashmir.

On October 2, invoking a draconian law from the days of Dogra autocratic rule – JK Newspapers Incitement to Offences Act 1971 Samvat – the state government ordered presses to stop printing and publication of a small English language daily Kashmir Reader.

The order, issued by Srinagar district magistrate, Farooq Ahmed Lone, says that publication of the newspaper can "easily incite acts of violence and disturb peace and tranquility".

While some rumour-mongers, presumably defending the state government, are blaming New Delhi for the gag, I beg to differ.

If the government of India ever wanted to ban newspapers in Kashmir, it would have done so in 1990s, when militancy was at its peak and local press was glamourising the uprising.

In a conflict zone like Kashmir, a mere typo is enough to get a journalist labeled as "IB", or "RAW agent". Amid these allegations and counter-allegations while some journalists were killed, many others were intimidated or attacked. But in the last 30 odd years of armed conflict in the Valley, not a single media publication was banned. Not even when President’s Rule was imposed in the state.

mehboobabdpti_100716063544.jpg The ban on Kashmir Reader seems to be the brainchild of the state government. (PTI photo)

The ban on Kashmir Reader seems to be the brainchild of the state government, whose chief minister is so intolerant to media queries that on August 25, while addressing a joint press conference with union Home minister, Rajnath Singh, she abandoned her maiden presser midway.

The State has been allergic to local media since the day Kashmir erupted in the wake of killing of militant "commander" Burhan Muzaffar Wani and his two colleagues on July 8.

A week later, police raided media houses. On July 16, printing of newspapers was banned for three days, till order was revoked, following widespread criticism.

But as the situation continued to be edgy, the authorities launched a second offensive, trying to tame local newspapers by stopping issuance of government advertisements to some local dailies.

But the third offensive of banning the newspaper has proved the deadliest. Apart from denying the right to freedom of speech, it has deprived scores of people their livelihood.

The editor of Kashmir Reader, Mir Hilal, terms the order as "an attempt to muzzle the newspaper that has been reporting the uprising like any other newspaper". "We fail to understand how a newspaper that has been reporting events with journalistic sincerity incites violence?" he asks. 

The newspaper has been banned by the government, which has a well-known erstwhile editor, Haseeb Drabu, as its finance minister. Incidentally, the government spokesman, Syed Naeem Akhtar Andrabi, also happens to be a former columnist, who wrote under multiple pseudonyms like Sattar Waggay, to attack the then governments.

The open secret of Akhtar’s "undercover journalism" got finally exposed in 2009, after his retirement from government services, when Valley’s influential daily Greater Kashmir confirmed that he had been writing under "multiple pen names".

But then, call it fate or coincidence, PDP’s intolerance towards mainstream media is nothing new, though it has worsened over the years.

In 2005, the then government led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had booked the editor-in-chief of Greater Kashmir, Fayaz Ahmed Kaloo, over a news report pertaining to mere snowfall.

Had legal intervention not salvaged Greater Kashmir, this widely circulated daily would have been history.

But then, since January 2015, when the PDP-BJP alliance came to power, the state government has been attempting to introduce "stenographic journalism", whereby journalists are expected to file stories on government dictations.  

Acting on similar lines, the Directorate of Information & Public Relations, in 2015, offered additional jobs to working journalists. Around 30 of those appointed to work as information officers with ministers were allowed to continue their duties in newspapers.

Working journalists had never been formally on government payrolls before. Although it is a different matter that the Directorate of Information has become so unstable that its director has been replaced four times in the last four months. Adding another first to Mehbooba’s kitty.

But then, while the Directorate of Information is supposed to be a government mouthpiece, should the fourth estate also behave so? Can media stop disseminating truth just because the government is allergic to it?

These questions are doing the rounds in the journalistic circles of Kashmir as we continue to protest against the ban on Kashmir Reader.

Being allergic to truth can be an individual ailment, but it shouldn’t take hostage freedom of expression and journalism.

Also read: How India is censoring the Kashmir story

Writer

Majid Hyderi Majid Hyderi @majid_hyderi

The writer is a journalist based in Kashmir.

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