By: Majid Maqbool
Posted on: 13 August 2016
For five days in a row no newspaper in any language was published from Kashmir following state government’s clampdown on local media on July 15 Friday evening. There were no newspapers on the stands next day; the hawkers couldn’t deliver papers at homes. In the ensuing, state imposed information blackout, rumours were allowed to have a free run.
Meanwhile, Kashmir is reeling under a month-long curfew. The mobile network, except postpaid mobile network, and most of internet also remained banned, cutting off people from reaching out to each other. Following the killing of 22-year old Hizbul commander Burhan Wani onJuly 8, about 56 people have been killed, with over 5000 people injured, including many teenagers and children blinded by pellets.
The crackdown on local newspapers began on Friday, July 15 midnight. At around 1.am, about 20 policemen barged inside the printing press of valley’s largest circulated newspaper, Greater Kashmir, at Rangreth Srinagar city outskirts. The policemen asked the printing staff to immediately stop printing the paper. They loaded all the printed copies in the vehicle, even taking away the waste copies and also seized some printing plates. All the printed copies of Greater Kashmir, and about 50,000 copies of its sister publication, Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma, were seized by the police authorities that night. The cops had also misbehaved with the employees present there and snatched their cell phones, as per a report published in the online edition of the paper next day. The employees who tried to resist were beaten up by the policemen. The foreman, driver and one of the employees of the printing press were detained overnight in a nearby police station.
Copies of another daily newspaper Rising Kashmir were similarly seized in the midnight crackdown. On that Friday night, as the vehicle carrying the printed copies of the Rising Kashmir for next morning reached press colony in Lal Chowk, the policemen were waiting there for the vehicle to arrive, said an informed source from the paper. The policemen then asked the driver to reach the local police station where all the copies of the paper were subsequently seized.
Similarly the printing press of another prominent daily of the state, Kashmir Times, was also raided on the same night. “Over 20 policeman raided KT Press Private Limited printing pressoffice at Rangreth area in Srinagar outskirts at midnight and arrested its printing press foreman and 10 other employees,” the paper reported in its online edition next day. “The policemen seized the metallic printing plates of Kashmir Times and more than 70,000 printed copies of Kashmir Times and closed down the K T Press Pvt Ltd printing press,” the report said, adding that the cops also misbehaved with the employees present there and snatched their cell phones. “The employees who tried to resist were beaten up by the policemen.”
Policemen also seized a few thousand copies of another daily Kashmir Reader on the same night. “They also asked the printing press staff that night not to take the trouble of publishing newspapers from tomorrow,” said Reader’s editor, Hilal Mir. “Two of our men, a printing pressstaffer and driver, were also briefly detained.”
A day earlier, Reader had published a chilling account of alleged sexual abuse and torture of a family on their way to Srinagar by CRPF troops. The story, headlined “CRPF men brutalise family, attempt to rape and kill”, was reportedly blocked by the state government, and also taken down from the paper’s website. But the story subsequently resurfaced on social media where it was widely circulated.
On Thursday, July 21, the local newspapers finally hit the stands again after the state government "regretted" and "apologized" for imposing the gag in a meeting with a group of newspaper owners and editors in Srinagar.
“Local newspapers — a record of state violence — are the only source of news in curfew-bound flashpoints where mobile phone and internet services have been snapped,” Mir later wrote in a column in The Indian Express. “Besides, the local media has the wherewithal to cover such situations extensively. The state, however, prefers a media blackout on these occasions. It would rather have the journalists do the fire-fighting or, preferably, complement its actions, than perform its job.”
State censorship of media in Kashmir is not a new phenomenon.
Zahid Z Muhammad, political analyst and lead columnist of Greater Kashmir says whenever the ruling elite failed to contain the public resentment or agitation in Kashmir, its immediate target has been newspapers, journalists and editors. In the history of the resistance movement of Kashmir, he says, all rulers, even those claiming to be wedded to the policy of liberalization and democracy, have turned hostile towards the press. “In 1965, when G.M. Sadiq government could not dare to venture out of the corridors of power, the newspapers were gagged, eight newspapers were banned and some senior journalists were arrested under the Defense of India Rules,” he says.
The government advertisements have always been used to arm-twist the newspapers in Kashmir, forcing them to toe the official line. “This we saw happening in nineties and during the 2008, 2010 uprising and now in 2016,” says Zahid, adding that these tactics have not helped the governments to contain situation and instead proved to be counterproductive. During the 2010 uprising, in which over 120 people died in firing by forces, local newspapers couldn't be published for 10 days after the government authorities cancelled curfew passes issues to the journalists. On February 10, 2013, the state government seized (for one day) all valley based newspapers a day after the execution of Afzal Guru. Over the years the central government has also deprived prominent local dailies of DAVP advertisements.
In the absence of credible and verified information, rumours tend to have a free run, especially rumours about death and protests elsewhere that can spread fast, as they did during the recent newspaper ban in Kashmir. The ban on mobile network and mobile internet, which is still in force, has worsened the information gap. Unable to receive verified information about happenings beyond the immediate neighborhoods, anxious people, who’re deprived of information and means of communication, rely more on word of mouth information which is passed on by people from one neighborhood to another. Often that information is filtered and proves to be incorrect.
“In Kashmir historically word of mouth has always been strong and powerful for sustaining the resistance movement, but then there’s the inherent disadvantage of leaving space for rumour mongering,” says Zahid Muhammad. “And many times rumors act as a spark to a powder keg, causing large scale destruction.”
Khalid Bashir Ahmad, a prominent Kashmir based writer and analyst, says managing media in Kashmir was never a daunting task for the rulers and establishment in Kashmir, until it mushroomed in the 1990s. “There were hardly any newspapers except two or three worth the name and it would take the Government little effort to bring them round in so far as writing about the core political issue was concerned,” he says. The government would always bank upon the State-run Doordarshan and Radio Kashmir to counter any opposition and disseminate news the way it liked. “The media criticism for rulers then, more or less, remained restricted to issues like price hike or shortage of essential commodities even as separatist voices too were accommodated,” he says.
Bashir also points out that the Emergency in India had ‘little or no effect on Kashmir’ as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah resisted extension of the Emergency to Jammu & Kashmir. “Given the dictatorial streak in him and the following he commanded from his people, the local newspapers generally treaded a cautious path and resisted the temptation to antagonise him,” he says.
The real tough times for the media in Kashmir came “after the outbreak of militancy in 1989,” says Bashir. With the breakdown of the government authority, he says, the militant organisations for some time had a field day in putting across their activities through the press, “but once the Government re-established its authority, it acted very tough against the local media.” Cases were filed against journalists, newspapers confiscated, printing presses sealed, and cable TV services snapped. “This happened many times and when the media felt the heat from the Government and the militant outfits thought their point of view was not carried in the manner it should, they also ‘ordered’ ban on the media,” he says.
These restrictions, however, did not last long.
Historically Kashmir has proved to be a fertile land for rumours in the absence of faster means of communication. “12th century Kashmir poet Kalhana also refers to ‘news fabricators’ surrounded by eager listeners in the city during ancient times,” says Bashir, pointing out that in 1960s the Plebiscite Front in Kashmir is known to have used the medium of rumours to put the then government on tenterhooks.
Without taking anything away from their predecessors, Khalid Bashir believes that the current crop of journalists in Kashmir is generally very professional and knows the power and reach of their word. Since the media persons in Kashmir are also connected with their counterparts across the globe and media watchdog organisations, he believes it is very difficult for any government “to permanently or for a long time gag media”.
“It draws global criticism and protest as we saw this time,” says Bashir, adding that the recent press gag had to be short-lived given the widespread criticism it evoked. “And it proved counter-productive as it has earlier,” he added. “Absence of news is bound to be replaced by rumours which could be more lethal for a government in Kashmir than an unobliging media.”
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based out of Srinagar, Kashmir. His writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America, Warscapes, Griffith Review, and several Indian publications. In 2013, Majid received a UN Population Fund-supported Ladli Media award for his ‘investigative reporting on the status of women in the conflict region of Jammu and Kashmir’.
Collection of watchdog reporting from India