By : Irfan Quraishi
Despite numerous articles, news stories exposing the trend of government employees moonlighting as journalists in Jammu and Kashmir, no action has been taken against this practice even though it violates government employment rules. As a result, Kashmir’s news culture is now dominated by ‘government journalism’ owing to the number of civil servants working as journalists.
Two brazen examples are Doordarshan Kashmir and Radio Kashmir where dozens of government servants are moonlighting. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Newspaper owners like to hire government servants as part-time employees because they think it will be useful for them to have someone with access to ‘inside’ information; they do not care that the industry could be losing honest and dedicated journalists. And government employees who work only part time as civil servants during the day and then work as sub-editors in the evening enjoy two salaries; never mind that the greed for two jobs is closing the doors to new entrants.
As if this state of affairs in the media wasn’t bad enough, another bizarre phenomenon has taken root in Kashmir. This is the rise of ‘litho’ newspapers. Known locally as ‘litho’ newspapers, these rags are purely devices to attract government advertising. This is yet another blow to the Kashmir media. The printer, publisher and editor of these newspapers are mostly non-professionals with no media background or journalism degree. These newspapers belong to newspaper designers, office attendants of different media houses, newspaper hawkers and advertising agents and are yet another blow to the profession. Let me explain why.
For years, they were published in a very small in number (maximum 100 copies) purely in order to meet the eligibility criteria of the Department of Information to get government advertising. Once they get the go-ahead for this, these newspapers continue as litho papers comprising four black and white pages. They are never available at newspaper outlets or in retail outlets and obviously have zero circulation and readership. Their prime purpose is to get government advertisements without any investment.
Many newspaper layout designers in Srinagar offer interesting and cheap packages for these litho newspaper owners. For just Rs 1200, they offer designing, printing, butter paper, press plates and free ‘copy pasted content’ for a weekly litho. For a daily, it is Rs 2,000. These layout designers have established labs around Press Enclave where they design these ‘newspapers’ in bulk.
If you want to have a newspaper in Kashmir, you don’t need any office accommodation, infrastructure or staff. All you need is one of these layout designers and your work is done. This is a serious breach of law as, according to the Registrar of Newspapers of India, a newspaper must have an office. What these owners do, at the time of getting the title code and title registration, is to mention a bogus editorial or publishing office address. For decades, this brazen violation of the law has continued under the nose of the very Information Department which should have some checks and controls on such malpractices.
In fact, the Information Department has no advertising policy as such, only a policy of favouritism by which these litho newspapers receive handsome amounts of advertising.
Every journalist in Kashmir is well aware of this illegal and secret trade but few report it. They know that officials at the Information department are part of the nexus with litho newspaper owners. In return for giving advertising, these officials get a commission from the owners. The only victim is the public exchequer which is being looted.
There is more. The nexus extends to the newspaper owners getting government tenders to advertise. Since these litho newspapers are not freely available, the owners can offer the editions which contain the tenders to potential contractors who would otherwise miss the tender – in return, of course, for suitable remuneration. The relatives of Information Department employees also own litho newspapers and earn huge sums through government advertisements.
This little industry undermines the primary objective of government advertising which is to secure the widest possible coverage of the intended message through newspapers and journals of current affairs as well as science, art, literature, sports, films, and cultural affairs etc. The guidelines of the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity state that government advertisements are not intended to be financial assistance to newspapers and that care must be taken to distribute advertisements to publications that have diverse readerships from different sections of society.
Having zero circulation and zero readers, litho newspapers publish content that has been copy pasted from other sources by their layout designer, including paid content from less well known politicians, political parties, and unions. In the Kashmir media fraternity, they are called ‘Rang Saaz’ newspapers as they publish a three to four column photo of some wannabe with a beguiling caption or news item on the front page. This unchecked menace has given birth to the idea that even a ‘chaiwala’ can become owner and editor-in-chief of a newspaper.
The long-running conflict in Kashmir also feeds this industry. According to a survey sponsored by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in Kashmir, scores of newspapers with little or no circulation are ‘supported by dubious funding from secret sources.’
The survey, conducted by the Institute for Research in India and International Studies in January 2010, revealed that the lack of transparency in the funding of local publications had created a phenomenon of ‘ghost’ or fictitious papers mostly supported by dubious sources of funding. The survey provides a long list of newspapers with no circulation and others with a print run of only 100-150 copies which are “mostly for the benefit of the Information Department” and some with a print run of up to 500 copies.
The report recommended the need for a better interface, through regulatory mechanisms, to evolve an effective media strategy to deal with any critical event that can potentially spiral into an agitation. “The government should try and create a level-playing field for the private players in media, establishing a fair and transparent audit system of newspapers circulation, to allow market forces to come into play and ensure fair distribution of government ads in the local newspapers and, also help remove the ‘secret’ hand of funding of both State and non-State actors,” the report recommended.
It is an irony that these malpractices involving moonlighting and fake newspapers flourish while journalists and graduates of mass communication courses struggle to find jobs. Those lucky enough to have jobs endure appalling working conditions that amount almost to bonded labour, receive paltry monthly wages of Rs 2000-3000 for new recruits, no provident fund or medical insurance, and are vulnerable to on-the-spot terminations, as Naseer A. Ganai has described in his earlier articles.
Left with no other option, most journalists now prefer to seek a job elsewhere – yes, you guessed right, in the government because at least they get some security. Over the past year, many good reporters have left their jobs and joined a government department in the Valley, only to seek, soon afterwards, a newspaper job for the evenings. They think this double job increases their sphere of influence.
The Valley needs a professional media system to safeguard standards and encourage journalists to perform their best. At the moment, everything is stacked against these two goals.
(Irfan Quraishi is Bureau Chief, Kashmir, for Day & Night News, a Chandigarh-based national news channel.)