Thursday, October 27, 2016

Infringement, proxy censorship of press freedom in Kashmir

IRFAN QURAISHI

SRINAGAR: The Jammu and Kashmir governments in ordinary times are seen as apathetic to the press and its freedom. Whenever there is unrest, the clampdown begins. As violence erupted across Kashmir in July this summer, the government temporarily curbs, raided printing presses and seizes the publication of Valley-based newspapers.

For a while in last three months, it also pulled national and Pakistani news channels off the air. In Kashmir, governments use covert and overt ways to influence the press.
 While there have been instances of formal action being taken, as in the case of Kashmir Reader, they are also known to use indirect methods, such as choking the flow of information or of advertisements.

On October 2, government bans the local daily newspaper ‘Kashmir Reader’ while saying that it had “credible inputs” that Kashmir Reader was inciting violence and barred it from publication till further notice. However two weeks later, the government has not yet said what these credible inputs were.

Editor of the Kashmir Reader newspaper, Hilal Mir believes what he wrote in his recent column regarding the ban, that this time, the gag order comes with legal armour apparently to frighten the rest of the local media into submission.

“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.”
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The editor of the Srinagar-based newspapers alleged that their printing press were reportedly raided around midnights in 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.

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, working as bureau chief with 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.

In the absence of a strong private sector, government advertising is another tool that is used in these fights newspapers in Kashmir as they depend to a great extent on revenue from government advertisements. These advertisements are solely under discretion of the government. Newspapers that are close to the government or in other sense pro governments are given advertisements in abundance while the rest are deprived.

Especially during the times of unrest advertisement tool is being used by the government to clampdown the newspapers criticizing government by stopping or curtailing down their advertisement.

According to the official figures the government advertisements had gone down 80% during the ongoing unrest, hence rendering newspapers to bear the brunt. The advertising dropped from 2.10 lakh square centimeters in June to 32,000 square centimeters in July.

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 machineries. However, Omar Abdullah, the then chief minister, denied any media gag.

There was a trust deficit between the government and journalists in the state. As a result, the government shared information with journalists from outside the state while denying those within.

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 being seized. Nothing is new in this unrest. Earlier in July 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.” Bashir Ahmad, Editor and Owner of a newspaper.

“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 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.

In an editorial, Indian 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 to 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 the government clamped down 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,” it said, emphasizing that media freedom is especially relevant and important in disturbed conditions like those in Kashmir. “Violation of normal constitutional rights can only worsen the situation, and it cannot be justified on any pretext,” it added.

Worthy to mention that historically too, the press in Kashmir has seen difficult situations. Independent newspapers were disallowed over 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.
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