OVER the past two months, Moazum Mohammad has had many stories to tell but no space to print them. And that, the 28-year-old journalist says, has disrupted his morning ritual, which, used to be solely dominated by one thought — the story idea he would pitch for the day. “The first thing I did in the morning was to pick up my phone and look to pitch a story. Sometimes, I thought of stories while still in bed,” says Mohammad, who began his journalism career six years ago.
Mohammad is a reporter with the Kashmir Reader, a Srinagar-based English daily that the J&K government deemed as “a threat to public tranquility” and banned indefinitely on October 2 this year. And on December 4, the police detained one of the paper’s reporters before letting him off in the evening.
The state’s actions, Mohammad says, has not only altered their once busy lives but is slowly beginning to dishearten the staff. “Nobody has even pinged on our group mail, where story ideas are discussed, in these two months. I now spend my mornings reading newspapers and books. In the afternoon, I move around town and catch up with friends. But I still do meet my sources,” says Mohammad, a resident of Bemina in Srinagar.
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Before the ban, Kashmir Reader’s office opened at 9 in the morning. Reporters would have pitched stories, on the group mail, by noon. A discussion would follow and once approved, reporters could start work. They would return by late afternoon and begin writing before the mandatory evening editorial meeting: slated for around 5.30 pm in winters and 7.30 pm in summers. Reporters though would stay late in office till the editing was done.
Since the ban, however, the paper’s office at Batamaloo in Srinagar opens only at 11.30 am; its reporters drop in occasionally. “Immediately after the ban, we would come to office every day,” says Ubeer Naqashbandi, a reporter who joined last year. “But now we mostly meet once a week.”
At noon on this Thursday, the newsroom is empty, dust has settled on its computers and there is none of the daily buzz. There are only two people, both from the marketing division, on the premises. “There is nothing to do here,” says Azhar, the paper’s Circulation Manager. “Some of the marketing guys do come to office as they are working on our plans to launch an Urdu daily”.
Mohammad blames this on the increasing fear that the ban won’t be revoked. “We used to come to the office every day but even then, the discussion was no longer about stories but about the ban. On how to overcome it,” Mohammad says. “We were hopeful that the ban would be lifted soon but now that hope is slowly giving way to pessimism,” he adds.
Launched six years ago, Kashmir Reader is owned by Haji Hayat Bhat, a businessman from Pampore in south Kashmir. The paper has over 50 employees on its rolls: its editorial staff consists of 20 journalists based out of Srinagar and a few reporters in the districts while another 30 people are enrolled with its marketing, circulation and design departments.
The group first published a monthly magazine, the now defunct Conveyor, and also owns a news agency — Press Bureau of India.
But its Kashmir Reader was one of the emerging newspapers in the Valley, with a reputation of highlighting alleged human rights violations. Its news stories often went viral on social media here.
It’s this reputation that Hilal Ahmad Mir, the paper’s Executive Editor, says has been its undoing. “We were banned because we were writing things that the government was uncomfortable with — like reporting facts on the ground,” Mir says. “We don’t see ourselves as being different from other newspapers except that every newspaper has its own policy on how to present the news”.
Those associated with the paper say they had no inkling of the government action until an assistant sub inspector of police landed at the paper’s office with a letter from the Srinagar deputy commissioner that October evening. “I, the District Magistrate, Srinagar, do hereby direct the printer, publisher and owner of daily Kashmir Reader to abstain from printing and publishing of the newspaper namely Kashmir Reader till further orders so that disturbance of public tranquility is prevented,” the order read. “(The newspaper’s) material and content tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquility”.
The government order, however, didn’t specify which story or what content had the potential to disturb peace in the Valley. “Officially, we were not told anything except for the (ban) order. Unofficially, when our owner and some editors met government officials, they were given a fleeting glimpse of a dossier in which the government had compiled some editorials, headlines and reports. They were normal stories, like a report about a killing, and reports about the situation on the ground,” Mir says.
The J&K government, it seems, wasn’t happy with the paper’s coverage of the streets protests — triggered by killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani — and the killing of over 92 civilians in firing by the Army, police and paramilitary forces.
On July 15, the government had raided the printing presses of all newspapers in the Valley and had ordered an indefinite moratorium on publishing — the ban was lifted five days later. Though no official reason was cited for the raids, sources said the government wanted to stop the circulation of a news story about alleged “molestation of women” by paramilitary forces. The story had already been published by Kashmir Reader a day earlier.
Then on December 4, the J&K Police detained Ishfaq Reshi, a reporter, for a story published on the paper’s front page on September 28. It quoted villagers of Central Kashmir’s Budget district, who claimed that “government forces” had burnt their crops.
While the J&K Police Media Centre had rebutted the story on September 30 itself, saying the “the incident had been maliciously linked with forces,” police detained Reshi last Sunday but let him off in the evening.
“The story in question is similar to what others reported. If there were similar stories in other publications that were also rebutted by police, why is there an FIR against only this story?” Mir said.
Journalists at the paper, however, have no doubt on what the government’s actions amount to. They also feel that they’ve been left to fend for themselves by the media fraternity. “This is an attack on the freedom of the press. It has happened in other states too and in the case of NDTV,” says Mohammad. “While the media from mainland India strongly backed NDTV, they have not done so in our case. When NDTV (India) was banned for a day, the Editors Guild of India issued a forceful statement but in our case, they issued a statement after a week and it was mild and balancing. I think it is because of our location and name,” he adds.
While Mohammad has been able to freelance for many organisations outside the state, he says his colleagues haven’t been that lucky. “Many of my fellow reporters, who have nowhere to write, are sitting home and some of them have left for other organisations”.
Since that October evening, while other Valley newspapers go to press in the evening, Kashmir Reader shuts for the day.
“The evenings were my busiest hours but these days they are mostly dull,” says Abdul Mohaimin, a correspondent for the paper, and a journalist for over 10 years. “As I have nothing to do, I am trying my hand at kitchen gardening. I am planning to set up a hot house in my garden,” he adds.
Mohaimin says their hopes of the government revoking the ban, haven’t completely vanished. “For a month, we protested on the streets; we regularly came to office hoping that we would soon be allowed to resume publication,” he says. “But as the days pass, our hopes are slowly fading but we are not here to surrender. We will fight”.