‘Kashmir Reader’, a small English daily published from Srinagar, was asked to stop publication on the evening of Sunday, October 2. The government order announcing the ban was dated September 30. We are yet to find out why the police delivered a copy of the order three days later. The newspaper has been accused of “publishing content that can incite acts of violence” and “disturb public tranquility”. The government information department later issued a statement that said the order had been issued a week after the Kashmir Reader was served a notice to explain its “position on a series of items published disturbing public tranquility and notwithstanding the principles of rules governing the subject (sic)”. No such notice was served to us.
The most interesting bit of information in the information department’s statement is attributed to district magistrate Farooq Ahmed Lone. “The decision was taken after a series of reports from various agencies and credible inputs providing sufficient ground for the decision taken,” he said.
Since when did the perusal of a newspaper’s content become the job of unnamable “agencies”? What does “credible inputs providing sufficient ground for the decision” mean? Every government institution in the thick of the raging uprising, especially police, army, CRPF and the civil administration, has its own PR cell. Reporters regularly talk to them for information and comments. We have not received a single complaint from the information department on any report/article so far. What then made the government act on the reports of “various agencies”?
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Any item the government deems a threat “to public tranquility” could be rebutted even before the reporter sits down to write the copy. The other side has all the time to explain its position. And if for any reason the other side has not been addressed, the newspaper is obliged to issue clarifications/corrections, and even apologise if needed, later. This is exactly what we have been doing.
The ban, therefore, points to a bigger malaise, which is the recklessness of state authorities in times of crises. A few days into the raging uprising, the government announced a ban on publication of all newspapers for three days on the phone to a group of editors, who had met a day after police seized newspapers at printing presses. In the wake of international outrage, it then denied having enforced a ban and requested newspaper owners to resume publication. No one was held responsible for such a perfunctory decision.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti casually remarked at the peak of the uprising: “Had those children gone to buy toffee?”. She had been told by the security agencies that the protesters had been shot dead when they tried to overrun police stations and army camps, a theory that has largely gone unquestioned. It became one of the most widely circulated — and condemned — of her statements. Did her remark incite violence or the media’s faithful reportage of her comments?
As many as 90 people have been killed, more than 10,000 injured, about 700, mostly students have been partially or fully blinded. About 7,000 people have been arrested and many booked under the Public Safety Act, including the human rights activist Khurram Parvez.
The forces have reportedly damaged hundreds of transformers supplying electricity to people in scores of villages and towns (IE, September 12, 2016). Houses have been ransacked and the elderly beaten up. Is this cataclysmic situation the creation of a small newspaper?
After blaming the uprising on Pakistan, militant outfits, activists of rival pro-India parties, Hurriyat, mosques, human rights activists, the government has now turned to the media. On October 4, Kashmir’s largest circulated newspaper, Greater Kashmir, wrote on its front page : “The ban on Kashmir Reader newspaper was least expected after the state government backed off from its recent attempt to muzzle the local press following the widespread condemnation from across the world. But as another similar bid reveals, the government is none the wiser for it and in no mood to give up. This time though only one paper has been banned, it hardly detracts from the troubling larger import of the move.”
Rather than looking for scapegoats, the government needs to rethink its media policy. Its massive bureaucracy needs to become more responsive to the media in difficult times. At the height of the unrest, upto 70 incidents would occur in a single day. A small newspaper like ours can cover only a few of these. Journalistic ethics demand that we talk to the other side, the government, for its version of the events. Are the officials concerned available to respond the queries of 10 reporters? Ask any Kashmiri local journalist and he would frown. Has the government reinforced its PR machinery, or geared up its existing one, to widen its media outreach? No.
The police department usually summarises the day’s incidents in a paragraph. A typical police press release, after declaring the day by and large peaceful, would squeeze a line like this at the end: “57 miscreants have been arrested.” Reporters hardly find any official available for an elaboration on such a large number of arrests.
The media has shortcomings. But instead of imposing bans, the government can help itself, the people and the media by fostering an atmosphere where careless wielding of power does not fetter professionalism.