Ruling journalist-abundant party created new precedence by banning a newspaper in 2016 summer. But there were many other incidents that are unlikely to get buried in the footnotes of history, writes Masood Hussain
“This boy was so happy with lifting of the ban that he burst a few crackers,” one of the editors at Kashmir Reader told the visiting Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) on December 27, when the newspaper was resuming publication after 85 days. The newspaper was banned on October 2, for clearly vague reasons for two months. But government inaction after 60 days extended the ban, automatically.
On Tuesday when Reader staff met in their Batamaloo office, they had no time to ask each other’s welfare: how they spent their days, how did they manage their crippling advantage of not reporting the events they saw, why the symbolic sit-ins, they thought were a waste of time and that ‘sinking feeling’ that many in the market were trying to set in the human resource that was a media house. With computers in disuse for three months, their desks discoloured by the layers of dust, they started dusting instead.
“Challenges make us stronger,” KEG president Fayaz Kaloo told them, “This is all part of the learning curve but we will and we must fight these challenges together.”
Ruling PDP is considered a “journalist”- abundant party. Dr Haseeb Drabu joined state government after resigning as national editor of Business Standard. Naeem Akhter has remained perhaps the most anti-NC prolific columnist who used countless pen-names to write tons of political critique. Abdul Haq Khan once owned an Azaadi-seeking newspaper. At the peak of militancy, Nizamuddin Bhat took refuge in Partap Park where he was even considered a ‘leader’ of the media. Firdous Tak has been a reporter for Greater Kashmir as Tahir Syed worked for its sister organization, Kashmir Uzma. Zaffar Iqbal Manhas took off from the J&K Academy of Culture and Languages, became a “leader” and at one point of time when Kukka Parray had summoned Srinagar Press Corps, the man who was speaking for the media in Hajin was Manhas. Basharat Bukhari was identified by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as a potential politician during his frequent interactions when he was running a successful and popular radio programme Sheharbeen. Noted journalist Zafar Meraj contested on PDP mandate in 2014. Naeema Ahmad Mehjoor was rehabilitated by the party as head of J&K Womens’ Commission for her profile as BBC broadcaster. Even Chief Minister has erstwhile TV reporter Suhail Bukhari as her media adviser.
Besides, there are various others in the governance circuit who are either journalists or byproduct of the social media.
“Why are you counting the journalists in the party,” one old naysayer in Partap Park would say. “This party owes much to the media for emerging as an alternative political party.”
An expectation was the party understands the media better but when the crisis erupted, it proved quite opposite. In addition to the information blockade that remained the hallmark of Omar Abdullah led NC government, the government invoked powers and made serious attempts to interrupt the mass communication circuit. It started with the wee hour raids on July 16, by the police on all the printing presses where they seized the printed stuff. It was followed by a literal ban where it insisted it will be unable to ensure movement of staff and distribution of newspapers.
With media houses locked, individuals in positions of influence drew vicarious pleasure as rumour-mills were set on to churn out “reports” that the “ban” was the outcome of a “tacit understanding” between media and government. It apparently was aimed at playing with the credibility of an institution that vested interests have historically used as a football. This crisis ended when Ms Mufti intervened personally and let the media work.
As media resumed, then came that famous ‘chai cuppa moment’ displaying hate and anger against the media of state’s chief executive on August 25, in presence of Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Two months later, Reader was banned. There were three more newspapers against whom the police had drafted a long but vague dossier. But the resistance that media corps offered without involving the street, the court-room and the theakedars of free media in mainland India, the government stopped going further. There were tensions within the ruling party over the issue too. Though the ban on Reader was perhaps the major highlight of the unrest-2016 on the media front but that was not the only thing that preoccupied Srinagar press corps.
But the limitations forced on the media were not specific to the print alone. On the very second day of the crisis, when the press photographers drove to the SMHS hospital to record the massive influx of injured from south Kashmir, they were attacked. Some of them were beaten ruthlessly. As the news appeared, it started becoming a norm. It reached a level that the photo-journalists refused to cover SMHS hospital and Kashmir missed the harrowing visuals forever. There were lot of voluntary groups who were providing food, cash and medicines to the patients and their attendants.
In the remote corner of SHMS lawn was sitting a long man, with flowing beard and apparently a member of a “religious” group. He would rush towards an ambulance, crying, as it would park at the main gate. Though it seemed he was keen to help the attendants take the injured into the hospital, he would attack the photo-journalists instead. “Hum Kou Yeh Hindustani Media Nahin Chahiyay,” he would yell at them and beat them. He would speak so artistically that almost every bystander would support him and not the photographer and then it became the routine. Everybody knew it but no one on-ground or off-ground Hurriyat leaders intervened.
This character who was working like a scarecrow disappeared from the scene once the ambulances reduced their frequency. Who was this man is still not known. But the way he worked, he may one day surprise Kashmir by getting a Padma Shri.
At the same time, the streets had become completely inhospitable for the electronic media. The number of attacks on the TV crews and the OB vans was directly proportional to the noises that a select few channels broadcast from Delhi. It created a situation that a major TV anchor had to negotiate with the people before recording a programme about pellet hits admitted to the SMHS hospital.
What will shock readers is that in summer 2016, even the state run media was seriously tightened. The popular Sheharbeen that resulted in Revenue Minister Basharat Bukhari’s takeoff in politics continues to be the major revenue earning programme of the AIR-network across India. This season, it was so brashly treated that it has been reduced to a “sort of grievance cell.”
Informed sources said that at one point of time a senior police officer directed Radio Kashmir Srinagar authorities that they must get the script of the broadcast vetted from them almost two hours before airing it! They knew the costs, they refused point blank. In the second stage, they sought recordings of certain programmes having been aired already. It was again refused.
In 2015, informed sources suggest, Modi government in Delhi had asked AIR to have “measured coverage” of the PDP. But when Kashmir broke into unrest, AIR was asked to make up the coverage deficit. A party, hurt by ‘non-compliance’ of the radio-wallas rang up Delhi. A senior minister is reported to have talked to big bosses in Mandi House that eventually led to the dispatch of Government of India’s media adviser to Srinagar.
Scared, the top officer did not enter Srinagar. After landing at the airport, the officer drove to the BSF garrison directly and started summoning the officials of the Radio Kashmir Srinagar and the Doordarshan, two public broadcasters who are literally headless, in Kashmir, run by the technical officers. After understanding the ‘grievances’ of the government – it had accused the radio of being pro-Hurriyat, the officer left convinced that public broadcaster was right.
Not many people know that the print media suffered massive losses. It reached to the extent that most of the journalists affiliated with the Srinagar based publications had either their salaries massively delayed – in one case almost a quarter is unpaid, or were hugely deducted up to 30 to 50 percent. This primarily was because the society, in absence of truncated internet, witnessed massive hunger for news pushing the circulation up as deserted markets, and closure of government offices reduced the revenues.
The small newspapers and the magazines remained locked for many months as Delhi newspaper were not circulated for more than two months. It was partly because of difficulty in movement – both inter-district and intra-district, and lack of resources required for publishing and distribution. A driver of newspaper carrier was moving wearing a helmet, following the ambulance drivers.
Newspapers running the on-line services had added losses as they had to keep their kitchens 24×7 open for manpower running the show without sending them home. No on-line news portal in Kashmir is earning even part of the investment that go into news gathering and dissemination operations. In order to make situation worst, the police started registering FIRs against scribes. One major case involved over “mis-reporting the burning of paddy by government forces” that is otherwise filmed.
In such a situation the formal launch of KEG was perhaps the only good thing. Led by Kaloo, the man behind Greater Kashmir, KEG has already started interactions with key stakeholders. In one such meeting with the Chief Minister and her two key ministers, KEG sought improvement in the overall enabling environment by way of reviewing the entire gamut of anti-press laws, creation of a mechanism in which reportage is not responded by police with FIRs, quality investment in the media-education and paving way for public funds to touch the welfare part of the media, the so-called fourth estate.
Since the streets had turned calm and markets had opened, this meeting was much better and positive if compared to the October 8, meeting that took place in the reception of Chief Minister’s official residence – a small room where 14 editors of the informal KEG had to literally recall the Papa-II days, when in smaller cells inmates had to fight for their space.
But this does not mean end to tensions. “Our strength comes from the challenges we face on day-to-day basis but it has its own costs,” Kaloo told Reader staff. If reports are correct, then the next challenge is getting conceived. Security grid, with the hospitals, is creating a database of the reporters who reported pellets “profusely”!
Long live pellet gunners. Long live journalism.