Protests against media gag in Kashmir

Soon after the news of the government ban on the media in Kashmir, to ‘ensure peace’ in the valley struggling with unrest, a social media user wrote, “The situation in Kashmir must be really out of hand, when the government prefers rumours to real news.”

20 Jul 2016 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

This tongue-in-cheek statement has some bitter truth. In any democratic setup, people’s protest against ‘the power that be’ is common, sometimes, a necessary tool. In this, the media, especially the print media, remains the voice of reason. (The TV and the internet are important tools as well; but TV, driven by its desire to garner more TRP and thus more ad, gets screechy at times and miss the point. The internet, on the other hand, remains largely opinion-based platform.)

Thus, when the news media is banned from performing its duties, it is a matter of great concern, and every concerned citizen must protest against it.

On 17 July 2016, the authorities banned newspaper publication in Kashmir for three days after police raided media houses and shut down a major printing press. “The undesirable step was taken to ensure peace,” government spokesperson Nayeem Akhtar said.

The gag on print media followed the worst violence in the valley in six years that has left at least 41 people dead and scores wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters angry over the killing of top militant leader Burhan Wani.

While on 20 July 2016, the official three-day ban was over, newspapers remained missing from the stands, as dozens of working journalists and editors staged protest in Srinagar against what they called an information blockade. Carrying placards, the journalists accused the state government of throttling freedom of the press and accused authorities of ‘propaganda’ by claiming there was no ban on newspapers in Kashmir.

On 19 July 2016, the government said there was no ban on newspapers. The editors, however, countered the claims. “We have not closed our publications even when our colleagues were killed. The government has tried to tarnish our credibility by claiming that there was no ban. The government should first accept that it has banned the media," Masood Hussain, editor of Kashmir Life told NDTV.

Before that on the night of 15 July 2016, with midnight raids to offices and printing presses, the state government in Kashmir banned the 16 July edition of the newspapers from printing. The police seized the printed copies. In an online report, Greater Kashmir, the state’s largest newspaper, said the police seized more than 50,000 printed copies of its Urdu newspaper Kashmir Uzma; printing plates were snatched away and employees beaten. The lead story of the banned front page bore the headline: “Bloodbath continues.”

In the past week, over 41 people —mostly youth protesting the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani—have died, and over 2,000 people have been injured. Many have lost their eyesight due to indiscriminate use of pellet guns by the security forces. Protests have been raging like prairie fires, and the government’s ban on the local Kashmiri press has given Delhi’s media the freedom to control the narrative.

Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Srinagar-based Rising Kashmir, whose printing press was raided around midnight on Friday, said a government official conveyed the ban order verbally to editors.

In a statement, newspaper editors quoted the government official as saying that the ban “is in view of apprehensions of serious trouble in Kashmir valley in the next three days aimed at subverting peace…strict curfew will be imposed and movement of newspaper staff and distribution of newspapers will not be possible”.

The clamp down started late the night of July 15, 2016 when teams of policemen raided newspaper offices and printing presses.

“Around 2 am, the press was raided…The police asked us to stop printing, took away our plates. About 10,000 copies of the urdu daily Uzma were already printed. Police arrested three of our employees and took away the printed copies, plates and even the newsprint,” said Rashid Makdoomi, printer-publisher of Greater Kashmir, the largest circulated daily in the valley. The three employees were released in the morning.

Raja Mohi ud Din, the owner of KT Press, said that his press was also seized. KT Press prints around eight newspapers in the valley. “The police have seized newspaper copies which were printed in thousands besides printing material and printing plates of a few newspapers which were ready.”

Hawkers in the Lal Chowk, the city’s centre, alleged that police did not allow them to distribute the newspapers and seized their copies.

Editor’s Guild condemns media gag

The Editors Guild of India has strongly condemned the efforts by the Jammu and Kashmir government to gag the media in the state.

In a statement, the guild said, “The police was sent in the early hours into the offices of the local media in Kashmir with the printing presses being seized along with the copies of the newspapers that had just been printed.

Reports suggest that the journalists and other staff working in Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir were detained, harassed and their mobiles taken away by the raiding police parties. It is extremely unfortunate that the State Government, under fire for its poor management of the law and order situation in the Valley, has sought to shoot the messenger.”

"We are also aghast to note that the media censorship will continue, for a minimum of three days if not more. This is a direct assault to the freedom of the press in India and the Guild strongly condemns this unwarranted muzzling of the media,” the guild added.

(Courtesy: News reports published in various media outlets.)