Shujaat Bukhari is a Srinagar-based journalist. Currently Editor-in-Chief of Rising Kashmir, a Srinagar-based daily, he has in the past been Bureau Chief of The Hindu. Shujaat has survived three assassination attempts during his challenging career. He did his Masters in Journalism from Ateneo de Manila University, Manila as a fellow of Asian Centre for Journalism, Singapore. He is a recipient of the World Press Institute (WPI) USA fellowship and Asian Centre for Journalism Singapore fellowship. He is a permanent fellow at both institutions. Bukhari has also been a fellow at East West Centre at Hawaii USA. Quite a fellow!
For the first time in its history, Jammu and Kashmir Government’s Information Department has woken up to a reality that has made a huge dent in its credibility. Two weeks back, the department moved swiftly to check a nexus between the owners of a “category” of newspapers, which would hardly hit the stands, and a section of its employees. Making a cursory scrutiny of the records, the department found that more than 60 of the newspapers published from Jammu and Srinagar were not maintaining regularity as per the norms laid down by both the Registrar of Newspapers of India and the state government’s rule book. Some of them had published just five copies instead of the required 30 copies per month for a daily newspaper! Consequently, the advertisement support by the government was stopped to 65 such newspapers and they were asked to explain the reasons why they had not followed the rules. All the newspapers have been blacklisted for the time-being and a review is on.
The scrutiny not only exposed the “deliberate laxity” on the part of newspaper owners but also took the lid off the role played by a section of employees who were apparently hand-in-glove with them in their “cheating exercise” in order to get benefits from the government. Insiders say that they were surprised to see that some of the newspapers were being published without an RNI registration number.
“You won’t believe some newspapers are just the Xerox copies of their computer print-outs”, an official said wishing anonymity. Lack of accountability and corruption has been the “hallmark” of the functioning of the department as far as distribution of advertisement is concerned. Sources say that some of the employees of the department own at least three to four titles in the name of their relatives just to “dole out the advertisements” and that they do not exist anywhere on the ground. Director Information, Zaffar Ahmed confirmed that discrepancies have taken place and, “that is why I ordered scrutiny. The process will continue to streamline the functioning”.
There has been a constant demand from genuine newspapers to scrutinize the practice and ensure accountability. But so far, no heed was paid to this demand. “What we want is that government should differentiate between the genuine owner who has invested lot of money and the one who just manages it with a computer operator and downloads the stuff from the internet but the treatment is same”, said a newspaper editor. The department has been finding it difficult to have benchmarks in sharing the advertisements. “We wrote to RNI many times to get the circulation figures. They delayed in responding. Now we have got the details and will proceed accordingly”, Zaffar Ahmed said adding that it will be easy for them to fix a norm.
According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) website there are over 800 newspapers registered in Jammu and Kashmir. But the State Information Department maintains that the number is 538, of which 217 are published from Kashmir and 321 from Jammu. There are 194 newspapers published in English, 246 in Urdu, 44 in Hindi, 4 in Kashmiri and just 1 in Dogri. However, there are only 371 newspapers empanelled with the Information Department as approved for receiving government advertisements. It is worth mentioning here that the state government’s advertisement support to newspapers in J&K is the main source of sustainability in view of less prospects of revenue coming from the private sector. But the way the number of newspapers has increased in the past 20 years – that too without checks and balances – has cast a shadow over journalism as a genuine institution.
Not only has this business become murkier with such scandals here, but the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) of the Information Broadcasting Ministry has also been promoting newspapers with negligible circulation on the ground. It is now an open secret that the nexus between officials at DAVP and the newspaper owners, most of whom are not journalists but businessmen with “other concerns”, has been the thumb rule for distribution of advertisements to these newspapers. One of the editors who have made huge investments in shaping a newspaper says that these less-circulated newspapers have virtually bought the “heads” at DAVP. Bashir Manzar, a senior editor in Srinagar, recently told a delegation of Press Council of India how corrupt practices in DAVP had marred the prospects of quality and standard journalism in Kashmir. Some newspapers are published only on those days when they have the DAVP advertisements, and some even go to the extent of waiting and printing back issues.
This practice was also exposed during May this year when National Book Trust organised a Book Fair in Srinagar after 25 years. More than 120 publishers from all over India were part of it, but there was no public response. Kashmir Book Sellers, Publishers and Suppliers Association – a representative body of this trade in Kashmir – raised a hue and cry as to why the event was not publicised. On an enquiry it was found that NBT had spent around Rs 2.5 lakh on publicity through DAVP but the advertisements had gone to three newspapers which are hardly known to the public! Subsequently, the Association launched its own campaign and also lodged a complaint with Union Information and Broadcasting Minister besides the Central Vigilance Commissioner. But there has been no investigation into the scandal so far. DAVP had ignored leading newspapers such as Aftab and Srinagar Times and preferred those whose nexus was well-knit within DAVP. In Kashmir everything is “fair” under the smokescreen of “disturbed situation” which has since become normal. And DAVP officials continue to bask under that disturbed sun.
Photo Credit - Farooq Javed.