‘Sarkari bulletin’: How the Indian state has used fear and ad money to hollow out Kashmir’s press
Media

‘Sarkari bulletin’: How the Indian state has used fear and ad money to hollow out Kashmir’s press

Five months into the lockdown, most editors are forced to function as censors and ‘gatekeepers’ of the government.

By Rayan Naqash

Published on :

What has changed for Kashmiri newspapers since the Indian government’s clampdown in the Valley last August? “It is better if you leave without hearing our answers,” replied an anxious editor at the prominent English daily Rising Kashmir, on a late December evening.

As the longest period ever of internet blackout continues in Kashmir, local papers are the sole window to matters that concern the Kashmiris. Yet, the newsroom at Rising Kashmir lacked its usual enthusiasm for reporting. Instead, it was cloaked in unease. 

The previous day, a statement, allegedly made by the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had appeared in the Turkish media. Rising Kashmir’s editors heard about it only when an online copy, downloaded at the government-run media centre in Srinagar, reached them. Should they make last-minute changes to the newspaper before it went to print to accommodate, perhaps, the sole significant political statement from a separatist leader since the abrogation of Article 370?

The anxious editor quietly went back to working on his computer.

It’s the same story at most newsrooms in the valley. Reporters take stories from wire services and government handouts, while editors simply format them onto broadsheets. An odd report appears every now and then, but it’s often devoid of political content or criticism of government policies.

Rising circulation

On the first day of the lockdown on August 5, several newspapers found it difficult to distribute their printed copies. Over the following few days, some ceased printing altogether. The Srinagar edition of Kashmir Times was not published between August 6 and October 11. Other newspapers reduced the number of printed copies as well as the number of pages, in some cases to just four pages.

As the curfew eased in subsequent weeks, circulation improved, according to Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir Images and a member of the Kashmir Editors’ Guild. 

And according to data collected in September by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations, circulation of newspapers has stayed largely stable. Rising Kashmir and its sister concerns, the Urdu daily Buland Kashmir and the Kashmiri newspaper Sangarmaal, claimed to have daily circulation of 48,900, 48,800 and 48,700 copies, respectively, that month. Kashmir Monitor claimed circulation of 63,743, Kashmir Images 45,653, Kashmir Observer 43,874, Kashmir Reader 44,000. Urdu dailies Srinagar Times, Uqaab and Chattan claimed to have circulated 44,800, 48,520 and 43,511 copies, respectively. Greater Kashmir and its sister concern, the Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma, apparently circulated 1,42,501 and 79,978 copies. 

In fact, even lesser-known papers such as Gadyal, Shahanshah, Srinagar Mail, Subha Kashmir, Srinagar Jung, and Roshan Kashmir provided the information directorate circulation numbers that are comparable to the more prominent newspapers – 42,523, 38,500, 28,000, 44,995, 36,500 and 16,000, respectively. 

Raja Mohiuddin, editor of the Urdu daily Tameel-e-Irshad, said circulation numbers did increase. He credited it to the communications blackout. “Our circulation went up – more demand than we could meet – because people had no other source of news,” he explained. “We were printing 20,000-25,000 copies. After August, it doubled to 40,000-45,000.”

However, Mohiuddin added, circulation dwindled after September to about 30,000 copies as “people had been disillusioned with newspapers”. He believed there was little interest in news other than of the conflict or protests — coverage that’s been conspicuously absent since August.

‘Government’s gatekeepers’

The flow of news has been virtually choked since August 5, when Delhi enforced the most severe suspension of civil liberties in Kashmir’s recent history. The lockdown badly affected the local economy, bringing down newspaper revenue from business advertisements, while websites are frozen in the absence of the internet.

In Kashmir’s small economy, government advertisements not only form the largest chunk of revenue but also attracts reader interest in newspapers. Choking the flow of advertisements has, so far, been a subtle whip wielded by the government to punish papers for carrying stories it deems provocative or adverse to its interests. 

As a result, an abrupt silence has engulfed Kashmir’s newspapers. 

Now more than ever, newspapers cannot afford to offend the authorities that control the revenue tap. In the first week after the abrogation of Article 370, only one English language daily carried a picture of the massive protests in Srinagar. 

So, most newspapers have become aggressive gatekeepers. They keep out almost all ground reports. Instead, they fill their pages with “safe copies” from the Press Trust of India and, more importantly, handouts from the government.

While many editors blame the lack of original reporting on their inability to communicate with their reporters they cannot explain why their editorials now discuss health and spirituality instead of political matters.

A former editor of Greater Kashmir, the most influential of the newspapers based in the valley, said local papers were “under pressure” from the government. “The practice of journalism is being sought to be transformed into a tool for government propaganda,” said the editor, who was among the staff members laid off by Greater Kashmir after the government stopping giving it advertisements in February last year.

The few newspapers that still publish independent reporting are punished by the government. An editor at a local newspaper said their advertisements were recently stopped for two days — punishment for running a story based on a national newspaper’s report on the situation in Kashmir. 

Similarly, Rising Kashmir’s ads were stopped for two days when it failed to print a government press release that had come in after all its staffers had left the media centre. 

An editor at Rising Kashmir told Newslaundry: “There was another press release, which they sent to our office on a pen drive and we carried that. Still, ads were stopped for two days.” 

After August 5, the editor said, every government press release is not only printed, but published as prominently as possible. “Earlier we would not use press releases in toto,” he explained. “We would take the spin out, operate on the handouts and make a copy of it by verifying claims and adding more details.” 

Another editor at Rising Kashmir added: “Nobody tells the reporters not to do a story. They see the treatment of their stories, what is being printed and what is dropped.”

Mohiuddin said ads to his paper were suspended after he published a story about alleged irregularities in the distribution of ads by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations. The story alleged that ads were being diverted to newspapers claiming high circulation figures — even though these publications were “not even available in the market” — owing to a “mafia” of information directorate officials and the owners of newspapers set up for the sole purpose of tapping government funds.

In August, the central government ran an advertisement campaign in local papers to “dispel rumours” and promote “benefits” of the abrogation of the erstwhile state’s special status. Coming at a time when actual news was missing from the newspapers, the campaign fanned resentment among the public, editors noted. Mohiuddin said people in Srinagar burned copies of three newspapers, his included.

The fifth advertisement in the government’s campaign was a full-page letter that attempted to reason against the separatist sentiment. Mohiuddin claimed he had printed it but it mysteriously “went missing” from copies of his paper circulated in the market. His theory is hawkers removed the page with the ad to avoid reprisals from locals.

Unsurprisingly, he said, the information directorate thought he had deliberately chosen not to print the ad. Government ads to his paper were then stopped for about two weeks.

Since August 5, Mohiudin said, local press has fallen prey to self-censorship, partly because of rumours spread in Srinagar’s press enclave that “blank Public Safety Act” warrants are ready to be filled in with the names of journalists and editors who don’t toe the line. “We had to be cautious and played down stories,” he said, “but we kept some control.”

‘Complete dependence’

Kashmir Observer generated a portion of its revenue from two fortnightly magazines on food and business. That revenue dried up after August. “Our dependence on the government is complete now,” said Sajjad Haider, the paper’s editor, adding that for local papers, their “independence is compromised now”. “How do you take government money and still be critical of the government?”

In an unenthusiastic newsroom of another Srinagar-based daily, which is over 20 years old, one editor rued that he was “treading a cautious line” as the government’s attitude towards the press was a “clear signal that they don’t want us to report”.

Fearing the government’s whip, he has “toned down” his paper’s content. “We are just filling the pages,” he said. “We write about Tripura more than Kashmir and the government is happy with that. We are also more comfortable, rather we feel safer or freer reporting about CAA than Kashmir.”

The local press has always oscillated between red lines drawn by both armed separatists and the state, walking a thin line between the militants and the government forces. This, the editor said, has inculcated a strong culture of self-censorship in Kashmir. “Perhaps we survived because of this, by not giving the government or other parties to the conflict a chance to flex their muscles,” he said. “It is natural to us but it is now taking a heavy toll.”

Most newspapers today, he said, are reduced to “sarkari bulletin”.

The summoning of several journalists and editors by the National Investigation Agency last year was mentioned across organisations as a reason for the heightened sense of vulnerability. The vulnerability transformed into fear when the NIA summoned the editor of Greater Kashmir, considered to be one of the most influential persons in the Valley.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, said many local newspapers were being “arm-twisted”, with their ads being choked and law enforcement agencies intimidating editors and journalists. This has “helped amplify just the official line, while ignoring many other narratives of Kashmir”, she pointed out.

Bhasin said newspapers were publishing editorials on “inane issues” at a time when Kashmir is going through one of its most “turbulent phases in the last 70 years”. This is due to a fear rooted in the “trajectory of the last 30 years and what the media has gone through, the kind of victimisation and persecution they have faced”. 

She added, “When you see the entire cream of the valley pushed behind bars, this creates an immense feeling of vulnerability which is impacting the press as well.”

In Rising Kashmir’s newsroom, its editors agreed that the silence in Kashmir’s papers is deafening. One of them said had Shujaat Bukhari, the paper’s late editor who was assassinated in June 2018, been alive, “he would not have done what the journalist community here is doing. He would have taken a stand and gotten arrested. Whether that would have been good for the media or not is another matter.”

This is the first part of a two-part series on the state of Kashmir’s media five months after the abrogation of Article 370. Read the second part here.

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