ON WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY

ON WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY

Two Months into the Ban On Kashmir Reader, Its Journalists Stand With The Newspaper

 

BY MOAZUM MOHAMMAD
On 30 September 2016, I was planning to visit the Line of Control in north Kashmir for a report for the Kashmir Reader—a local newspaper based in Srinagar that I have been working with since May 2014—on the rising tensions between India and Pakistan after the surgical strike that the Indian Army reportedly conducted on 29 September. I began my research for the story by calling officials from the security forces to enquire about the situation. During the course of one such conversation, an official surprised me when he responded to a question I had asked him by saying, “We have taken a defeat before Kashmir Reader.” Before I could seek an explanation, he continued, “You people lay bare facts.” As a journalist, it is generally a compliment to hear that your publication makes the authorities uncomfortable. However, that is not the case in the valley. The official was not offering me a compliment.
On 2 October—celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti to commemorate the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—I decided to take the day off because I had worked for several weeks without a break. At 7 pm that evening, Hilal Mir, the editor of the Kashmir Reader, asked me to come to the office. I reached the office—located on the second storey of SDA Mall at Batamaloo, in Srinagar—at around 7.20 pm. At the entrance, I saw Mir talking on his phone. I paused to hand him a parcel that had been lying with me, when he told me that our paper had been banned. Initially, I could not believe him, but the atmosphere inside the newsroom left me with no other alternative. My colleagues had left their seats and everyone was standing around the editor’s desk. “Where is the ban order?” I asked. The newspaper had not received it yet. Mir had found out about the order because that afternoon, the government had circulated it to the ten printing presses that publish the newspaper.
The order directed them to “abstain from printing and publishing” the daily “so that disturbance of public tranquility is prevented.” It stated that any failure to abide by the order would invite punitive measures, which could include “forfeiture of the printing press and other properties used for the purpose.” Passed by the district magistrate of Srinagar, Farooq Lone, the two-page order alleged that the newspaper “contains such material and content which tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquility.” The order did not provide any justification for the ban, neither did it substantiate the allegations it had made against the paper.
At around 8 pm that day, five policemen arrived at our office to serve the order. Everyone was heartbroken. By imposing the ban, not only had the government displayed its new tack against criticism—outlawing words—it had also snatched the livelihoods of more than 60 people who were employed with the Kashmir Reader. That evening, the office seemed barren. There was no chit-chat or friendly banter. Everyone was sombre and in a state of shock. The tension was palpable and visible on every face.
The Kashmir Reader was a 12-page paper, launched in May 2012, with a print circulation of few thousand copies—according to the estimates of the printing press facilities and newspaper distributors in Kashmir. In a region that is replete with tales of the pressures that journalists face from the government, a host of security agencies, the separatists and the militants, the publication was respected for sticking by its slogan, “Nothing but NEWS.” Since the killing of Burhan Wani—the 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander—in Kashmir’s Anantnag district on 8 July 2016, the Kashmir Reader, like other media outlets, had been reporting on the uprising that followed in the valley.
Muzamil Jaleel, a deputy editor at the Indian Express who has reported from Kashmir for the last 23 years, said that the Kashmir Reader was the finest example of independent journalism. “The paper was not doing propaganda on anyone’s behest. It was critiquing every side fairly. During the last four months, it was clear that the government didn’t want stories from the ground. They found truth explosive. That isn’t a newspaper’s problem,” said Jaleel. He said that the paper was professionally edited. It provided young journalists a vibrant young platform and gave them a chance to work with professionals who had returned to Kashmir after working with national media outlets in Delhi. “To my understanding, good journalism should not be neutral but truthful. The Kashmir Reader’s stories reflected that. All the stories were based on field reporting and the paper also had a vibrant opinion page,” he continued, “The state didn’t want the truth to come out. The ban on the Kashmir Reader is an attempt to muzzle the freedom of all professional journalists. Those who see this issue through any other prism than freedom of press must remember that such drastic measures by the state won’t remain limited to Kashmir alone.”
Jaleel, along with other journalists in Kashmir, has criticised the ban on the newspaper. “The allegation against the newspaper that its stories incited violence was not only false, it was outrageous. If they [the government] had issues with the content of particular stories, they could have issued a rebuttal or filed even filed a case. But they didn’t do that. They could not identify any such story. This is why they banned the paper,” he said.
In a conflict-ridden place such as Kashmir, it is not uncommon for a journalist to criticise mainstream political parties. But writing against the separatists can lead to serious consequences. Yusuf Jameel, a former BBC correspondent who has been working with the Asian Age since October 1993, was a well-known name in the valley when the armed militancy peaked in the region during the 1990s. Jameel told me that he survived six attacks between 1990 and 1995, including one that was executed using a package containing an explosive device on 7 September 1995. Mushtaq Ali, a Kashmir-based photojournalist, was killed at Jameel’s office in Srinagar during this attack. Mushtaq Ali Press Enclave, which houses the offices of almost all the major publications in the region, is named after him. Despite such risks, the Kashmir Reader consistently carried reports that have criticised both the government and the separatists.
“Our policy was unambiguous: no compromise on news,” said the founding editor of the Kashmir Reader, Showkat A Motta. “In the process of reporting the truth, we earned many enemies, particularly the deep state that virtually runs Kashmir. But despite pressures and threats from known and unknown quarters we did not compromise on honest journalism.”
After working with the newspaper for three years, Motta quit the Kashmir Reader in March 2015 to launch his own media outlet, Kashmir Narrator—a monthly news magazine based in Srinagar. His successor Mir, a former assistant editor with the Hindustan Times, consolidated the image of the Kashmir Reader as a newspaper committed to independent journalism.
Despite the ban, a majority of the staff—both editorial and non-editorial—employed with the newspaper continue to come into the office of the Kashmir Reader everyday, hoping that ban will be revoked soon. Abdul Muhmin, one of the founding reporters of the publication, told me that he has not applied at any other news outlets because the ban has no valid justification. Muhmin quoted an article written by Justice Hasnain Masoodi, a former judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, which was published in the Greater Kashmir—an English daily based in Srinagar. Masoodi wrote, “The ban order does not satisfy the constitutionality test, is based on surmises and conjectures and therefore palpably unlawful inter alia on the ground of overbreadth”—a judicial doctrine that holds a law or executive order to be invalid if it proscribes constitutionally protected speech.
Muhmin is well known among his colleagues and fellow journalists for his insightful journalism. When I spoke to him on 15 November 2016, Muhmin told me he had been looking at the sky and had found a story. I assumed that he was speaking about the supermoon, as 14 November marked the moon’s closest encounter with Earth in over 68 years, since 26 January 1948. As always, his reply surprised me. Muhmin told me he had spotted migratory birds and could have filed a story regarding their arrival. Instead, the ban had led the journalist and father of a five-year-old child to gardening at home. “Government should have been happy with a professional organisation. I wonder as to what type of newspaper does a government want,” Muhmin said.
Marouf Ahmad, a senior correspondent at the Kashmir Reader who reported on the court beat, has not left the organisation either. Ahmad did not stop travelling eight kilometers from his home to reach office every day, even a month into the ban. He told me that he leaves his house at around 10 am every day to cover cases being heard in the high court and district court, both of which are close to the Kashmir Reader’s office, and reaches the office at 4.30 pm. He sits before his desktop computer and reads reports on the internet to stay abreast on the current events in the rest of the world. A journalist with over eight years of experience, Ahmad worked with several local news outlets before he joined the Kashmir Reader five years ago. “The working environment and space for writing stories at Kashmir Reader is unmatchable,” Ahmad told me in the office.
He received three calls while speaking with me. The callers were reporters from different news outlets seeking his help for getting the day’s court orders. “As a journalist you can’t miss happenings. But yes it hurts, you are not writing stories. It is one of my tragic moments of life,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad told me that he believed the paper had stood for its motto by not buckling under any influence. “Be it the government or Hurriyat, we reported stories in an absolute, fair manner. In other organisations, stories are not necessarily censored by the organisation but personal influence prevailed there,” he said. “That was never the case at the Kashmir Reader.”
According to Ahmad, the paper had adopted a “no friends, no foes” policy since it was launched. “The paper carved a name because of the stories it did. We reported all aspects of life, not only conflict and politics, which dominates papers here,” Ahmad said, citing many stories as examples. One such example, he told me, was a series of investigative stories on a fake-degrees racket run by education consultancies. “Those issues are rarely touched in the valley. Sometimes, you will see stories on fire incidents and accidents on front page,” he added. Ahmad is waiting for the ban to be revoked.
I first met Ubeer Naqushbandi, a 22-year-old reporter and the youngest in the newsroom, at the office in August, during the ongoing four-month long political unrest. A muscular man with a zestful spirit, Naqushbandi was constantly chasing leads. He would not feel content filing one story a day, and so, apart from working on the report he had been assigned, Naqushbandi would also make sure he left his house between 9 and 10 am everyday to visit the major hospitals in the city, searching for a story as injured protestors continued to pour in from across the valley. He preferred field reporting despite the risks of being attacked by either protesters or the security forces.
Before joining the paper, Naqushbandi told me, he worked with a weekly magazine called the Kashmir Life, where he could only publish one story per issue because of the space constraints. “The beauty of this organisation [Kashmir Reader] is that it does not promote armchair journalism. It was not like whatever I wanted was published. The editor wanted facts with all angles and sides explored,” he said.
As we spoke at the office of the Kashmir Reader, which had lost its air of frenzied activity since the ban, Naqushbandi recounted the challenges he had faced as a reporter since the uprising began in July. On a night in August, he was travelling in a three-wheeler load carrier because no forms of public transport were available. During the journey, protestors intercepted the vehicle and beat him up at Soura, in Srinagar, presumably for defying the shutdown. In another instance, on 1 October, Naqushbandi told me that he had to travel in an ambulance carrying the body of a young man who had been killed in the ongoing unrest.
Naqushbandi has not written anything since October, when he wrote a piece on the ban for Kindle magazine—an English-monthly magazine based in Kolkata with a focus on socio-political and cultural issues. However, he expressed no desire to leave the Kashmir Reader. “There is a temptation to get the stories published anywhere else. But I stand with the organisation for the space it provided to publish my stories,” he said, and added, “I only wait for the moment to write here again.”
Most of the journalists from the Kashmir Reader are waiting for that moment, in which they will start writing for the publication again. But for now, that seems quite far. Almost everyday, since 2 October, we would impatiently check about the status of the ban, asking those within and outside the organisation. Sources from within the government had led us to believe that it would be a matter of days before the ban was revoked. Haji Hayat Mohammad Bhat, the editor-in-chief of the Kashmir Reader and a member of the Kashmir Editors’ Guild, told me that when the guild met the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti a week after the ban, she did not commit to a specific time-frame, but assured the representatives from the guild that she would look into the matter. On 21 November, The Tribune reported that a government source had said that the ban would be lifted either that day or the following day. Yet, more than seven weeks have now passed since the ban was first imposed.
For many of us, the issue of sustaining a livelihood supersedes our ability to stand up for independent journalism. I have the luxury of being an independent journalist unencumbered by pressures because of editorial policy of the Kashmir Reader, but I can continue only as long as I am paid. Once my financial resources begin to wane, I would have to fend for my sustenance or quit. I cannot run my family in the name of independent journalism alone.
The ban has rendered the employees of the Kashmir Reader, around 30 journalists and non-journalists each, jobless. Soon, we may all have to consider the possibility of leaving the organisation. However, even that would not be a feasible option in the midst of an economic slump in the region, brought on by the shutdown since the protests began in July. A majority of the news outlets in the region are facing a financial crunch and have laid off some of their staffers. Some have delayed or reduced salaries. Although the Kashmir Reader did not lay off any of its employees or cut the salaries of any of its staff members in the months of the political unrest since July, it could not release salaries in October. The employees of the publication have now been forced to confront the ethical dilemma of leaving an organisation that sustained them, amid the uncertainty that surrounds it now. Everyone is wondering how long it will be before the Kashmir Reader is allowed to resume its operations once again. Unfortunately, only the government can answer that question.
—(This piece first appeared in the Caravan Magazine. Kashmir Reader is reproducing it on the World Press Day)

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