Srinagar: Journalism in Kashmir is a risky venture even in the best of times. Life and livelihood are both at risk when reporting the ‘situation’ in the Valley, whether it was the insurgency in the turbulent 90s or the street agitations since 2008. Reporters have had to face the ire of the government as well as the public, and at times of the ‘non-state actors’, from armed insurgents to intelligence agents. But in the past few years a new challenge has been posed, a direct threat to their survival: the blocking of advertisements to the organisation they work for.
Advertisements are the major source of income for any media outlet. Senior journalists in Kashmir say that the government has been using this tactic of blocking ads largely in the past few years. The motive is obvious: to force media organisations to desist from reporting stories that go against the government’s interests.
Editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, says that advertisements given out by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) favour “certain kind of newspapers”.
“The distribution (of government advertisements) is done selectively and a few newspapers are deliberately kept out of the list. This is happening because the government has made no advertisement policy,” Bhasin said.
She says that this tactic is meant to ensure that independent media does not thrive in Kashmir.
“They don’t want independent media to thrive in Kashmir. It is also being done by blocking sources of information. We have seen bureaucrats and other government officials refusing information to journalists belonging to certain newspapers,” she said.
In many cases, she said, the government went out of the way to favour news organisations that furthered its interests. “Newspapers that are not even publishing on regular basis are receiving advertisements, while the deserving ones are being ignored. It is clear that advertisements are being given out selectively,” Bhasin said.
Stating that the fixation of rates for advertisements was a necessary step towards a rational advertisement policy, she said it was “unjustified” that regardless of merit, news outlets were being paid similar rates for advertisements.
“An advertisement issued to a newspaper having circulation of 50,000 can’t have the same rate as that for a newspaper with circulation of 500,” she said.
A few months ago, a meeting was convened by newspaper publishers under the chairmanship of Ghulam Hassan Kaloo to deliberate upon the “discriminatory and irrational distribution” of advertisements by the Information Department.
The publishers and editors of Kashmir-based newspapers, as per their press statement, discussed the alleged discriminatory attitude of the Information Department, “which smacks of conspiracy to muzzle the press and widen the gap between the media and the government.”
“The Publishers resolved to launch a sustained fight against those who have brought the Publishing Houses to the brink of closure. It was further decided to knock the doors of Judiciary if the Information Department follows its partisan role and doesn’t distribute advertisements fairly and judiciously,” the statement said.
Hilal Mir, who works with Greater Kashmir, said that government advertisements were being used as an “instrument to control the content” of newspapers. “Government advertisements have always been used as an instrument to control what is published in newspapers. As an editor, I have firsthand experience of how the Information Department executes this controlling mechanism,” Mir said.
Last year, the government framed a new advertisement policy called ‘Advertisement policy-2016’ which was approved by the State Administrative Council (SAC) in its meeting on 3 March 2016.
As per the policy, the circulation, standard, and quality of a publication would be among parameters that would determine the distribution of advertisements.
Senior journalist Yousuf Jameel says that blocking of advertisements is just “indirect censorship”.
“When they aren’t able to impose direct censorship they create circumstances where it becomes impossible for a news organisation to function freely and independently,” Jameel said.
Recently, on the first death anniversary of slain Hizb commander Burhan Wani on July 8, Kashmir Reader revisited the entire incident and the uprising that followed it. A day after the issue, Kashmir Reader administration was told verbally that the Information department won’t send advertisements any more to the newspaper.
Last month, the JK government approved empanelment of 99 new newspapers and periodicals for advertisement support, taking the total number of empanelled newspapers in the state to 467.
The fresh empanelment was granted on the recommendations of the Empanelment Committee and on the approval of Minister of Information Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali.
The Empanelment Committee headed by the Administrative Secretary of Information Department comprised members from the Finance and Home departments, and from MERC Srinagar and IIMC Jammu. They met in Jammu on 27th March 2017.
The newly empanelled publications include 61 dailies, 33 weeklies, one fortnightly, two monthly magazines, and two monthly newspapers.
Tariq Bhat, who works with the magazine, The Week, said that if government has empanelled publications after proper verification, there should be no reason to stop advertisements to “certain newspapers”.
He said that the government should be “generous” while issuing advertisements, as Kashmir has a minuscule private sector that is struggling to survive. “If the government won’t do that, the media sector would collapse,” he said.
Mufti Islah, Kashmir Bureau Chief CNN-IBN news channel, said that the blocking of advertisements is meant to “regulate news and send a message to these organisations to fall in line and not be critical of the government”.
A week after the government approved empanelment of fresh newspapers, it constituted two separate sub-committees for Kashmir and Jammu divisions to review whether the empanelled newspapers and periodicals met the norms set out in the Advertisement Policy-2016. The government recommend delisting of any approved newspaper that was violating the said advertisement policy. The sub-committees were vested with powers to recommend delisting of approved newspapers and periodicals.
Director of DIPR, Muneer-ul-Islam, told Kashmir Reader that as the implementation of the new advertisement policy is still in process, the department is continuing with its old mechanism of distributing advertisements.
“There are some grudges against the existing mechanism, which we accept. But we are revamping it and we hope it will lessen the grievances,” Islam said.
When asked about the new policy which was to be implemented from November 2016, he said that it couldn’t be implemented due to some issues in the “categorisation part”. He said this was being corrected with the assistance of various media bodies.
“As soon as we receive feedback from them, we will immediately implement the policy,” he said.