Kashmiri newspapers Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader suddenly stopped receiving advertisements from the state government of Jammu and Kashmir last February when Satyapal Malik was the Governor. No formal order was issued. The state’s Information Department, it turned out, was verbally told by a senior administrative functionary to withhold ads. This came as a crippling blow to the newspapers already reeling from a denial of federal government ads. More so, in the case of Greater Kashmir, one of the region’s largest newspapers, which has not received any ad from the Indian government in the past decade.
In a state with an almost non-existent private sector, government ads form around three-fourths of a newspaper’s revenue, and for smaller or newly launched outlets - Kashmir Reader, for example - almost the entire income. The message was clear: the government was not happy with the content of the two papers. Or, more to the point, the objective of the government seemed larger - the re-orientation of the content of the local newspapers away from its reflection of the troubled ground situation and closer to the official point of view.
In the words of an editor of a local newspaper, “It was part of an ambitious bid to create an alternate reality in Kashmir ahead of the nullification of J&K’s autonomous status on August 5.”
And to further drive this point home, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned the editors of the two newspapers to New Delhi for questioning - albeit, they were not the only ones to be interrogated. Alongside them, the federal agency was also investigating separatist leaders, a prominent mainstream leader and businessmen besides a reporter and a photojournalist.
Faced with an NIA probe and the suspension of adverts, Greater Kashmir was forced to not only drastically reduce the salary of its staff and lay off many journalists but also largely shelve its otherwise extensive reportage as well as self-censor anything that was deemed even remotely critical of the government or might be perceived as such by the government. Kashmir Reader made some adjustment too. Seeing their plight, other papers largely gave up, bringing their news more or less in line with what was perceived as the government view of the situation.
The mutation of the content in the newspapers played out conspicuously before the readers’ eyes. it began as a general dumbing down of the news, its probing nature moderated to an extent where no one in the government could be expected to be ruffled. Ditto for editorials: the challenge for the writer was to begin it as a comment but end up making none at all. Or to play it safer, not write about politics or contentious issues but about the environment or health or education in a general vein. As for the opinion, the columnists were similarly asked to swear off politics, some of them were told to discontinue altogether. The others, seeing the constraints they had to work under, chose to stop writing.
Soon, the government and its activities, covered mainly by its public relations department, started getting the pride of place on the front pages of local newspapers. The Governor then, and now the Lieutenant Governor (LG) as the region is now a Union Territory, top bureaucrats and army commanders peered at the readers from the pictures alongside a detailed mention of no more than their routine work. The news, if any, was strictly restricted to apolitical issues like economy and environment.
What’s more, reports about separatist groups or important statements made by their leaders would earlier compete for space on Page 1 with the rest of news being pushed to inside pages and at times out of the paper. Now, the inside pages, too, are largely filled up with press releases of the Information Department. The visit to a place by an advisor to the LG usually gets a three- to four-column space, and so do activities of the Chief Secretary or any other top bureaucrat. The LG’s activity, no matter how routine, is deemed fit for a lead treatment. Fewer news stories that are published are preferably taken from agencies so that the newspaper is not directly held responsible for them.
This is the content that now generally makes up a Kashmiri newspaper’s coverage. And all of it is downloaded on USB sticks at the Srinagar Valley’s media facilitation centre, which is the government’s Internet facility for journalists for the past five and a half month. The venue for downloading “information” might change once the Internet is fully restored, but not its content. On any given day, Kashmiri newspapers look like a mirror copy of one another with, by and large, the same content filling their pages.
Each newspaper, with minor exceptions here and there, has become a PR effort undertaken on behalf of the government, less in lieu of the government ads and more for fear of what might follow should they decide to take an independent line. In a way, the drastic dilution of news and the self-censorship practiced by these papers are a political bellwether. It is a microcosm of what is happening in Kashmir as a whole.
By the time Kashmir’s special status under India’s constitution was revoked on August 5 last year, the local media had already been tamed, if not enslaved. But as New Delhi put the Valley under a sweeping security lockdown and communication blockade, followed by thousands of arrests, Kashmiri newspapers gave up their last pretences to journalism. Being already disciplined, they published little that concerned the ongoing situation. Chary of having to take a position on the situation, they went without editorials. Their opinion pieces focused on health, environment and international issues. Titles of some of the opinion pieces carried during the period were, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” “Divorce and Dowry,” and “Missiles of Aggression.”
One of the leading newspapers carried passages from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial to fill its editorial and oped pages. Symbolism of this could not have been more telling: it reflected the dystopian world into which Kashmir had been tossed by the revocation of it’s autonomy. And some papers that ventured to carry editorials wrote them on issues which didn’t have even a distant relation with the prevailing situation. At the height of the lockdown in August, a newspaper carried an editorial titled “A Second Election for Israel.”
This remains the state of Kashmir’s press. Newspapers steer clear of editorials on political and current situation. Local columnists have been banished from opinion pages. There is no scope for in-depth, investigative reports or the ones that objectively reflect the ground situation. Separatist politics and the security environment, dominant concerns of the Valley’s life for the past three decades, have become no-go areas for local journalists. So much so, when a senior J&K cop, Davinder Singh, was recently caught accompanying two top Hizbul Mujahideen militants to New Delhi, the news was not carried by the Kashmir press, even though it was going viral in the rest of the country. It was only when the Inspector General of Kashmir Vijay Kumar held a press conference on the issue the following day that the news was featured, even so some papers chose to buttress their story with an agency copy as a safeguard.
The general caution observed by all is to download “the risk-free content” on to a pen drive at the media centre in Srinagar and carry it without even having to bother about processing it. And with all the papers doing the same thing, there is no fear of competition. But in the process, one of the biggest political events of the state and its continuing fallout have been left to the national and international press to cover.
Chronicling of the egregiousness of the August 5 event and its fallout lacks the depth and detail that local press should have captured. And it is a huge loss to the history. But that is only one part of the tragedy: along the way, an entire people has been deprived of a voice and their narrative. Their suffering, their grievances and their aspirations have gone abegging for a medium of expression. It is now a one-way discourse, from the government to the people.
Held down by the twin threats of withdrawal of ads and a possible NIA investigation, Kashmiri newspapers are serving as extensions of the government’s PR department.They hardly require professional journalists: reporting and editing jobs have become redundant. In fact, the production of a typical newspaper in Kashmir is dependent more on computer designers than the reporters and editors. Fewer of the latter can run the show. This is why the past year, more so the period after August 5, has witnessed a significant number of lay-offs of journalists, many of whom have nowhere to go and are now barely making ends meet by freelancing for national and international publications.
I am one of them.