India hits Kashmir's independent media where it hurts - in the ads

India hits Kashmir's independent media where it hurts - in the ads
In-depth: Kashmir's media industry struggles when the Indian government cuts off its advertising - which happens after every critical story, writes Nayeem Rather.
6 min read
15 November, 2017
Kashmiri journalists at the scene of a militant attack in Srinigar, 2006 [AFP]
On 18 October, the Indian ministry of home affairs asked the State government of Jammu Kashmir to stop giving advertising money to newspapers that publish "anti-national" articles.

Chief Minister of Jammu Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, was ordered to stop supporting media agencies that publish "highly radicalized content, glamorizing terrorists and anti-national elements".

This was not the first time that such measures have been taken against Kashmiri news agencies.

Many in the media fraternity in the valley see it as a systemic and systematic tactic of the state of India to censor "non-partisan and objective" reporting in Kashmir.

In July 2016, a popular mass uprising broke out in Kashmir following the killing of local guerilla commander, Burhan Wani. As a result, the state government banned publication on all the newspapers in the valley for three days.

State forces raided the newspaper offices and locked their doors, the printing presses were raided and newspapers sellers were stopped from selling newspapers in the streets.

The state government, while defending the ban, said at the time it was an "unnecessary evil measure" as the government apprehends serious troublemakers in Kashmir.

The primary source of revenue for most media outlets in Kashmir is the government's advertising department and the State Department for information

After facing criticism from civil society groups and media associations, the state government lifted the ban. Later, in October 2016, one of the valley's leading English daily, the Kashmir Reader, was allegedly banned for publishing material that "tends to incite acts of violence".

According to the editor-in- chief, pressure on the newspaper had begun to mount much earlier. On 8th July, the newspaper carried a picture of the slain militant commander, Burhan Wani, on its front page. This upset people high up in government and immediately all government advertisements, national and federal, were stopped. 

"If you tell the truth and refuse to toe the state line in reporting, the state will start building pressure by stopping their ads," said Haji Hayat Ahmed, editor-in-chief and owner of Kashmir Reader.

"It is a tactic to ensure that newspapers write what the state wants them to write."

Hayat went on to say that the charges levied against Kashmir Reader were "ludicrous" and requests for the government's dossier were refused.

"They ( the state) said we are publishing syndicated columns of Ramzy Baroud and they had objections to that," Ahmed said.

"It was a joke. It was just a tactic to punish Kashmir Reader for its objective and non-partisan reporting," he alleged.

After the ban was lifted on Kashmir Reader, the government began to constantly monitor its reporting. And if the government found a critical report or did not subscribe to its politics, advertising revenue was immediately stopped.

After 2016, Ahmed said, the proportion of advertising money directed towards the Kashmir Reader went down drastically – by as much as 30 percent.

"Sometimes, if the government didn't like our reporting, they'd stop the ads to pressurize us to fall in line," said Ahmed.

The primary source of revenue for most media outlets in Kashmir is the government's advertising department and the state department for information.

 In 2010, 13 Kashmir based newspapers had their funding cut off, including the leading English dailies Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times. At the time, the government said they had been censured for "unethical acts" like paid news, irresponsible reporting.

Other allegations included "inaccurate and disrespectful reporting", and blackmail.

State control

Many working journalists in Kashmir believe this censure is a tactic to control the media in Kashmir.

"There might be some newspapers which indulge in blackmail and bad reporting," said a senior Kashmir based journalist, wishing anonymity.

"But largely, such acts are with the publications under state control.

"There are various news publications in Kashmir, funded by the army and state, which also do not do good reporting - they are tools of state propaganda."

Historically, the media in Kashmir has always been under state pressure. Khalid Bashir Ahmed, a former director at the State Department for Information and a writer for the Kashmir Observer, recently traced the history of state censorship in Kashmir. He found that Kashmir's experience with partial journalism is rooted in history.

In 1904, Munshi Muhammad Din Fauq sought permission to start a newspaper in  Srinagar. Maharaja Pratap Singh, the then ruler-cum-despot, was not pleased.

Singh asked his Prime Minister to frame rules that would disallow even consideration of such requests in future. For about three decades nobody made another attempt until 1932 when Prem Nath Bazaz, a Kashmiri member of the Brahmin caste, was permitted to publish the first newspaper, Vitasta, from Kashmir.

Khalid Bashir's views are echoed by Shanaz Bashir, Assistant Professor of media studies at the Central University of Kashmir. Bashir said that today's events are not the first time there have been threats of blacklisting or depriving newspapers of their revenue.

There was a time when certain columns in the leading newspaper Greater Kashmir were banned. The information department threatened the paper to stop publishing columns on the Kashmiri problems or lose advertising revenue. There have always been severe repercussions in the past.

Many newspapers are run by the Indian Army and the intelligence services in Kashmir to run propaganda

Bashir remains optimistic about the resistance that will result from such moves. He argues that the more communication technology advances, the more censorship we will witness to control it. The state, wielding such power over democratic institutions, will have no shame in banning free expression – in this instance, the press.

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"But these efforts will always boomerang and compel possibilities for more rigorous alternatives and dissent," Bashir said.

"It will go down in history as an example of how brazenly a certain powerful regime threatened to segregate opinion and liked only to hear well about itself," he added.

In her report on Kashmir Newspapers for The Caravan, the Indian journalist Sumega Gulati wrote that many newspapers receive much more funds than they deserve - in line with what the state wants them to write. Similarly, she continued, many newspapers are run by the Indian Army and the intelligence services in Kashmir to run propaganda.

Hilal Mir, executive editor at Greater Kashmir said the Indian home minister's threat to stop newspapers advertising is "absurd" as a punitive measure, because it has been a standard practice for so long now in Kashmir anyway. So much so, he argued, that what goes into newspapers these days is actually dictated by this threat.

"What is regrettable is that pro-Indian Kashmiri politicians who built their careers in the local media organizations have become the same agents that use advertising revenue as a controlling mechanism," said Mir. 

Nayeem Rather is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-Administered Kashmir. He has previously reported on human rights, politics, the environment, and art and culture.