Govt silences Kashmir press, silently

Greater Kashmir

Police, CRPF continue to harass journalists, hamper newspaper distribution

FAHEEM ASLAM
Srinagar, Sept 29: Not surprisingly though, the National Conference-Congress coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir has earned an ignominious distinction of having imposed an undeclared ban on the Kashmir-based newspapers, time and again— exactly like it imposed undeclared curfew across the Valley.
If the government has over 100 civilian killings in 100 days to its credit, it is, off late, being known for having imposed severe restrictions on publication of the Valley-based newspapers to muzzle the truth and deny people the necessary information. And this has not happed for the first time, but many times since it took over the reigns of the state.
As if humiliating, beating and abusing Kashmiri journalists was not enough, the state government has so far maintained a criminal silence over why the newspapers have been banned for the past one week in particular, and frequently in the past too.
So far even the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, his cabinet colleagues and babus have not even bothered to look into the issue, though all of them would repeatedly beat the drum of press being the Fourth Estate which needs to be respected and allowed to function smoothly.
While all that appears to be a bunch of lies, given the ground realities, it is the journalists—the Valley-based journalists to be precise—who have to bear the brunt of police and CRPF terror on the streets. As if all this was less a humiliation, the government has issued the so-called curfew passes, which are torn to pieces by the government forces manning the roads.
On Saturday, when newspapers decided to resume their publications after seven days of undeclared ban on them, the police and paramilitary forces thrashed and abused the staffers, though they carried a valid “curfew pass” issued by the District Magistrate Srinagar. The state government’s “influence” on ground got exposed when the forces tore to pieces the “red-colour special curfew passes” and even abused those who have issued them. You can call it the uselessness of a government which is not able to control a constable on the streets! And while some journalists had a close shave at many places, the newspaper distribution was yet again disallowed, making the media organizations run in losses worth millions of rupees.
The police hassles come despite repeated, rather almost daily, assurances by the government functionaries that journalists won’t be harassed and the newspapers’ distribution won’t be stopped. The former principal secretary to the Chief Minister, Khursheed Ahmad Ganai is among the officers to give such assurances.
Ironically, the state wants its functions to be covered, caring little on how the journalists would attend the functions and press conferences. On Sunday, a cabinet minister was seen calling journalists, asking them to attend his press conference amid stringent curfew. But how it was possible, only the minister can answer.
GROUND SITUATION
On Saturday evening, three staffers of Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Uzma were ruthlessly beaten by policemen at Kaka Sarai in Old City. They were travelling in the office vehicle which was intercepted by police. The staffers were asked to show their curfew passes and identity cards which they did. So far so good. All of a sudden a policeman started beating a staffer who was admitted to the Bone and Joints Hospital after the staffers fled from the spot. This is not the first incident of its kind. The incidents are too many to be narrated on a newspaper, given the space constraints. And it has not happed with GK and Uzma alone, but with almost all newspapers, journalists and photo-journalists—but of course, barring the “darling non-local journalists” of the state government.


PGK PROTESTS BAN, SUSPENDS PUBLICATIONS
Irked by the government inaction, the Press Guild of Kashmir (PGK) Sunday strongly condemned the ban imposed by the government on the publication of Kashmir-based newspapers and other media institutions.
At an emergency meeting held here under the chairmanship of PGK president Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the members deplored the government action to create a situation under which the newspaper publication had been put to halt from September 13 to 18, 2010. “Even as some of the media houses tried to resume the publication today but a reign of terror was let loose on them making the distribution of newspapers impossible. Several journalists and workers of Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Uzma andBuland Kashmir were ruthlessly beaten by the police and some of them were taken to a hospital,” said the PGK general secretary in a statement here. “Several thousand newspapers are lying in the respective offices as police chased the distributors and hawkers in their offices during the wee hours. This has made the intentions of government clear that it does not want that the newspapers to be published from Kashmir. This has resulted in huge losses to this industry but also deprived the masses of necessary information during this situation of crisis.”
 The meeting also condemned the recent attacks on the journalists and ban of local TV news networks.
The meeting was attended by the representatives of Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Uzma, Srinagar Times, Aftab, Uqab, Nida-e-Mashriq, Chattan, Kashmir Images, Buland Kashmir and Kashmir Life.


GOVT IGNORES SNUBS
The media in Kashmir has been gagged despite the fact that this government has been repeatedly snubbed by media commissions and organizations over the issue.
On September 17 the South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) called on the government to lift an undeclared ban on the media in Kashmir Valley. “After the recent wave of violence that took 18 lives, an 18-hour long curfew was imposed in the valley. No newspaper—English or Urdu—could be distributed in the last three days in the wake of strict curfew and security situation,” Kumar Ketkar, Chairman of SAMC and Najam Sethi, its Secretary General, had said.  “Authorities have also banned local channels from airing news bulletins and ordered cable operators to take off the air all unregistered channels. The incidents of thrashing of journalists and tearing their curfew passes by men in uniform show how crippled the media is in Kashmir. Unrest should not be an excuse to restrict journalists from reporting in consequences of lack of information.”
The SAMC took a serious note of the violations of freedom of press and freedom of movement and considered suspension of publications as a blow to media rights. “We ask the government to uphold democratic values in Kashmir, and order the forces to facilitate journalists and let them perform their duties. We express our support and solidarity with the Kashmiri people and journalists and expect a democratic attitude from the government,” they added. But no action was taken.
Earlier on August 4, the Press Council of India (PCI), a quasi-judicial body issued a show-cause notice to the Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary SS Kapoor asking him to explain the curbs on publication of newspapers as well as preventing journalists to conduct their professional duties during the current phase of unrest.
The full-council meeting headed by its chairman Justice GN Ray took note of a complaint filed by three Kashmir-based newspaper organisations and an appeal issued by Delhi-based J&K journalists to intervene to preserve freedom of press in Kashmir Valley.
The Council had also taken a suo-moto notice of press reports related to thrashing of journalists. The organisations who had filed the complaint included Press Guild of Kashmir, Kashmir Press Association and Press Photographers Association. A PCI member had said the show-cause notice was first step to initiate action against authorities and officials who prevented press to perform its duties.
In a joint complaint the four leading media organisations representing over 60 newspapers, photographers and channels alleged harassment from the authorities of Jammu and Kashmir government and para-military forces particularly the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “Harassing journalists and forcing newspapers to suspend their publications has become a handy tool in the hands of authorities, during crises. In the immediate past it happened during 2008 Amarnath land row agitation and lately now during the current phase of agitation. Instead allowing free flow of information, authorities force people to rely on speculations and rumours, which in no way helps calming tempers or situation,” the complaint added.
Seeking immediate action of the PCI for the sake of freedom of press, the complaint mentions the sequence of events that happened in Kashmir since July 6, leading even to closure of newspapers.
In July this year a media viewed with concern the curbs on media by the Jammu and Kashmir government. The India chapter of the South Asia media commission asked authorities to restore normal functioning of journalists in the Kashmir. “The restrictions of the type announced will only prove counter-productive. As we know from our experience of the emergency period, it will not serve any useful purpose either in the immediate or long-term context,” Chairperson of the India chapter of South Asia commission K K Katyal said in a statement.
On September 17, the Reporters Without Borders said, “Trying to maintain order should not be confused with preventing the media from working The Jammu and Kashmir state authorities and the security forces that are enforcing the curfew are failing to consider the importance of the local media’s work, or else there is an undeclared intention to prevent Kashmir’s media from operating during the protests.”