Moazum Mohammad, 28, has not opened his laptop for eighteen straight days. He wakes up late in the morning and spends his time catching up with friends and relatives he has not been able to meet for the past three months. He has done a lot of reading. Caught up on the movies he has missed out. Yet, he hates it.
Moazum is a passionate journalist working with the Srinagar-based newspaper Kashmir Reader. On the evening of 2 October – Gandhi Jayanti – the newspaper was asked to stop its publication after two police officials delivered a government order that banned the newspaper.
After Burhan Wani’s killing, journalists in the Valley have been swamped with stories. There has hardly been a slow news day since 8 July. When the police officials ordered closure of Kashmir Reader, Moazum had been planning a story from the Line of Control (LoC). He had to shelve it, and since then, he says he has been feeling left out.
State Govt Bans ‘Kashmir Reader’
“It is suffocating to not report in spite of being in the thick of things,” he says. “The forced rest hurts.”
The government has banned the newspaper on the pretext of “publishing content that can incite acts of violence” and “disturb public tranquility”. The information department issued a statement later on saying the newspaper had been served a notice a week before and had been given a fair chance to defend itself.
However, Editor Hilal Mir strongly denies that. “No warning was served to us,” he says, sitting in his empty office.
The order is vague. It does not mention any article or content that they have found objectionable. If there is misrepresentation, specify it, take legal recourse instead of arbitrary methods.
Hilal Mir, Editor, Kashmir Reader
Spokesperson for the PDP, Waheed Ur Rehman Para, while saying that the ban is likely to be a temporary one, justified it.
The newspaper had been glorifying militancy. After Wani’s killing, his full-size photograph was on the front page, painting him a martyr.
Waheed Ur Rehman Para, Spokesperson, PDP
Moazum, however, says they are merely reporting the ground reality and “not inventing stories”. “The ban is a warning message for the rest of the media organisations in Kashmir,” he says. “When PDP leaders said Burhan has become a role model for youngsters here, was that not glorification?”
Once a Reporter, Now a Mute Spectator
Journalists across the Valley stand united with Kashmir Reader. They say the ban is another attempt at stifling freedom of expression in the Valley, as newspapers have exposed the government mishandling of the burgeoning crisis.
A poster is mounted at the Lal Chowk Press Enclave in Srinagar that reads ‘Revoke Ban on Kashmir Reader’. A protest march had been conducted and senior journalists even met the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti regarding the same.
The ban has affected Moazum. He reads headlines about hostile protests, ensuing gun battles and instinctively thinks of a piece. “But then reality strikes,” he says.
One of the recent examples was the Pampore encounter that lasted 57 hours eventually ending on 12 October. Journalists thronged the site reporting every minute of it. OB vans were permanently parked, cameramen would be ready with visuals, and reporters were busy gathering information. Moazum did visit the site but merely as an observer.
Targeted for its Coverage?
After Burhan Wani’s encounter, the reportage of Kashmir Reader is said to have been extensive and controversial. One of the stories that could have been the reason behind the newspaper being on the radar was published on 16 July.
It was a story of CRPF men allegedly attempting to rape and kill an ailing woman in Kulgam who was being taken to Srinagar by her husband and son. The CRPF statement called it malicious and false but the content was graphic and a police officer had corroborated it on record.
Restraint Fuels Public Outrage
Senior journalist Parvaiz Bukhari opines the government has “pulled a Public Safety Act” on the institution.
When you do not have concrete proof, you prepare a vague chargesheet and jail a protestor under the Public Safety Act that provides for arresting and jailing a person without trial on mere suspicion. That is exactly what they have done to Kashmir Reader.
Parvaiz Bukhari, senior journalist
The presence of Public Safety Act and AFSPA has ensured that the space for dissent is tenuous in the Valley. Further, student politics stands banned in the University of Kashmir, Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) and Central University of Kashmir (CUK).
Student organisations like Jammu and Kashmir Students’ Union are prohibited from conducting their activities. In July, the government, in a sweeping blackout, had banned newspapers for three days after the mushrooming protests following Wani’s killing. The government action was supposedly aimed to “save lives and strengthen peace efforts”.
There is every attempt in the Valley to repress democratic rights the rest of India boasts of. Observers say the repression contributes in direct proportion to the anger bottling up to the extent that it erupts from time to time with something or the other working like a trigger — the latest being Burhan Wani.
‘Is there any Peace Left to be Disturbed?’
Amidst the claustrophobic atmosphere, the only avenue for catharsis — the media — now appears to be on the receiving end of the crackdown. The office of Kashmir Reader was a sorry spectacle. It disturbingly resembled the barren, deserted streets of a city languishing under curfew. The cubicles were empty. The lights were off as someone worked on his laptop.
The newspaper is independently funded and the owners are bearing the financial brunt of the ban, which has rendered the staff jobless.
“We have allowed our reporters to pitch their stories elsewhere until the ban is revoked,” says Mir. “They use the apparatus here if they need to.”
Bukhari says the ban exposes the insecurity of the establishment that feels the need to crackdown on a newspaper with circulation of not more than 10,000. “They say the newspaper can disturb public tranquility and peace. Is there any peace and tranquility left to disturb? Can the justification get more incoherent and ironical?” he asks.