‘Banning a newspaper unmasks the fakery of being a democracy’

Soon after the July 2016 uprising, the State found a soft target: the media. The Internet and mobile connectivity was snapped for several months. Printing presses of some leading dailies were sealed and these papers couldn’t be published for several days.  Later, English language newspaper Kashmir Reader was banned by a written government order. All this was done to control the flow of information and black out all news about the killings, blindings and injuries of civilians at the hands of State forces who were on a rampage to crush the uprising. The government on its part reasoned that such curbs were necessary for ‘maintaining law and order’ — an explanation that hardly convinced anybody. Kashmir Reader remained banned for 86 days and was allowed to publish after the journalistic fraternity put its weight behind the paper forcing the government to revoke the ban. 

Editor Kashmir Reader, Hilal Mir, was himself a target as the government had reportedly been contemplating to bring a sedition case against him. Hilal spoke with Aasif Sultan on issues surrounding the ban and its subsequent revocation.

Q Immediately after the ban was lifted, you told Rising Kashmir in an interview that the government had done itself a favour by revoking the ban. How do you think the government was doing itself a favour?

Because they had imposed an unjust ban and by revoking it they were correcting a wrong which is incumbent on a government. If they claim to be a democracy, they should do the right things, and the right thing was to lift the ban which shouldn’t have been imposed in the first place.

Q Except for a vague government statement that the content of the paper will endanger public orderorder, not much has appeared in the press why you were banned in the first place. Tell us what the reasons for this ban were which the public doesn’t know.

When I and the owner of the newspaper along with the members of the recently-formed Kashmir Editors’ Guild met some government officials, we were shown a copy of a dossier on the basis of which the ban was imposed. It had listed some editorials, stories, headlines, and even an article by a Palestinian-American writer. The grudge against the newspaper was old and it had nothing to do with the uprising in itself. When we went through the contents of the dossier, it seemed that the government had been planning the ban for long.

The dossier, however, was never delivered to us and it was only fleetingly shown to us in these meetings.

Q What does banning a newspaper tell us about the attitude of the government towards the press?

By and large, all governments in Kashmir have been harsh towards the press, even before the armed insurgency. G M Zahid, a distinguished columnist, recently told me how during the time of G M Sadiq in the 1950s newspapers were banned and many journalists were arrested. So, in a way this government is no different. It is carrying on the legacy of the old stooges like Sadiq and others who would arbitrarily curb the media here.

It is a very regressive step in the 21st century. They claim that they are a democracy and want to find a solution to this dispute. So banning a newspaper, at times, seems funny. It negates all their political posturing, which is obviously fake. It also unmasks the fakery of those claims of being a democracy.

Even in the absence of an uprising in the Valley, there are subtle forms of press-censorships like by stopping advertisements, etc.

Q At a personal level, you must have gone through painful times after the paper was banned. Tell us about those experiences.

It was a very uncertain period. We were apprehensive that the government might never lift the ban as they did with local cable channels sometime ago. Some might argue that these channels were not registered which is why they were banned. But there are a number of unregistered news agencies which function here. They are very dubious. They are allowed to function because they do the government’s bidding.

This uncertainty about when they will lift the ban was painful. And then the employees started to have doubts whether the ban will at all be lifted or not. The most painful aspect was that while the ban was on, the government officials would tell us that it will be lifted next week. But the ban would stay and the entire staff would go into despair. Those were very uncertain times. But our employees stood by us and they were firm in their belief that however long the ban may continue they will stand by the newspaper.

Q Apparently, the government didn’t have a valid legal reason to ban the paper. It didn’t even serve you a show-cause notice to explain your position. Why then didn’t you choose to move a court of law against the ban?

During the first meeting of the Kashmir Editors’ Guild, the owner of the newspaper was given three options by the local media fraternity: first, to fight it out in the court; second, to do it through negotiations with the government; third, through other forms of protest. He chose the path of reconciliation and it proved to be a wiser option.

Q There are some people who say you people wanted to play safe and didn’t want to annoy the authorities by taking an aggressive posture against the ban. How would you respond to that?

Don’t you think they were already annoyed enough that they banned the newspaper? It is not the question of annoying. A newspaper is in the business of journalism. We are doing our work. If it annoys them, let it be.

The fact of the matter is that when you take recourse to consultations with a body of journalists, then you have to abide by the consensus. The consensus decision was to take the path of reconciliation and that is what we did.

Q How supportive was the journalistic fraternity in getting the ban revoked?

By and large, they were supportive. They always participated in the protests. In fact, some of them were so supportive that they were constantly in touch with government officials and asking them about the revocation of the ban.

Q Some people say that some elements within the media fraternity were playing foul with the paper which resulted in the ban. How far is that impression correct? 

There is no way to verify these things. I have heard these things said in the open and in the grapevine. But there is no way to ascertain them. Sometimes I think that it was a ploy on part of the government to create doubts within the media fraternity and to deflect attention from itself.

Q How far are these reports correct that the ban was lifted after the newspaper agreed to some conditions by way of changes in editorial policy or maybe dropping some staffers?

I was not part of the negotiations. Most of the negotiations were held between the government and the members of the guild and some journalist friends. Neither they agreed to any pre-conditions nor were any such conditions set by the government.

Q Banning a newspaper sends a strong message in the media fraternity. How do you think this ban impacted upon the local press? 

It is very difficult to judge it. You have to go through the contents of all newspapers and then do an analysis.

Q The government was reportedly planning to bring a case of sedition against you and even arrest you. Were you prepared for such an eventuality? 

The entire staff was prepared for such an eventuality. We had also heard about such things a month before the ban was imposed. The thing is that what we were doing was pure reportage. For the most part of the uprising we couldn’t even have any opinion columns because we were short of the staff. For nearly two months we didn’t even publish editorials. So the fact is that the government had problems with basic reporting of  what was happening on the ground and not with our editorial comments.

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