06/10/2016 8:54 AM IST | Updated 06/10/2016 9:01 AM IST

How Media Censorship Is Bringing Journalists Out On The Streets Of Kashmir

Free speech?

Fayaz Kabli / Reuters
Members of the Kashmir-based media hold placards during a protest in Srinagar in 2011.

One of the most difficult things to do from a conflict zone is to report about it. And if it's a conflict zone like Jammu and Kashmir, the media there often gets squeezed into a tight spot. Something similar happened this week when the Jammu and Kashmir government banned the publication of Srinagar-based English daily Kashmir Reader, calling it a threat to "public tranquility".

A day after the ban, a bunch of journalists from the Valley took to the streets to protest against the move. Dozens holding placards came out on the road in solidarity with the newspaper.

The Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG), which called the ban "against the spirit of democracy and freedom of press", sought intervention of the Press Council of India and warned of "direct action" if the government failed to revoke the ban immediately.

"Yesterday, around five or six policemen delivered the order at our office," Hilal Mir, editor of Kashmir Reader, told Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "The order invokes local press laws and says that law and order in the state will be disturbed if the newspaper is allowed to be published."

A copy of the order, dated September 30, from the district magistrate posted on Kashmir Reader's website reads, "On the basis of credible inputs it has been observed that the... Kashmir Reader... contains such material and content which tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquility."

However, the order did not cite any specific examples of the offending coverage. The newspaper complied with the order, but continues to publish on its website.

On Wednesday, more than 50 journalists from several publications protested against the order in a march from Srinagar's press enclave, which houses newspaper offices, to the office of the director of information.

"Censoring the press will not put an end to the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir," said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler. "The Kashmir Reader should be allowed to resume publication without delay."

On Sunday evening, the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Farooq Ahmad Lone, issued the order asking the newspaper to stop its publication forthwith.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International India also issued a statement, saying that the state government must revoke the order.

"The District Magistrate's order does not specifically mention any news items in Kashmir Reader that incited violence," said Aakar Patel, Executive Director, Amnesty International India. "The government has a duty to respect the freedom of the press, and the right of people to receive information. It cannot shut down a newspaper simply for being critical of the government," he added.

A day after the ban, Kashmir's largest circulated newspaper,Greater Kashmir, wrote, "The ban on Kashmir Reader newspaper was least expected after the state government backed off from its recent attempt to muzzle the local press following the widespread condemnation from across the world. But as another similar bid reveals, the government is none the wiser for it and in no mood to give up. This time though only one paper has been banned, it hardly detracts from the troubling larger import of the move."

The state which has 522 papers, including 195 approved and 105 unapproved ones in the Jammu region and 222 inKashmir, is not new to media censorship.

In July, authorities had allegedly raided some media offices and detained a few of their employees while seizing printed copies. Newspapers were prevented from publishing for three days in a curfew-bound Kashmir. The government had also banned Pakistani news channels on cable television.

Government spokesman Nayeem Akhtar had then said that such an "undesirable step" was taken to ensure "peace."

Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Srinagar-based popular newspaper Rising Kashmir, whose printing press was reportedly raided around midnight, said the ban order was conveyed verbally to editors by a government official.

In 2013, in the wake of the Afzal Guru execution, hawkers and printing press owners were issued veiled threats to stop circulation. However, Omar Abdullah, the then chief minister, denied any media gag.

"There is no ban on newspapers in Kashmir. Papers are choosing not to print because restrictions make delivery of newspapers impossible," Omar tweeted.

As notes, the media in the Valley has been disrupted for a very long time now.

"Independent newspapers were disallowed over much of the Dogra rule in the state. Newspapers had to be smuggled into the valley via Lahore, then the centre of the Urdu press. Post-1947, press in the Kashmir valley has functioned under pressure from state and non-state actors," it notes.

In 2011, several journalists covering the protests which had erupted in parts of Srinagar's old city were allegedly thrashed by police and CRPF personnel. Some of them were detained too.

In an article in The Indian Express, Kashmir Reader's editor Hilal Mir writes, "The gag order, apparently an authoritarian act, is actually a sign of the powerlessness of Kashmir's pro-India politicians."

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