Is the New Media Policy and censorship on free press a new phenomenon? History proves otherwise

Rare copies of Al-Rafeeq published from Rangoon.

The New Media Policy has been called Orwellian by international press bodies, but censorship in Kashmir did not start with it. The fresh rules are only a continuation of the practice of choking critical voices. 

The government of India recently came up with its media policy for journalism in Kashmir. Under the new policy, a “background check” of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff has been made mandatory before empanelling them for government advertisements, apart from “security clearance” before a journalist is given accreditation.

The policy also gives power to the administration to “decide” what is fake news, what is unethical, and anti-social, according to some incognito government presets.

The policy was arraigned by most of the leading local journalists as a clog on freedom of reporting, an attempt to muzzle any narrative that contrasts that of the government and popular Indian media renditions.

This “media policy” debate was raked up immediately after some leading journalists were summoned by the administration over their “objectionable” social media posts or their stories, some of them being booked under the unlawful activities prevention act (UAPA).

The crackdown on local media drew flak all over the world and the repressive media policies became a point of castigation by leading press-right constituencies acting as an impetus to debate such policies in the context of post-August 5 socio-political fragility and delineating the origins of censuring press freedom in Kashmir.

However, this phenomenon isn’t new and seemed a palimpsest of how the freedom of local media has been curbed down from the very commencement of the institution of free-press and independent journalism in Kashmir.

The repression of journalism in Kashmir dates back to 1896 when Abdul Salam Rafiqi (an aide of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan) launched a monthly called Al-Rafiq which was published from Srinagar. The newspaper highlighted the atrocities of Maharaja on Kashmiris; which offended then ruler Partap Singh, who confiscated the press and forced Rafiqi out of state soon after the publication of the second issue of the newspaper.

Abdul Salaam Rafiqi.

In the year 1901, Partap Singh participated in the session of the Anglo-Oriental Conference and was shocked to find the exiled journalist seated several rows in front of him. He pressed heavily upon the British government to persecute him. Rafiqi spent the rest of his life in Rangoon; highlighting the plight of Kashmiris at the hands of Dogras and Indians at the hands of the British.

Mohammad Din Fauq, a prominent historian and a leading member, along with Allama Iqbal, of All India Kashmir Committee which was established in 1908 to espouse the cause of Kashmiris.

However, in 1904, Fauq had wanted to start a newspaper of his own and had been outrightly denied the permission by Partap Singh. The ruler asked his Prime Minister to issue an order forbidding even applying for such endeavors in the future.

Rare copies of Al-Rafeeq published from Rangoon.

Many newspapers in Kashmir had started publishing in the 1930s during the reign of Hari Singh, these included the Vitasta, Jahangir, Haqeeqat, Rehbar, Islam, Sadaqat, Hamdard, Martand, Millat, etc.

These newspapers were objects of heavy censure and could not portray the plight of the people for the fear of government crackdown. It was the Urdu Press of Lahore/Punjab: Inqilab, Paisa Akhbar, Alfaz and Siyasat, which brought to the world the ground realities of Kashmir and political and economic atrocities committed on its Muslim majority community by the aristocracy.

The newspapers were often barred from entering the Valley.

Mulk Raj Saraf too had applied for permission fro his newspaper. He had previously worked as a sub-editor of Lala Lajpat Rai’s Indian nationalist organ Bande Mataram. Saraf had negotiated for some time to obtain the permission from Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu and Kashmir to publish the paper as a statewide weekly.

Mulk Raj Saraf.

He was allowed on the precinct of writing on social and development issues only. The newspaper was named after Ranbir Singh himself. The first issue of Ranbir was published in June 1924. The newspaper was printed at the Government Press.

Having barred any applications for setting up independent newspapers, in the penultimate year of his life and rule, when Saraf’s application was received, a minister convinced Pratap Singh that a newspaper would prove helpful for his Government and hence allowed Saraf’s application.

In May 1930 Hari Singh issued a ban on Ranbir (accusing it of ‘subversive propaganda’), following an article about an agitation in Jammu related to the arrest of Gandhi in British India.

The Maharaja argued that Ranbir had, in its May 7, 1930 (Baisakh 25, 1987) issue exaggerated the participation figures in the Jammu protest and that the newspaper had falsely alluded that the Maharaja himself would have supported the protests.

The newspaper was banned in June 1947, after having demanded accession to India and urged for the release of Sheikh Abdullah. The paper came back again and became a mouthpiece of anti-Pakistan propaganda.

Even though the number of newspapers kept on blooming, these publications were strictly regulated and were often summoned to impress upon them what material they should, or should not publish, and in case of otherwise, they were reprimanded, blacklisted and, in serious cases, their guarantee was forfeited and registration of newspapers suspended.

‘Material of interest’ to the Government was handed over to them for publication and it was made incumbent upon them to publish it in totality.

The editors were chastised for publishing any material that would criticise the Maharaja, the government policies, departments or officials and such reports would often draw cases against the editors and the press rather than the erring officials.

There was strict surveillance of media organs, however, despite that, the editors would go on to criticise the policies of the state.

In 1936, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was arrested, newspapers in Srinagar stopped publication in the wake of the Government directive to publish newspapers only with its permission.

In 1941, the Editor of Rehnuma was proceeded against in a court for violating Government directives. The registration of two newspapers published from Poonch was withdrawn for failing to send two free copies to the Prime Minister.

In 1943, Hari Singh asked his Prime Minister to take action “beyond mere warning” against the Hamdard for misquoting industrialist JRD Tata in an interview critical of the Government. Prem Nath Bazaz was summoned, reprimanded, and asked to tender an apology which he duly published.

Prem Nath Bazaz

During Kashmir’s resistance against autocracy, newspapers such as Khidmat and Hamdard played a significant role in highlighting the plight of Kashmiris and creating awareness on their demands for basic rights.

After the replacement of autocratic rule with a so-called democratic setup, the ground rules for newspapers were slightly changed for better, with the ruling dispensation adopting a policy of carrot and stick.

Newspapers that did not toe the line of the Government were subjected to penalties including suspension of advertisement support.

In 1970, noted Kashmiri poet, the chief exponent of the modern ghazal in Kashmiri, short story writer, and a journalist, Amin Kamil, started an Urdu weekly called Wadi, from Srinagar. Amin had highlighted its objective as dismantling ignorant, conscienceless and self-centered politicians as well as sycophant and corrupt officers and anti-social and narrow-minded people.

Amin Kamil.

The newspaper was soon discontinued, for obvious reasons.

The decades of 1960 and 1970, otherwise a flourishing period for vernacular journalism in Kashmir was a hard time for newspapers.

G. M. Sadiq’s Government (1964–71) was especially tough. As many as 11 newspapers including Hamdard, Roshni, Zamindar, Hurriyat and Mahaz were banned in 1965. Two years later, during the Pandit Agitation over conversion and marriage of a Hindu girl with her Muslim colleague, the Martand, Roshni and Nawa-i-Kashmir were temporarily banned.

In 1970, the Srinagar Times was banned for two months for critical writings against the Government in arresting frequent mysterious fire incidents.

In 1977, the newspaper faced a privilege motion in the State Assembly for publishing a cartoon which the members found derogatory to legislators.

The weekly Chattan launched in 1985 was seen as a serious effort to fill the void created by the demise of Shamim on May 1, 1980. Edited by Tahir Mohiuddin, the newspaper published analytical and well-researched pieces on current issues which set a precedent for doing incisive write-ups in Urdu. It is now published as a daily since 2011.

In 1986, Urdu weekly, Ishaet, was published from Srinagar. Published through the litho printing process, the newspaper caught the eye of readers for its quality material and in-depth analysis.

However, the weekly could not pull on beyond seven months due to the transfer of one of its anonymous editors to Leh, Ladakh whose identity was disclosed to the Government by a journalist friend. Punitive actions against newspapers or their editors that the incumbent Governments felt crossed the red line were taken in many cases during the post-1989 years.

Editors Ghulam Nabi Shaida (Wadi Ki Awaz), Mohammad Shaban Vakil (Al Safa) and Ghulam Jeelani Qadri (Afaq) faced criminal cases in 1990s for, what the Government felt was, publishing seditious material.

The Kashmir Reader was banned for about three months from October 2 to December 28, 2016, in the wake of a massive public upsurge following the killing of a militant commander, Burhan Wani, for being “critical of India”.

Even after the ban was lifted, Kashmir Reader had not received any advertisement from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity.

The newspaper had suffered a loss of around Rs 3-4 lakhs per month.

Freelance photojournalist, Kamran Yusuf was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2017 for what, as colleagues say, ‘doing his professional duty’. He was released on bail in March 2018.,

In 2018, several journalists were reprimanded and booked under various laws. In July 2018, another journalist, Auqib Javid, associated with the daily Kashmir Observer, was summoned and interrogated by the NIA for his interview with Aasiya Andrabi, a separatist leader.

In August 2018, Aasif Sultan, the Assistant Editor at the Kashmir Narrator, was arrested under the UAPA. The cause for Sultan’s arrest was said to be the cover story on militant commander Burhan Wani that he had written for his magazine in July.

The police have charged him with “publication of content glamorising terrorism in the state”, “harbouring terrorists” and “for possession of incriminating material” on his laptop.

Aasif Sultan remains incarcerated.

An unofficial ban on printing of dozens of newspapers was imposed for 3 days in February 2013 after the hanging of Afzal Guru on February 9, 2013.

Greater Kashmir was briefly banned twice before 2016 from receiving DAVP ads. First in 2008 for around three months, then again in 2011 for a little over a month. All three bans followed three bloody “summer unrests” in Kashmir – the 2008 Amarnath land row, the 2010 summer unrest, and the 2016 summer unrest following militant commander Wani’s killing.

The ad bans were imposed apparently over allegations of fanning “anti-India propaganda” in the Valley.

The government again stopped government advertisements to the two English dailies, Greater Kashmir, the largest in terms of circulation, and Kashmir Reader after the killing of 40 CRPF men in Pulwama attack.

The Kashmir Editors Guild, which is a representative body of 13 local English and vernacular newspapers, had described the ban as a “continuous assault on the press.”

Qazi Shibli, a South Kashmir based journalism graduate from Banglore University who runs the website ‘The Kashmiriyat’ was arrested under PSA after he reported and later tweeted a government order on the addition of troop build-up in the valley. He was released after 9 months of detention.

The new media policy has been called Orwellian by the Reports Without Borders (RSF), but this is not the beginning but a continuation of the attack on the freedom of the press in Kashmir.

Author’s Note: Credits to Khalid Bashir and Zaheer-ud-din for helping in the bringing some forgotten aspects of the subject to my knowledge. 

Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, a medical Doctor by profession, and student of history. 


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