Front pages of the paper, and the ban order in the centre.
Last week, I was sitting alone on a couch in a corner of my workplace at the daily Kashmir Reader. The office has been dull since the newspaper was banned at the beginning of this month and the only signs of activity are the erratic meetings every evening over a cup of tea. The cacophony of a newsroom is missing and so is the buzz of the advertising and marketing section.
A colleague, like everyone else, asked me: “Any update about the ban being withdrawn?” These days, this question precedes any greeting among friends and colleagues. It is a genuine concern. But as a journalist, I find it quite surprising.
The past three months have taught me things that are unbelievable for an outsider. You might have heard or watched the gory scenes of death, destruction, and blood on your screens. I saw it unfolding before me - a five-year-old boy crying in pain from pellet wounds; an eight year old recovering from pellet injuries lying in a hospital bed looking at photographs of Bipasha Basu to distract himself.
This government has overlooked the killing of 90 civilians, over 12,000 injured, hundreds blinded, and 7,000 arrests, including those booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (a law described by Amnesty International as a “lawless law”. When the party in power does not respect the people who elected it to power, it is foolish to expect the same government to be less hostile towards the media.
But to come back to my colleague in the office, he looks worried because he has been robbed of his sole source of livelihood. So far, the ban has not affected me financially. I eat as I did earlier, sleep well and get up late in the morning. It has become a new routine for me. Of course I feel suffocated because the government does not want me to write but I am more worried about my colleague and others like him who have lost their bread and butter.
This colleague would work as a small time salesman in a shop during the day and in the evening work in the non-editorial section. His alternative source of income is already hit because of the three-month long shutdown.
“Who can employ us in the current situation?” said Kashmir Reader marketing executive Showkat Hafiz, while playing carom in an empty newsroom.
Like Showkat, over 60 employees are pessimistic about the future though the office has not announced any lay-off plans. Newspapers are suffering tremendous losses. Advertisement revenue has dried up. Many have slashed salaries or delayed paying salaries. According to the Editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, Syed Shujaat Bukhari, the ongoing situation is the “worst phase” for newspapers in terms of finances. “The government advertisement revenue has gone down drastically. We are running in losses and it is a big challenge for us and if the situation continues to be uncertain it will lead to more harsh decisions which will result into unemployment,” he said.
Kashmir Reader is not a big media outlet. It is a small newspaper with a small circulation. Yet it has impact, having done some of the best scoops which did not go down well either with the government or with the separatists.
It provided a platform for budding journalists or for any young and energetic reporter who happened to be discouraged. Rarely did the editor dump a story. I remember filing an exclusive story involving an acquaintance of the editor-in-chief/owner. He did not interfere in the story and allowed me to go ahead.
The next day, that man called and threatened me over the story. I replied to his queries but he called repeatedly. The editor-in-chief used to face pressure from different quarters but would leave reporters alone. That was what Kashmir Reader is known for.
People have certain expectations of the newspaper so, if we made any mistake, they would question us. I remember readers and journalists taunting me for using an opposition spokesperson’s press release as a lead copy. It was unexpected and did not deserve that placement. But that day, the editor was off and the opinion page editor did the front page. But who would believe that because of the high expectations?
Imagine a reporter writing against his own organisation and facing no flak? When a local court convicted Kashmir’s leading business house Khyber Agro Farms Private Limited for selling adulterated milk, Kashmir Reader, like other newspapers, did not publish it. I wrote a piece for The Hoot and quoted the Kashmir Reader editor-in-chief on why the verdict had not been reported. Once the story was released, a senior journalist asked me, “Are you still working with Kashmir Reader?” To top it all, I shared the story in our official group.
The killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani instigated the uprising in the Valley. Kashmir Reader was the second newspaper after the Indian Express’s Muzamil Jaleel to report this from south Kashmir. I repeat: Kashmir Reader is a small newspaper. Reporters with no conveyance travel 50-60 kilometres to report on stories. A reporter once took my old rusty motorbike to travel to Pulwama to report on a youth’s killing because there was no other way of getting there.
Similarly, a reporter working with a national news channel told me that a Kashmir Reader reporter was the first to reach Harwan on the outskirts of Srinagar where a youth had been killed. The latter had no transport. It turned out he had walked there.
The government ban is ominous. It wants to black out the news and see a conformist press. This is what the government is trying to do by banning Kashmir Reader, sending a signal to other newspapers that they should fall in line.
Veteran photo journalist Habib Naqash, who has covered Kashmir since 1983 for national and international publications, and survived many attacks including a parcel bomb explosion, says, “today is the worst phase”. No doubt it is.
Moazum Mohammad works with Kashmir Reader. He can be mailed at email@example.com.