Guest Post by Junaid Nabi Bazaz. Photos by Abid Bhat and from Kashmir Reader Online
In a move unprecedented in the last three decades in the strife torn Kashmir valley, the Jammu and Kashmir government published an order in early October that stated that Kashmir Reader (KR), a vocal newspaper with circulation of less than10000 copies, contained material and content ‘which tends to incite violence and disturb public peace and tranquility.’ This was then used as a justification for placing a ban on the publication of KR. Today, on the 25th of October, Journalists assembled in Srinagar to protest this arbitrary ban.
The verbs tends, which was used by the district magistrate in the ban order, means the government has presumed that content could ‘incite violence’ in future. This was all the justification that the J&K government thought it fit to offer as it banned the newspaper as ‘preemptive measure.’ This kind of presumption can only be made if and when the said newspaper has produced such content in the past that has ‘incited violence’ at some place in the Valley. However, since May 2012 when the newspaper hit the stands for the first time till the last day of its publication on October 1, 2016, the newspaper was neither banned nor served with a show cause notice for the above reasons by the Jammu and Kashmir government.
Under the powers vested in the district magistrate by section 144 CrPC, (a section of the autocratic and totalitarian Dogra era law which was invoked by the magistrate to impose the ban) a show cause notice has to be served before the imposition of an order, expect in case of an emergency. Since officially there has been no declaration of emergency in the state, imposition of the direct order, as per law experts, was a violation and breach of the law itself.
Despite these two reasons, the government spokesman Naeem Akhtar justified the ban on BBC Urdu by saying that ‘there were some evidences and complaints against the newspaper for a long time, and it was on the basis of these that the district magistrate acted’
Although the newspaper did not know about these ‘complaints and evidences, a possibility of mistake being committed cannot be ruled out. To err is human. Were that to be the case, the government could have communicated ‘the mistake’ that it thought had been committed or rebutted what it thought was error, as is the standard practice, internationally. From Akhtar’s assertion it becomes vividly clear that the government has bypassed all the intermediary ways and imposed and directed a ban on the grounds of mere ‘complaints’. Further, KR was never given a chance to explain itself or defend its actions. Can a government in what calls itself a ‘democracy’ justify cracking down on a newspaper on the basis of mere ‘complaints’ , without verifying them? I don’t buy the argument that the government was giving a chance to the newspaper when it was clearly not giving it a chance to explain its position.
Anyway! Let’s consider the bigger question. Can newspaper content – reportage (narration of events), editorials (the newspaper’s say on issues of public importance, which occupies little space), and opinions (uninhibited, robust and wide-open voice of public) really ‘incite violence?’
Violence can only be said to be incited when the violent act in question is clearly connected in terms of a direct link between cause (incitement) and effect (violence). The reportage which occupies most of the newspaper’s print-space cannot be the cause of ‘violence’ because the newspaper simply reports events of violence after-the-fact. It does not creates them. It is not the truth but perspectives which are important for a newspaper to carry in democracies. When reporting acts of ‘violence’, a reporter visits the spot, and attempts to understand the all that happened, each and every incident, in detail. He/She conducts an independent investigation of the act of ‘Violence’. What matters is who the perpetrator is. It can be a ‘mob,’ it can be those who execute the writ of the law as well. The reporter’s materials are facts, eye witness accounts, victims’ statements and the state’s accounts. The reporter’s aim is to tell a story and inform people because information in crucial in a democracy.
This is not, however, the case in totalitarian, autocratic and dictatorial regimes. In such regimes, it is not facts that matter. What matters is what those in power say are facts. This way, sometimes things that are not true, get reported as if they were facts. This is especially true in cases of violence.
After the facts are ascertained, a reporter files a story. Before going into print, the story has to undergo thorough and multi-tiered scrutiny from editors who are professionally trained and well-versed in fact-checking reports based on their expertise and experience.
In the last three-months of anti-India uprising in the Valley, more than 90 people, mostly youngsters were killed and above 12000 injured in hundreds of ‘violent’ acts between Indian forces and protestors.
All 90 youth have died either because of bullets or pellets or physical assaults in the force’s action. Everyday nearly hundred and sometimes more than a hundred anti-India protest were held across the Valley. These protests were crushed by the armed forces. Each violent incident had two versions. Protestors and eyewitnesses had one version (that forces used teargas shells, pellets on a peaceful protest) while the forces had another (all firing was done in self defense and that the forces had used arsenal.) Reader has been carrying both versions of the story of each violent incident. We could not have selectively taken one and forgotten the other.
Besides each injured person admitted at hospitals was a story himself or herself. How can a newspaper not write when somebody who did not participate in the mass protests loses their eye sight due to pellet gun injury? Many people had pellets in their blood vessels, and in the lungs, stomach and brain. Some had amputated legs, fingers etc.
How can the institution whose primary job is to question everybody – including police, army, legislators and bureaucrats stop hiding realities from people because of fear of the displeasure of the state?
How can a newspaper not write when religious places are vandalized, when minors are put inside bars, when the proper course of law is not followed by its executers, when bystanders are targeted, when ‘draconian laws’ are being used to stifle the voice of people? And if the newspaper does not report, then what will remain of a newspaper whose role in a democracy is to question, to hold power accountable independently of other three pillars of democracy-legislature, executive and judiciary. How can a newspaper not write what it means when the chief minister meets victims of 2016 uprising at a fortified place? How can it not write about the probes whose results have not been made public despite legislators seeking to know their contents from the floor of the state assembly? How can a newspaper not write when persons who identify themselves as security personnel attack ambulances, beat journalists and destroy property by attacking homes and smashing windows?
A newspaper in a real democracy cannot kill a story or opinion or an editorial merely because ‘the state thinks it can incite violence.’ The state defends its actions (of deploying its forces, laying barricades and razor wires to prevent what they called ‘anti-national protests’). And if we give space to the state’s defense of its actions, then there is no justification for saying that the press must be prevented from doing what it needs to do – which is to report what is actually going on. The government may argue that these contents may be read by people who may resort to ‘violence.’ But does it mean that a newspaper (for fear of punishment or ban) should not have carried the stories of peoples agony for which they held the state was held responsible. It can definitely question newspaper content if it finds the content was not based on facts.
If the ‘credible inputs’ of the government manages to connect content in a newspaper like the Kashmir Reader with an act of ‘violence’; who shall now be held responsible for the killing of a minor boy in Srinagar and injuries to hundreds of others during the days Kashmir Reader was prevented from being published (supposedly to preempt and prevent acts of ‘violence.’ Any other newspaper, or ‘violent protests’, or the men (in uniform) who fired pellets?
In real democracies (where all opinions are heard and respected), the executive and legislature of the state should understand that freedom of the press protects the right to obtain and publish information or opinions without government censorship or fear of punishment and it cannot prevent the publication of a newspaper because it is not licensed by the sovereign, or otherwise restrained in advance of publication.
As rightly said, by the same token, the government cannot, impose a law that requires newspapers to publish information against their will, impose criminal penalties, or civil damages, on the publication of truthful information about a matter of public concern or even on the dissemination of false and damaging information about a public person except in rare instances, compel journalists to reveal, in most circumstances, the identities of their sources. In case of the KR the ban cannot be justified by saying (as Naeem Akhtar did on on BBC Urdu) that ‘it (KR) is one among the 500 newspapers published and it has a circulation of just 2000 to 3000 copies per day’? What does this statement even mean? Does it mean that if you have five hundred newspapers,it does not matter if one or two get banned? Does it mean that if a newspaper has a certain level of circulation it can be banned? Who is Akhtar to decide these things, and what moral right has he to pass judgement on a newspaper and its contents on the basis of how many newspapers are printed, or what the statistics of circulation are?
In a democracy, no institution need be subservient to anything other than the welfare of the people. No institution can decide (without the approval of people) what is good and bad for the society. People can decide themselves. Like they have an option to do it through legislature, executive and judiciary, they can do same as well through the press. The Institutions of the press are run by responsible people and they know how to act responsibly. If, in a democracy, the legislature and executive try to assert their supremacy over the fourth estate – the press – it will inevitably lead to a burial of people’s thoughts. I believe that because democracy (lok raj) demands the flourishing of ‘speaking truth to power’.
Media unlike politicians (who change their tunes with time) cannot be selective upholders of freedom of expression. For the media in Kashmir, protestors who have been killed in 2016 are martyrs, just as those who were killed in 2010 were also martyrs. Just because those who were in opposition in 2010 (People Democratic Party) are now in power does not mean that those opposing them now are not martyrs, while those they called martyrs in 2010 were. The media cannot adopt the double standards that these politicians adopt so easily.
By invoking laws dating back to the period of Dogra rule in Kashmir which were enacted to crush public opinion means that the state has simply demonstrated that we are still living in conditions of autocracy. The mere mention of the freedom of the press in the constitution and the law books are not good enough when even In 2016 we have to fight bans and gags.
The government’s point of view is not, and cannot be viewed as the gospel truth. Functionaries in the government may think so but that is not the reality. Local media remains connected to people, they listen to and understand the people far more than the executive and legislature can. The executive’s ban on reportage which highlights how government subverts law can be equated with the totalitarian-autocratic acts of Dogra rulers who crushed people’s dissent.
Banning (without due process of considerations of legality) a newspaper like the Kashmir Reader that did not toe the line of the government but listened to the people instead shows us how hollow the democratic credentials of the state in Jammu and Kashmir actually are. It shows us how the two institutions (executive and legislative) of state power want the local press to become a tool that hides realties instead of reporting the truth.
Junaid Nabi Bazaz is a correspondent of the Kashmir Reader newspaper.