J&K: Oppressing a free press
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Jan 2011 23 Comments
NC-Congress regime penalizes Early Times

It is a measure of the insecurity of the Omar Abdullah government in Jammu & Kashmir that, despite an impressive mandate, the regime has for the past one year been actively harassing the news daily, Early Times, denying government advertisements without tangible rationale other than the fact that the paper has failed to serve as a virtual mouthpiece of the ruling dispensation in the state. Management and staff members are routinely humiliated on one pretext or other, and repeatedly told to project Chief Minister Omar Abdullah ‘properly’ by giving him ample space on the front page, else there will be ‘consequences’.


In behaviour surpassing the infamous Emergency of 1975, senior management officials are harassed at the personal level as well. Senior government personnel have openly warned the management to stop taking up public issues and conform to the comfort levels of the rulers. This has naturally caused dismay to the management as in the nine years of its existence Early Times has established a niche among readers in Jammu & Kashmir as a bold and independent journal that takes the lead in highlighting issues of public importance. It has the second largest circulation in the state.


The crux of the matter is that the Jammu-based paper, which has a good following in the Valley as well, has been highlighting festering sores regarding the discrimination meted out to Jammu region, Ladakh, and other parts of the state in the matter of allocation of funds for development, etc. A second irritation pertains to the insecurity of the minority groups in the state, and finally, the red tapism in the administration and its non-responsiveness to the people.


Playing a blame game, the regime alleges that the newspaper is ‘communal’, ‘anti-Kashmir’, and ‘anti-Muslim’. The fact of the matter is that the proprietors are Hindus and some of the senior-most journalists on the staff happen to be Muslims, though their real qualification is that they are professional journalists, viz., Ahmad Ali Faraz in Srinagar, and Syed Junaid Hashmi in Jammu. 


Temple triggered row


What brought matters to a head, however, was the publication of news item of an attack on a temple at Anantnag last year. This was based on the Press Release of the Police Control Room, and other publications also carried the news.


Publication by Early Times, however, became the pretext for government launching a virtual harassment campaign against the daily, with authorities sealing both the Press and Office of the newspaper on July 1, 2010 vide order DCJ/camp/2010/001-03. No notice was served on the management; they were just handed a copy of this dictatorial order when they sought to know the reasons for sealing of their premises. Indeed, the formal notice was issued only after the seizure of the Press and the Office.


After intense persecution of management and staff at the personal and official level, the newspaper managed to resume printing and publication vide government order no. DCJ/PA/2010-11/151-156 dated 6 July 2010. But the administration registered a criminal case against the management of Early Times under section 505.


Then, taking cognizance of a news item published on September 18, 2010, police registered another case, which compelled Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor Munish Gupta to seek bail from the court. The impugned item pertained to a protest demonstration by separatist organisations in Talab Khatikan, a Muslim-dominated area of Jammu, where three former militants booked under POTA in 2001 and associated with Lashkar-e-Toiba, shouted slogans like ‘Pakistan zindabad,’ and so on. Police were present at the rally but did nothing to stop the slogan-mongering, but were upset when the newspaper reported the same. Later, some miscreants threw stones at the newspaper office, breaking some windows, and an FIR was registered against the daily alleging that no slogans were raised.


Since then, senior management and especially the Editor are frequently summoned to the police station and treated like criminals. The shoddy treatment can be gauged from the fact that the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor was forced to give his fingerprints on blank papers on Nov. 21, 2010; that too, in the presence of several media persons from the print and electronic media. The humiliation can well be imagined.


Doubtless at a signal from top officials in the civil secretariat, the state information department withheld all government advertisements to Early Times from Nov. 26, 2010 onwards. These normally total around Rs 2 lakh per month, which is not small revenue in a state, that too, in a newspaper that has over one hundred employees on the rolls and has to disburse salaries regularly. What is more pertinent, however, is that as the information department is supposed to advertise government achievements, policies, programmes and other related things in prominent and well-circulated dailies; hence denial to the widely circulated Early Times when it meets all requisite criteria smacks of vindictiveness. Does the government want to force closure of the newspaper and add to the rising army of unemployed in Jammu and Kashmir?


The suspicion is credible as rumours were unleashed and reporters harassed that Early Times is headed towards closure; at the same time false stories are leaked that the newspaper staff behave badly and get into public brawls. When management officials demand concrete instances of misdemeanours, authorities explicitly state that the harassment is part of a ploy to ensure compliance of directions from higher-ups. 


Other business interests hit


More recently, there has been CID surveillance of the editor’s home. When Early Times decided to keep publishing news with news value, the regime began to (mis)use its official machinery to strike at the business interests of the management, especially the real estate business. Their shops and bars are sealed on flimsy grounds as part of pressure tactics, to stop publication of news about the wrongs committed by the NC-led government.


Two bars owned by them, namely Royal Bar and Cannon Bar, situated in the city’s busiest trade centers, were simply closed without any formal notice on Dec. 2, 2010. It was bluntly conveyed that the management was being ‘taught a lesson’ for espousing public issues vociferously through the newspaper. It took 21 days to get the bars reopened. This naturally had a serious impact on the business and probably resulted in the loss of revenue to the tune of lakhs of rupees. But matters did not end here. A day after the bars were reopened, employees of one bar were picked-up by police on the basis of an FIR lodged by anonymous persons on Dec. 24, 2010. How can an FIR be anonymous? When the owners sought details, these were denied to them. The employees were kept in illegal confinement for three days and released only on 27 Dec. 2010. 


When all efforts to rein in Early Times failed, miscreants allegedly close to an Advisor to the Chief Minister began grabbing around 45 kanals of land legally owned by ET proprietor Bansi Lal Gupta. Worse, the malefactors have threatened everyone from the owners to the personnel of the concerned police station, as also revenue officials, of dire consequences if they interfered with this blatant illegality. Hence the concerned police station is doing nothing to stop the open land grab despite a high court notice; it was said the miscreant was the ‘Advisor’s man’. Where is the rule of law?


Mr Bansi Lal Gupta and his family have been running from pillar to post to save the family land, but to no avail. This 45 kanals of land, whose revenue papers are with him, is being grabbed just a few kilometers from the residence of DGP Kuldeep Khoda. Astonished at this turn of events, the proprietor informed the police chief of Jammu zone, who in turn directed officers of the concerned police station to take cognizance of the offence and stop the land grab. But the concerned officials ignored their chief’s directions. Obviously they are being ‘guided’ from some other quarter.


Forced into a corner, Mr Gupta knocked at the doors of court. Finding his grievance genuine, the court issued notice to the land-grabber and asked the police to stay further proceedings in the matter till a verdict is pronounced by the court. Police has been explicitly asked to ensure status quo in the matter. The notice was meant for strict compliance, but police threw the same in the dustbin, which may possibly invite the wrath of the court. What merits special mention is that according to hitherto reliable sources, former IGP Ashok Gupta who had three months to retire from service was suddenly transferred after he refused to harass and intimidate the ET owner and his family.


Sources hint that the new IGP is receiving directions from a particular quarter to harass the management of Early Times to the greatest extent possible. It remains to be seen how he will conduct himself in this matter...


Now that he is back from his London holiday, we hope Chief Minister Omar Abdullah will apprise himself of developments in the state and rein in officials who believe in rule by terror, and immediately stop the harassment and humiliation of media professionals doing an honest job. Recently, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the august court had erred in declaring that the citizens’ right to liberty could be suspended during an Emergency; Mr Abdullah should take his cue from this and cease victimization of a newspaper that is trying to serve and reflect public opinion.


A healthy democracy needs freedom of speech and opinion, and above all, independence of thought and bold articulation. Media veterans in the country should rise to defend a liberty we have all guarded zealously in all these decades since independence.


The writer is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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