Banning Reader

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Revoke ban on 'Kashmir Reader'! Kashmiri Journalists held a sit-in protest at Ghanta Ghar in Lal Chowk on Oct 4th 2016. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Revoke ban on ‘Kashmir Reader’! Kashmiri Journalists held a sit-in protest at Ghanta Ghar in Lal Chowk on Oct 4th 2016. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

by Masood Hussain

For a greenhorn reporter, it was quite an excitement to sit on a protest in September 1989 outside the main gate of the erstwhile Sherghari Fort, housing the state legislative assembly, with biggies like Inder Kumar Gujral and Kuldip Nayar in the lead. Barely three years in journalism, it was crawl-and-stand-up stage. But that fall was a huge classroom.

Those were amorphous years of militancy. Less visible to eyes, its feel was dominating the atmosphere and the policymakers knew it. That was the key reason why Dr Farooq Abdullah’s government managed passage of a law that was notoriously known as Bill No 11.

The Jammu & Kashmir Special Powers (press) Bill 1989 was aimed at managing the press, in fact censor newspapers and if required punish the scribes. The government, under the bill, sought powers to “control publications” for the purpose of “preventing or combating any activity, prejudicial to the maintenance of public order, safety and security of the state”, to prevent “incitement of violent activities affecting public order” and to prevent “activities prejudicial to the smooth and peaceful running of business establishments”. It had clauses suggesting that a prohibitory order can stay in force for “not more than three months” and those going against the dictates can faced a punishment, a fine of Rs 10,000 and a yearlong imprisonment.

Srinagar press corps was angry. Protests were a daily affair. Our leader – the Convener of Kashmir Journalists’ Action Committee – Mohammad Sayeed Malik had very simple argument: there are so many laws on the statute books in J&K that government can manage the media for next 1000 years without creating a new law.

Taste these samples:

Rule 34 of J&K Public Safety Rules, 1946, binds newsmen to disclose the sources of their information and prescribes three years imprisonment with fine as a punishment for not doing so.

Section 10 (c) of the Press and Publication Act 1932, the government can p

unish the newspersons and seize their printing presses for “bringing into hatred or contempt, the government established by law or exciting disaffection towards the government or making malicious attacks on the government or any of its ministers or misinterpret the policies and activities of the government“.

Section 153-A of Ranbir Penal Code, prescribes 7-years imprisonment for promoting hatred between different sections of the people on ground of religion, region, place of birth besides doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony. Other sections like 190-A, 296-A and 505 dealing with “statements conducive to cause fear or public alarm” and carrying imprisonment up to three years also takes care of writings aimed at fomenting communalism.

Section 8 of the Public Safety Act, 1978, provides detention without trial of persons including journalists for “acting in any manner prejudicial to security of state or maintenance of public order and maintenance of services and supplies essential to the community”.

Then TADA was also in vogue. All these laws were in addition to a series of archaic laws that could be used to control and restrict media.

Section 35 of the J&K Customes Act, 1901 empowers the government to ban circulation of newspaper and other journals and books “without assigning any reason”.

The J&K State Newspapers (incitement and offences) Act, 1919 empowers the government to seize printing presses and publication of grounds of “incitement to murder or to any offence under Explosive Substances Act”. Section 6 stipulates that “no order can be called in question in any court”.

 

Rule 35 of the J&K Public Security Rules, 1946 provides 5-year imprisonment for contravention of order to public newspapers after pre-censorship. Rule 36 prescribes three years imprisonment for contravening an order “prohibiting performance of any drama containing any prejudicial report”. Rule 65 (b) prescribes three years imprisonment for contravention of an order requiring shopkeepers to keep open the shops for conduct of essential business and not to observe hartal.

In one particular section, the government can punish people for “dissemination of false rumours”!

The bill was finally withdrawn. Interestingly, however, all other laws remained untouched.

In April 1990 Jagmohan was the sole ruling “powerhouse”. He was completely against the media. “By the time I landed in the state, hardly a word could be said in favour of India or anyone representing it. Derogatory and contemptuous expressions like ‘Brahmin Imperialism’, and ‘Delhi darbar’, were freely used…and the entire local press became a monolithic spear daily stabbing the mainland and inflicting deep wounds on its links with the Valley,” Jagmohan wrote in his My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, later. “Tragically, while all this was happening, the state was providing them liberal help in the shape of advertisements, newsprint and loans. Could there be a worse example of a permissive state?”

He, however, did not mention his action against the media. He sealed all printing presses and served notice to newspapers. Then, an assistant editor with the al-Safa, then most powerful newspaper of Kashmir, I was flown to Jammu to fight the case. Owing to curfew restrictions and perhaps some holidays too, Mohammad Shaban Vakil, the owner of the newspaper, sent me to one of his lawyer friends in Jammu, to contest on his behalf.

Shuttling between lawyer chamber, the court and the hotel room, once we readied the case, I got the fly-back call because the governor had mellowed down and negotiate with editors. I am still hunting for that file which indicated the volumes of trust, I once enjoyed, and the basic education in the freedom of speech that I got too early in my career. By May 1990, newspapers were operational.

After many decades of Jagmohan’s ban, the latest crisis that Kashmir media corps is confronted with is the outright ban on the publication of Kashmir Reader, a daily newspaper. The Deputy Commissioner issued the gag order, as the subsequent follow up suggested, on basis of a long dossier.

While journalists are protesting against the ban order daily, Kashmir Editors Guild of which Kashmir Reader is a member, has taken up the issue with the government. Almost 27 years after the obnoxious Bill No 11, media argument remains unchanged: Why is government taking the extreme step of banning a publication, as Jagmohan did?

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