Gunning The Gag

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In last three decades, Kashmir’s media corps has fought innumerable battles to keep the flickering hope alive. Masood Hussain offers the first hand account of how the latest gag that halted newspaper publication for five days was successfully fought

Editors-Protest-in-Press-Colony

Kashmir-based newsmen protesting the media gag.

Within two hours after I reached home at around 1 AM on Friday last, I received a distress call from Kashmir Life (KL) news room located in Partap Park, Srinagar’s Fleet Street. “Police have raided the Press Colony and seized newspapers,” a frightened Riyaz shouted, “Shams (Irfan) Sir (Associate Editor) is getting ready, and there might be arrests.”

After understanding the situation of police seizures and arrests of printing staff, I advised Riyaz to flash the development on our website, one of the principal sources of information on Kashmir. They were not arrested. They, however, moved out of the office and understood the situation better. Cops had actually raided printing presses, seized newspapers, printing plates and taken the printing staff along, only to ensure they do not reprint. It had started from Greater Kashmir (GK) and then moved to Rising Kashmir (RK) as simultaneous raids were going on in Zainakote, Lal Chowk and Sheikh Bagh, where other similar facilities are located. Seven printing presses, mostly web-offsets, were raided. Somehow, the cops had failed to seize RK as its consignments were already on way to the market when the facility was raided. While chasing him, a huge party had descended down on Partap Park triggering the tensions and leading to the telephone call to me.

By around 11 AM when I reached office, the situation was clear. Cops did not leave any printed word to go out of its hands barring perhaps “one bundle of Aftaab”, one of the oldest Urdu newspapers that a hawker had cycled home much earlier. As the raids were taking place, KL staff was in the process of taking the magazine copy to the plate-makers physically (in absence of internet). Eventually, it did not happen.

Sitting before the blank screen of my computer, I started thinking: in the entire operation when every big and small news product suffered, Kashmir Life remained untouched because we had not sent the copy to the press. (We are a weekend magazine that prints from wee hours of Friday till noon).What is my responsibility as a member of the newspaper editor in this situation? Why don’t I get the colleagues to at least talk and deliberate? That was the only rational thing that came to my mind.

I rang up RK’s Shujaat Bukhari. He said you do the spadework and he will join. Then I talked to GK’s Rasheed Mukhdoomi, then to Bashir Manzar of Kashmir Images, to Zahoor Malik of Kashmir Times, and to Haji Hayat Bhat of Kashmir Reader and asked them to get in touch with every other editor they can. By 2 PM, we were a reasonable eight in a dim-lit newsroom of Tameel-e-Irshad facing each other, blank and lost.

“So what are we going to do?” one editor asked.

This question was mind-boggling because I never thought this question pertained to me alone. It was a collective issue and we were supposed to deliberate on that.

“We must condemn the government action,” I said, “because it is the issue of an institution and not individuals. We are gagged as institution.”

“Done,” another one said. “What next?”

Well before I could get into star-gazing, Mukhdoomi helped us in having an agenda.

“We have just two things to decide, right now. One we must condemn the actions of the government that we already did. Second, we must know what we are doing today? Are we printing or not?” he suggested. “After all, we have to get the staff if we have to work and why should we work if the government will raid us again.” He said Kashmir Uzma’s 50,000 copies were seized already which means a lot.

Agenda was set. Everybody felt relieved.

Now the issue was who will tell the media what the government is planning. Information Department being the bridge between the media and the government, I suggested, we should talk to them. One colleague said: call the Director. I rang up Director and told him that this call was being made in the midst of the meeting for which I will be putting on the phone speaker so that everybody hears the conversation. Call dropped.

Option two, I asked? “Call the IGP,” one editor said. I had no numbers. He gave me the cell number. We rang it up and it was closed. Again, we were in the dark.

Finally, somebody suggested that Education Minister Naeem Akhtar is the spokesman of the government, so we should talk to him. I agreed and suggested a colleague to call him. They said I make the call instead. I rang him up, it clicked. As I was telling him that I will be putting the speaker on, one editor reprimanded me.

“Do not put it on, talk, or this line will also get calm,” he said.

Kashmir based editors during a meeting with chief minister.

Kashmir based editors during a meeting with chief minister.

I explained things to Akhtar and he said he would require some time to respond, may be 15 minutes. I agreed.

Akhtar took barely 10 minutes and returned the call.

“The government has reports that there will be serious efforts aimed at subverting peace so we have decided to impose a strict curfew in which the movement of newspaper staff and the distribution of newspapers would be impossible,” Akhtar told me on phone. He was on the line as I conveyed the message to the editors. “We are issuing a statement and we will mention it and name you,” I asked the minister. “It would be all right if you say the spokesman of the government,” Akhtar said, insisting that everybody knows who the spokesman is. I told the editors that he wants not to be named personally and they agreed.

We understood it well: if staff is not permitted to move, how will newspapers be produced and if at all it is produced where will it go? It was a gag, a ban. Again, it was for the first time post-1996 when the government admitted it in anticipation. As the quorum deliberated, newspaper owners decided to cease publications.

Within next 30 minutes, we readied a carefully drafted statement for a formal release at a symbolic protest. Entire media was there, partly to report and partly in support.

Nothing much happened on Sunday. But on Monday reactions started pouring in. Embarrassed, the government started reacting to the situation. It started working on two fronts. Firstly, it conveyed the union government that there was no formal ban on media. Secondly, it tried engaging some editors at individual levels using various officials and political persons at different levels.

By late afternoon on Monday, Shujaat rang me up from Delhi informing Prof Amitabh Mattoo, Adviser to Chief Minister, wants editors to resume publications as there was no ban. He suggested me talk to him. I refused. I told him that while many people are playing the ‘game’ from the government side, they are all trying to convince editors individually and not making any effort to face us collectively. Finally, Prof Mattoo rang me up.

“There is no ban on the media and you should resume publications,” Prof Mattoo told me, insisting that it was a ‘mistake’. “There has been some miscommunication and this all has been at the lower level for which I apologize.” I gave him the entire brief of the happenings, as if he did not knew it, and assured him that his message will be conveyed to the editors when they meet on Tuesday afternoon. “It is not a mistake but a mishtake,” I told him sarcastically reminding him of Saadat Hassan Manto’s famous short story. He regretted the media had not talked to him when the issue cropped up. We approached government at the most appropriate level, I told him.

The attendance in the Tuesday meeting was better. We all knew the pressure on us was building up at the societal level because the situation was overwhelming. But the government was making our position difficult by resorting to propaganda that there was no ban. By the time we met, Chief Minister had conveyed the same thing to I&B Minister in Delhi. All of a sudden it seemed that as we had, as one journalist sarcastically said, “walked into the trap” voluntarily.

Institution apart, this could have been a life threatening crisis at individual levels. I could feel the tensions mounting in the meeting especially in wake of the fact that Kashmir newspapers have not ceased publishing even on days when its members were abducted, attacked and killed.

Half an hour later, when Mattoo rang me up, I put the speaker on to let the entire meeting hear the conversation. He reiterated the state position, apologized for the “miscommunication”, insisted that it was not done at the highest level, assured all kind of support and sought a favourable consideration of his requests. Already, he had gone on TV to say the same thing.

Journalists-Protest-Against-Ban-in-Srinagar-on-July-16-2016

Government’s stand had changed our agenda. To help media to clean the taint that government was so keen to blacken us with, the editors genuinely insisted that unless the government does not own up what it had done, there was no possibility of moving ahead. Mattoo rang up again to get our response. I said the editors appreciate his concerns but you should have the authority to send your apology in black-and-white, thus owning the entire mess that started with the raids. He repeated the apology, insisted that he will resign if the media is attacked again, and conveyed that an officer will take over now. He suggested me to call the officer. I refused.

Still in meeting, we waited for another call. It never came. Eventually Mattoo called again. On being told that there was no follow up, he reiterated that call will come. We knew it was not coming. Hurriedly, we drafted a statement listing our demands: government must own up the mess it created and assure that our routine working remains unhindered from news gathering to newspaper distribution.

Before making our stand public, I had sought permission from my colleagues if the communication lines are to be closed. They advised against it, insisting that we will discuss the progress in another meeting on Wednesday.

With press gag becoming world news, the government felt its bit of tension. Naeem Akhtar rang me up same evening insisting that he was thankful to editors for not misquoting him. “Something needs to be done,” he said on phone, “If you want I must own what I have said, I will and that too in black and white.”

Late that night, Imdad Saqi, rang me up informing that he has got an invite from Chief Minister’s office for a meeting on Wednesday at 11 AM. He did not know if the invite extended to him was in his capacity as a journalist or as a citizen! I sent an SMS to many people but could not get any idea about this ‘invite’.

Somehow I thought something was brewing up and I was the last person to know it. I did not sleep for the whole night. Aching, I was feverish. I did not tell anybody.

Around breakfast on Wednesday, I got another call, this time from Kashmir’s legendry cartoonist Bashir A Bashir (BAB) of the Srinagar Times, another oldest Urdu newspaper. He straightaway said that he wanted to take me into confidence that he is invited by Chief Minister for a meeting and he is going. “I will talk to her about the media ban, if the issue was raised,” he told me. I was surprised but I lacked any authority to ask BAB to go or not to go.

Hurriedly, I left for my office. While driving, Akhtar rang me up again. He wanted to read my mind. I said it will be better if the issue gets resolved at the highest level. He was in hurry. OK, he said and hung the phone.

Photo-Journalists-taking-pics

By 11 AM, I was in office. The plot that was looking murkier and thicker started unveiling itself, thanks to the leaders of various newspaper associations – editors, photographers and other groups. I got two calls from them indicating that they had been invited by the government but they have decided against attending the meeting because they did not want to “harm” the ongoing process. I thanked them for their concern. That was my tripping point. I felt that sinking feeling.

I rang up Imdad Saqi and he said he was already in secretariat and sitting in a meeting hall. “Who else is there?” I asked. “Bashir Sahab and Manzoor Unjum,” he said.

Understanding it well that it was a bid at breaking the media and not solving the issue, I lost my temper. I told them to get out of the meeting because it was aimed at something that they did not want.

Lovely elders, they did not take it wrongly and did not misunderstand me. Within two minutes, they rang me up: “We are out. Are we supposed to report to Partap Park?”

Yes, I said, immediately.

Before they left the secretariat, they dropped another bomb shell: “This meeting was arranged by Nizamuddin Bhat. Please talk to him.” BAB gave the phone to him. I felt pained and shocked.

“You snake! You should have remembered your days (as a journalist) when we treated you as our senior and gave all the respect. Why you tried to hit an institution that sustained you once? You could have rang any of us, who were tackling it?” I asked him angrily.

“It was just a small effort… I did not know that you were handling it,” Bhat said. “I am sorry but do not make it an issue.”

He did not know that a group of editors was handling the issue for all these days!

I snapped the line.

The phone beeped again. It was somebody from the Chief Minister’s secretariat inviting us for a meeting with Chief Minister at 12:45 PM. I pleaded that we have a meeting scheduled at 2 PM and we can meet the Chief Minister at 3 PM or 4 PM but they insisted they lacked a time slot. It was already 12 noon!

“Now please do not make an issue of it. It can hit me politically,” it was Bhat again calling me.

“I am sorry. I can not sacrifice an institution for your politics but neither me nor any of my editor colleagues, is interested in making an issue of the conspiracy you weaved,” I told him and snapped the line. He rang up again. I did not pick up the call.

My problem was different. I had to get my colleagues for the meeting. As I started calling them, it was very difficult to get them on line. I barged into one editor’s residence in Partap Park and literally got him out of bathroom to contact others.

Given Bhat’s “initiative” I understood the costs that it entails for a person like me who has been an obedient and blind follower of the “seniors” and had no experience of how editors in J&K manage the freedom of speech that I have preached throughout my career. I wanted to end this mess that was hitting my credibility. I rang up the Chief Minister’s office and told them that Bhat’s presence in the meeting will fail the initiative.

As my colleagues started reaching Partap Park, I started briefing them about the urgency that we have in hand to meet the Chief Minister. They all were very supportive. “We have the problem with the government and let us talk and we will take the outcome of this meeting to our own when we meet at 2 PM,” said Mukhdoomi, as all others seconded.

We were supposed to reach at 12:45 PM, we reached 1:10 PM. Once in the meeting hall, soon Akhtar, Mattoo and the Chief Minster joined. We had not many things to tell other than the larger reality that the government as part of the democratic set up should have equal stakes in the institution of media as editors have as owners of the publications. I detailed the issues starting from the raids and Akhtar’s statement and acknowledged the efforts that government made later to restore the routine.

Glimpses of Kashmiri newsmen during media gag.

Glimpses of Kashmiri newsmen during media gag.

“We only want the government to own up what it did and restore the situation for the media publishing sector as it existed before the ban,” I said after my brief presentation of how media in J&K is feeling choked in reaching the next level unlike rest of the world. Highlighting the pain that media underwent when it reported its own conflict at a huge cost (we have lost 13 of our colleagues), I detailed how it has given us a rare distinction that our people now report the conflicts in the rest of the world.

“For a person holding the pyramid of the democratic eco-system, it is your sole responsibility to see the media does not feel choked and is restricted but is facilitated to survive as the credible recorder of events and ideas,” I concluded. Various other editors talked on the subject including Mukhdoomi, Saqi and Manzar.

Akhtar took over and owned what he said. “I am thankful that I was not misquoted,” Akhtar said, “Ban was the inference that you drew from the statement I made which you have a right to.”

Then Chief Minister detailed the situation in which raids were carried out. She said it was outcome of a law and order decision that was unintended at the newspapers.

“I apologize for what has happened and I am embarrassed,” she said.

Besides, she asserted that the government will ensure unhindered operations of the media and will also look into what happened in all these days. Before the meeting would conclude, I told them the editors would like to see the statement about the meeting that government will issue. They agreed. It perfectly conveyed the spirit of the meeting.

Back to the meeting at 2 PM, the situation for me was embarrassing. Though I briefed the meeting about the entire details of what had happened since Saturday morning insisting that it was perhaps the most transparent exercise of media’s reaction to a ban so far. They would still ask the same question: “What was the requirement of meeting the Chief Minister when we were supposed to meet at 2 PM?”

They could appreciate the import of Bhat’s initiative only after some seniors intervened. Finally, we decided to resume routine accepting government’s apology.

An hour after the meeting, I was in the same newsroom, smoking, facing the same blank screen of the same computer. I was still feeling heavy. The Mouzin called for evening prayers. I had my ablutions, offered Magrib prayers. Then, I offered special prayers for surviving with the credibility as a professional at a time when grave dangers were around to undermine it.

1 Comment

  1. This was not a protest by the media but they adhered to and agreed to Governments plan of not letting the news flow to masses as newspapers were the only means to reach to masses.
    Media served to needs of the government. When did media impose self ban earlier, not even at the killings of their colleagues during the conflict.
    There was a proper understanding between government and media people over the issue

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