One of the pioneers in advertising, Mohammad Hayat Bhat initially launched a magazine and then started Kashmir Reader in 2012, the daily newspaper that was banned by government in October. In an interview with Shams Irfan,  Bhat talks about his ideas and the institution he built and the battle he is fighting

Haji Hayat Bhat
Haji Hayat Bhat

Kashmir Life (KL): Why was Kashmir Reader (KR) banned?   

Mohammad Hayat Bhat (MHB): In 2015, I was called to the Director Information’s office and told, there is a complaint against KR, that it is against the state and is pro-separatist. They gave me a few examples too like KR had used Yaqoob Memon’s hanging as banner headline, published a big picture of his funeral. I asked them how it is related to Kashmir and the funeral was covered by every newspaper in India.

Then they told me why KR publishes articles written by Dr Ramzy Baroud, a US-Arab journalist who writes about the issue of Palestine.

Then they said that why KR carried a news item about former CM Farooq Abdullah saying in Jammu that Kashmiri boys wave ISIS flags just for fun and not because they follow them! When I told them that the particular news item was sent by Press Trust of India (PTI), they kept quiet.

Then they asked me to tender a written apology which I refused for obvious reason. They said they have pressure from secretariat to stop advertisements to KR.

A day after Sainik Colony issue was raised in state legislative assembly, I was called by then state’s Intelligence chief. He straightaway asked me why I was highlighting Sainik Colony issue. He wanted us to publish a rebuttal saying that the news item was wrong. I told him that if he thinks it is wrong, he should send a rebuttal via information department, we will publish it.

Then there was pressure from different quarters for toning down the Sainik Colony issue. But how can I ignore news or deliberately skip it when it is of public importance?

KL: There is a feeling among certain quarters that you settle personal scores through your newspaper?

MHB: We don’t believe in using KR for settling personal scores. During NC rule, KR was pressurised by different means but once they lost we never took advantage of their situation and tried settling scores. For us, only news matters. We are not against PDP, as a party, or (J&K) police, or Hurriyat (Conference), or India or any other individual or institution. But we cannot ignore highlighting shortcomings of a government. It is our duty as a newspaper.

If government feels that we have published something that is factually incorrect or not based on facts, they should send a rebuttal. But banning a newspaper is not a solution. It doesn’t suit a democratic setup.

KL: How KR manages its staff, now?

MHB: There are around 100 families directly or indirectly dependent on KR and the ban has instantly snatched their livelihood. Government advertisements had stopped a month earlier. Information department used to release just 10 cms for us!

KL: Is content a reason for KR ban?

MHB: I am not sure. I don’t think we published anything that is not journalism. The day all newspapers were banned for five days, KR had published a story on alleged molestation in Sangam areas by CRPF personnel. I was even pressured to remove that story from our website. That makes me think that somewhere somebody was uncomfortable with our reporting. People tell me that the mid-night ban was actually imposed to stop KR from reaching the market. I am not sure how far it is true.

KL: What are the charges against KR?

MHB: It is all verbal. We are yet to receive the dossier. Just three policemen came to KR office on October 02 (2016) with an order to stop publication from October 3.

But when I met Director Information, I saw a file on his table, which was left open for me to see. It mentioned Handwara case too. I do not know why KR was singled out when every Kashmiri newspaper carried the same story.

The file also mentions that KR uses words like, “State Terror”, “Indian Agencies” and “Indian Forces” in its reporting. It also mentioned a particular press note of Langate lawmaker Er Rashid where he had used Nagpur ki Nagin. But the same press note was carried by everybody. Reporting something never means that we endorse it. We are just doing our job. We never take pleasure out of it, never ever.

KL: Any other reason?

MHB: Another reason for ban could be a press note-cum-advertisement by (Syed Ali) Geelani Sahab that only KR and Tamil-e-Irshad had carried. It was sent to all newspapers but every other newspaper skipped it. There was no (Kashmir) Editors Guild then, like it is today. If any such body would have been there, we could have taken a unanimous decision.

Then there was allegation that we publish protest calendars on front page. But again I am telling you, for us only news value matters. You check KR back issues, we have published protest calendars on inside pages as well.

Only KR dared to expose MBBS seat scam that involved a few Hurriyat (Conference) members. So, my point is, we are with nobody, and against none.

Even we get regular queries from army and other agencies regarding our news stories, which we answer dully. Government should have talked to us, but they banned the newspaper.

KL: Why didn’t you go to court?

MHB: I believe this ban is temporary. Besides, the case is with Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) right now. They are doing their best to get KR back on the stacks. Let’s hope for the best.

KL: Do you feel threatened?

MHB: As a newspaper owner, I am always at logger heads with one side or the other. Even I feel threatened from different quarters. I have asked government for security but they have not responded so far.

KL: You met Chief Minister. What did she say?

MHB: Ms Mehbooba Mufti said she will look into the matter but gave no timeframe.

KL: Does the ban affect your business too?

MHB: I am a businessman. It does affect. But the only reason I invested in a newspaper was to help build an institution that can compete with the best. I wanted to create a model. Even government should help me in my endeavour.

The areas our reporters visited three months back are now being explored by others. We have an active editorial team. I cannot shut them up inside their cubicles, they are journalists, they need to move out and report the facts from ground zero.


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