Everything is political, but a good professionally run newspaper is in the interest of every community: Hilal Mir

Wande Photo by Faisal Khan

Hilal Mir, the editor of daily newspaper Kashmir Reader, talks to Wande Magazine about media and censorship in Kashmir in view of the ban on the newspaper he edits. The ban remained in force for almost three months before the government revoked the order on 27 December 2016.

Wande Magazine: The banning of Kashmir Reader came as a blow to an already constricted media in Kashmir—which works under tremendous pressure. You have said that Kashmir Reader was reporting the current anti-India uprising like any other newspaper in Kashmir. Why then do you think only Kashmir Reader was targeted by the government?

Hilal Mir: It’s not precisely correct to say that Kashmir Reader was reporting the uprising like any other newspaper but what I meant by that is that we reported the same stories, the same events and incidents but maybe we were the first to get to the story and then it also depends on the presentation of the story. The stories we generally put on the front page were the stories related to people here.

If you go by the government order it says and accuses us of ‘incitement to violence’ and they didn’t specify anything but later our owner and editor in chief were offered a brief glimpse into the dossier which they have prepared. Then, we came to know that they have problems with the editorials, they have a problem with certain articles. An American Palestinian columnist Ramzy Baroud writes articles for us like he does for dozens of publications around the world. And I don’t think he has ever mentioned the word Kashmir in his articles. They had problems with his articles. They also had problems with the terminology that we use. That shows that they had problems with a lot of things which I think other newspapers here try to avoid given maybe they anticipate that if they report in a certain way or I would say more truthfully, then that means inviting trouble. This realization had dawned on us also because they had been giving signals even before the ban like the advertisements were stopped to our newspaper. They also communicated informally the government’s displeasure with Kashmir Reader to the owner and other staff members. But nobody expected a ban.

WM: The ban on Kashmir Reader has come at a time when the state government is under fire from different quarters criticizing its handling of the post Burhan Wani uprising in Kashmir. How do you place the ban on a newspaper from a government that has not done much to improve its image on the ground?

HM: I think I have mentioned it in an article where I wrote that government is looking for scapegoats. The very explanation of the uprising by the government, from the beginning the government said that it was the handiwork of the miscreants. The government never explained that it’s a massive popular uprising. A recent India Today report quotes a top police official saying that on an average 40,000 people were involved in protests every day in the beginning of the uprising. Even police department’s press releases would say that 80 to 200 incidents occurred during the initial days. Look at the scale of casualties also, the injuries – it shows that it was an uprising and still they want people to believe that some invisible handlers across the border were responsible for this. Every problem springs from a willful denial of the facts and the ground realities. They don’t want to accept the ground reality that there was an uprising triggered by the killing of a very popular militant. Look at their own statements also. Muzzafar Hussain Beg said that chief minister Mehbooba Mufti was not informed about it but the police chief said that the chief minister is also the Home Minister, she is in the know of everything. It was a massive mishandling of the ground situation. And then the claim that all the casualties occurred when protestors were attacking Army camps and police stations, I think more than half a dozen people have died because of tear gas injuries, some even drowned while being chased by the policemen, a boy was beaten to death in Pulwama. These are all verifiable facts. I see it as that if you want to lie, anything is possible. Banning a newspaper is a small matter then.

WM: What does banning of Kashmir Reader mean for the exceedingly fragile press freedom that exists in Kashmir? What signal does it send out to other newspapers? Do you think because of this ban the government has made it clear that newspapers which don’t toe the line will be brought under the hammer?

HM: I think the local press deserves kudos for coming in support of Kashmir Reader. They have also in their statements said that it’s an attack on press freedom and many local journalists here have said that it’s a warning for others to fall in line.

But I don’t buy this argument that government wants to frighten other newspapers, by banning a newspaper. They banned publication of all newspapers here for three days, during the current uprising and ridiculously no explanation was offered. In fact, they said that no ban had been imposed on publication of newspapers in the first place. So, it’s clear that they don’t need to make one example of a newspaper to shut down the entire media. They can do it anytime.

Everybody here is aware how media is manipulated; through coercion, by stopping advertisements and various other ways. This definitely constricts press freedom. If a newspaper can be banned, it shows how much freedom the press has.

WM: There is an emerging concern about the Kashmir Reader ban is that even if Kashmir Reader may be back, but people would not want a tamed Kashmir Reader, they would want the same Kashmir Reader. Do you think the ban has or will affect the image of the newspaper; it is seen as an anti-establishment, pro-people newspaper which reports on facts on the ground and if the ban is revoked will the Kashmir Reader editors think twice before publishing the same story they would usually carry before the ban?

HM: First of all, Kashmir Reader is not an anti-establishment newspaper. The situation is such that even if you report hard facts here in Kashmir, it automatically goes against the establishment because in a way, as many people have written about it – the government was at war with people, with its own people.

Whether Kashmir Reader would be tamed by this ban or how it would pan out, a lot will depend on how the owner and the management of the newspaper decide it. That’s one thing. But I don’t think the newspaper has shown any signs of surrender and also the government has not given any signs that it wants Kashmir Reader to surrender in any form. I don’t think they have signalled that. But many people read the ban as an instrument to make this newspaper fall in line. But as facts stand, I don’t think they have asked for any surrender.

WM: If a government calls itself a democracy, what does it entail for freedom of expression and speech?

HM: First of all, by merely calling it a democracy won’t make it a democracy. This realization is now also dawning upon the most well-meaning and well thinking Indians that it is not a democracy where a person whose role in a mass murder is very well known, who if not by his active role but by his silence during that genocide and violence is now head of the government. I mean we should now start questioning whether it was a democracy in the first place. Maybe it is a democracy for some Indians but ask Kashmiris, ask people in Assam, ask people in Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram whether it had ever been a democracy for them. They have their serious doubts. They have serious questions about it. It had never been a democracy and many people are fond of saying that Indian democracy stops at Banihal tunnel.

I think marginal voices have always been suppressed in India. You see Dalit protests or protests of tribal people in mainland India – they are never reported. Or are under-reported in the Indian press. Recently, when NDTV India was banned for a day, there was a hue and cry and the government had to revoke it but with Kashmir Reader, it has been more than two months since it was banned. A newspaper or a news channel, I don’t remember properly, was banned in Assam. A newspaper was banned in Tamil Nadu also. That shows that there are serious flaws, a serious crisis with Indian democracy. Look at how minorities are being treated in India, especially Muslims. A BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) councillor was seen leading a group of vigilantes beating a Muslim couple and asked them how dare they thought of living in a neighbourhood which is full of Brahmins. And there are thousands upon thousands of cases of atrocities against Dalits. These atrocities against Dalits are punishable under law. I think there are fifty to sixty thousand cases of atrocities against Dalits pending in police stations in India. And this anti-Muslim hatred is rising by the day.

WM: Do you think it is necessary for the media, whether the government is a democracy, autocracy, occupation etc., to criticize the government more than the opposition? Why?

HM: Rather than criticizing, I would say it is important to question everyone. Even the opposition. For example, the opposition National Conference is apparently making some sane noises these days; there should be dialogue with Pakistan etc. But in the rule, they were saying something entirely different. I think as media, it is important to question everybody as and when the situation demands. Obviously, you have to question government’s efforts, for example, if the government is blaming Hurriyat for burning schools, the police claims that they have arrested some two to three dozen people, why don’t they bring them before the public; who these people are and why they have been arrested? In a state, where you have a massive police force, where you have half a million soldiers and paramilitary soldiers who can bust a militant hideout in a day why is it important for them to arrest these people and then in a transparent manner bring the truth before the people whatever it is. But the credibility of the government institutions here is such that people won’t believe anything that comes from the government.

A newspaper’s primary role is to report and then also carry all shades of opinion. Sometimes merely by reporting, you are questioning the government. The questioning can come in the form of investigative stories, through editorials, through opinion pieces. It doesn’t have to be only through reportage. When you do reportage based on facts, an informed opinion can come only from facts. You can question the government only when you have facts. That’s why in such situations, it is important that facts are reported first.

There have been a hundred deaths in Kashmir during the present uprising. How many of these persons have been profiled or the exact situation in which they were killed? When you profile all those killings and some major incidents of protests here, then only one can form an informed opinion about it – whether it was an uprising or as the government claims that it was Pakistan sponsored trouble.

WM: Talking of censorship, can you tell us what types of censorship exists in Kashmir? And what impact does censorship of any kind, imposed by authority or self-inflicted, have on the free press?

HM: The majority of the newspapers here, they depend on government advertisements. I think barring one or two newspapers, no newspaper in Kashmir can sustain without government advertisements. In fact, the reason of existence for some of the newspapers is government advertisements; otherwise, they don’t publish even sufficient number of copies. The censorship in Kashmir comes in the form of a threat to withhold those newspapers, which is the primary form of censorship.

And then there is self-censorship, in a situation where divisions are so marked – ideologically and otherwise also, there is a lot of self-censorships. Why annoy somebody? Especially why annoy the government and those who are in power. Media persons also have their own interests, some of the censorship is interest driven. If a journalist is close to a lot of people in power or an individual or two individuals in power, they automatically become above criticism – at least for that institution.

I don’t think any journalism can flourish in such an atmosphere. We have seen it. We have been seeing it for the past thirty years. The Institute of journalism has not grown as it should have grown in Kashmir, given the situation we are in – in terms of the story, in terms of the material one has, and it has not answered to the call you might say. Take for example the brilliant study done by Wasim Khalid, a Kashmiri journalist, for Reuters Institute which is about how Indian media, especially NDTV and Times of India, covered 2014 Kashmir floods. The study largely goes on to show that it was pure propaganda meant as a public relations exercise for government and armed forces. But there were excellent stories in the local press also, but was it adequate to counter the propaganda? I don’t think so. Or take for example the current situation itself. Despite odds, despite bans, despite restrictions – the local media has done, you can say, a fairly good job. But is it enough? Is it proportionate to what the situation was on the ground? No, it’s not because there are fundamental curbs on the freedom of the press which exists here. Otherwise, the local media here is spread everywhere, we could have done a better job.

There is also the question of resources, I would say. I think, barring one or two Urdu newspapers, no other Urdu newspaper has a reporter. So how do you expect a newspaper to report anything when it has no reporter and I think there are no sub-editors or opinion editors either. And Urdu press is very popular here. It has a considerable reach. When the majority of the local Urdu newspapers depend on agency handouts, so what kind of journalism do you think will flourish here? Take the example of English newspapers, do they have resources to travel to these places, hire good talent which can then write about the situation as the situation demands: competently, comprehensively and professionally.

It’s also the question of lack of resources. Many newspapers are so dependent on government advertisements that they are barely able to run the normal business, which means you can’t hire adequate staff; you can’t hire good talent – that is one of the biggest problems here. It’s also the crisis of the business groups here who have not invested in the media.

WM: Do you think Kashmir is a conflict dominated region is the reason why business groups don’t invest in the media, as everything is political here?

HM: Everything is political, but a good professionally run newspaper is in the interest of every community finally, business or other communities. So I think business groups should have come forward and invested in media.

WM: Do you think media in Kashmir has been made to toe this line or follow this path of lack of resources so that it can’t report rigorously from the ground. In the current uprising also, we saw the scale of what was happening on the ground wasn’t proportionally reported by media, do you think because of some reasons, since late nineties media has been allowed to take that path only that it cannot reach that far?

HM: When we say it has been allowed means that there is some extraneous agency letting this happen. But that’s not true. Why should I start a newspaper when I can’t hire ten or fifteen good reporters or sub-editors? Why in the first place would I do that? I would start a newspaper with barely one or two designers, download stuff from the internet and bring out a newspaper, is that a newspaper at all? We have to question that. I think good journalism as David Remnick has said is very expensive. It has always been expensive.

WM: Coming back to the question of self-censorship, can you talk to us a little more about the different ways through which journalists and media organizations in Kashmir self-censor themselves?

HM: In Kashmir, people perceive that anything which goes against the government or armed forces or even the resistance leadership should be avoided. Because it’s not good for them. And then there have been repercussions as the ban on Kashmir Reader says, of reporting such things. So self-censorship is also a defensive mechanism in Kashmir. As they say in Hindi paani main rehke, magarmuchh se baer nahi lena chahiyea. It’s just like that.

But it also depends on each journalists calling. If somebody is in journalism and he sincerely believes in the calling of his profession, then I don’t think he would censor himself or herself.

I think here the role of alternate media is very important. Now, for any reason, a newspaper won’t report a story but there are forums which will report the story, any story for that matter. People can write personal accounts of what is happening in their own localities. It would be out and maybe have a greater reach than a newspaper which publishes any other story. In fact, in a place like Kashmir, alternative media has a greater role to play.

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