J and K - Oppressing a free press

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Sourced  from www.vijayvaani.com

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 misdemeanors, 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