Newspaper vendors collect copies of the papers in Srinagar, in July 2016. The Kashmir Times, one of the oldest papers in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, is suffering under a nearly 10-year ban on government advertising. (AP/Mukhtar Khan)
Newspaper vendors collect copies of the papers in Srinagar, in July 2016. The Kashmir Times, one of the oldest papers in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, is suffering under a nearly 10-year ban on government advertising. (AP/Mukhtar Khan)

Kashmir Times feels the strain of government advertising ban

In a Q&A with CPJ, Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of Kashmir Times, talks about the impact a government advertising ban on the daily has had on the way its journalists are able to report the news.

Founded in 1954, the Kashmir Times is one of the oldest newspapers in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. The independent paper has survived various run-ins with authorities, but its future is now in jeopardy from a nearly 10-year-old ban on government advertising, which has forced the outlet to cut editions, downsize staff, and curtail its investigative reporting.

Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor, told CPJ that the central government’s ban in 2010 on advertisements in the paper has resulted in Kashmir Times losing around 30 percent of funding. She estimated that within two years of the ban being implemented, and as other sectors came under pressure from authorities, the total loss to the paper was 60 percent of revenue, forcing it to close some editions and lay off staff.

Bhasin said she was never given a reason for why the ban was implemented. But the Home Ministry said the directive was because of the newspapers’ “anti-national” agenda. The directive came after a turbulent summer in Kashmir in 2010, in which at least 70 people were killed. But unlike other papers that had restrictions lifted a few years later, the government has continued to enforce restrictions on Kashmir Times, Bhasin said.

As well as advertising bans imposed by the central government, CPJ has found that state authorities use the same method to punish critical outlets or at times of unrest. Most recently, in February, the Jammu and Kashmir government suspended advertising to two major English dailies, Greater Kashmir and the Kashmir Reader. A local journalist told CPJ at the time that they suspected the ban was retaliation for critical coverage of separatists.

The bans are part of wider government crackdown in the region, in which the central government, regardless of political party, has tried to silence criticism of its policies in Kashmir. In recent years, including under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, CPJ has documented threats and intimidation against the press across India. At least one journalist in the region–Aasif Sultan–has been imprisoned since August over his coverage, and in July last year, the prominent Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead outside his office, in a case that remains unsolved.

The Home Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs did not immediately respond to an email from CPJ requesting comment.

[This blog has been edited for length and clarity]

What do you think was behind the advertisement ban?

In 2010, after the summer unrest when we’d taken a stand on human rights, the federal government ads were completely stopped. This period also started coinciding with New Delhi’s increasingly muscular policy in Kashmir and its tendency to control all criticism of all voices that were speaking about human rights, or who were critical of the Indian government’s handling of Kashmir.

At that time, Kashmir Times wasn’t singled out: there was also Kashmir Monitor, Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir. But ours was the only paper that was being published both from [the cities of] Jammu and Srinagar, and advertisements to all our publications were stopped, including the Jammu English edition, the Hindi edition, and the Dogri language edition.

We never got any announcement in the first place. It was much later–several months– that we found out it was done at the behest of the Home Ministry and not through the [Directorate] of Audio Visual Publicity, and then we started taking up [our case] with the central government.

My husband, who is the editor of the newspaper, based himself in Delhi to take up the case with the Press Council of India first and then the government. He met the then prime minister [Manmohan Singh] and he met the home minister [Palaniappan Chidambaram]. Ultimately, they agreed to review the decision, but this never happened.

Interestingly, the other newspapers whose advertisements were stopped, after a year or so their ads were renewed. I’m not in a position to say why that was done.

How has this impacted your staff and office?

We had to cut down on staff size, we had to scale down the operation in terms of circulation, we had to sell our assets and ultimately, we had to shut down the Hindi and the Dogri language newspapers to keep the oldest and main one alive.

Assets like property in the name of Kashmir Times or our own personal properties we had to sell. We haven’t been able to pay our staffers or hike up their salaries in proportion to the rising inflation to the extent that we were earlier doing. There are some committed staffers who have stayed on, but many others left because we are unable to pay our columnists. Some continue to write just because we enjoyed a goodwill. It was also that goodwill that we had over several decades that kept us alive in some ways you know, that was helpful, because some columnists said they were willing to write off whatever was pending.

How has the government policy on Kashmir affected the region and the press?

After Modi’s government it’s much more excessive, much more brazen–journalists are being picked up, cases are being framed against them for stone-pelting or so forth, newspapers have been banned and now we see that even state government ads have been stopped for Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader.

The government policy is to project Kashmir as a place where they’ve achieved some kind of normalcy and brush everything abnormal aside, so no voices that can be heard.

Ever since the local newspapers’ advertisements from the government have dried up, you suddenly don’t find news reportage or photographs or circulation about funerals of militants or people going to [scenes of alleged extrajudicial killings] or about protests. These have drastically reduced–it’s not that they’re not happening so they just want it out of sight. The media was the only thing that was coming in the way of hiding the ugliness of Kashmir.

Did you pursue a legal avenue?

We toyed with that avenue and we sought legal advice, but we didn’t have that kind of money. Earlier, we were taking it up with Press Council of India and that kept dragging for two years then after that it didn’t go anywhere. By that time, the financial problems became extremely acute.

Plus there were cases–it wasn’t just about media, this was also linked to the Kashmir policy–and we kept seeing how the Kashmir policy was becoming more and more ruthless in a way. We saw how the Supreme Court was treating cases related to Kashmir, like the “Pathribal encounter” case, where there was enough material to prosecute the accused, but it was sent back to the army for court martial proceedings. At the end of the day, we weren’t really mentally, physically, or financially ready for that long-drawn battle.

I don’t know if it was a good decision or not and we still think about that, but that was that at that point in time.

[EDITOR’s NOTE: The “Pathribal encounter” relates to a 2000 incident in which the army killed five villagers it described as ‘terrorists’ in Pathribal, Kashmir. In 2012, the Supreme Court allowed the army to choose how the trial should be heard. The army elected for court martial proceedings, stating later it found no evidence against the accused.]

Has the withholding of ads affected editorial policy or what stories get covered?

Stories do get impacted because of the finances. We have less staff so there’s more reliance on wire stories. You need a certain amount of finance to be able to investigate certain stories, you need logistical support, so half the time because of our low budget, we cannot back that. But the editorial policy hasn’t changed, it remains critical as ever.