Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Asserting democratic rights

In the March 12 issue of Nagaland Page, we discussed about one aspect of most leading dailies in the Kashmir valley printing a blank front page on Sunday as a mark of protest against the “unexplained denial” of advertisements to two newspapers by the Jammu and Kashmir Government. According to PTI reports, the Kashmir Editors’ Guild (KEG) had claimed last month that the state Government had stopped giving advertisements to two major dailies ~ Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. The news agency also quoted the KEG’s statement: “With utmost regret, the Kashmir Editors’ Guild wishes to inform that the Jammu and Kashmir Government has stopped state Government advertisements to two major daily newspapers ~ Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader,” adding that the decision was neither conveyed formally nor was any reason detailed to the respective publications. So on Sunday, as a mark of protest, the leading dailies there ~ both English and Urdu ~ printed a blank front page. The PTI further reported that the front pages of these newspapers only carried a message from the KEG ~ “In protest against the unexplained denial of Government advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader.” Reportedly, a KEG spokesperson said the Guild and the Kashmir Editors’ Forum had on Saturday taken the decision to print a blank front page against the Government’s move “to scuttle” the media in Kashmir. This is a very important milestone for newspapers in India, not least in Nagaland, for it underscores the need for solidarity amongst newspapers ~ and the media community as a whole ~ in the country because of the increasing threats to the democratic tenets of free speech and a free press. The unity and the solidarity of the Kashmir newspapers is indeed something to extol and emulate when increasingly all newspapers stand in the front of the firing line of divisive, communal and ultra-nationalistic forces in the country. And, this is all the more imperative for free and independent newspapers in small and peripheral states of the Indian Union. While all newspapers are rivals, all free and independent newspapers are also a community of the Fourth Pillar of democracy and need to stand in solidarity when one or the other confronts any attempt to thwart it ~ for one never knows which would be the next. Moreover, when attempts to scuttle one free and independent newspaper is successful, it is more or less guaranteed that such attempts would not stop at one ~ till all are scuttled and/or brought to their knees. Whatever it is, issuance and payments of Government advertisements are crucial for the survival of all newspapers, particularly free and independent ones, which are always inevitably in precarious financial situation. It is not only newspapers ~ the very contents and the tone and tenor of television channels that have changed in the past few years underscore that too. While for television channels it may not be so much of Government advertisements but more of corporate advertisements, the fact is the close nexus between governments and corporates. The vicious circle between newspaper circulation and television TRPs on the axis of government and corporate advertisement makes the media vulnerable to threats that are inimical to the very essence and ethos of democracy. So, if Governments have a low rate of proclivity towards democracy and prioritize politics over democratic principles and values, the first to fold would be free and independent newspapers. To be sure, Government advertisements and payments thereof are not the only means of breaking the back of the free and independent media however it is the most potent because vulnerable newspapers do not have the capacity to seek justice in court on this matter. Therefore, newspapers have to resort to other means of protest, which is exactly what newspapers of Kashmir have done. And, because they stand in solidarity, they have put the Jammu and Kashmir Government on the back-foot. No, Kashmir newspapers are not playing power games; they are protecting the democratic rights to free speech and free press enshrined in our Constitution and in the process asserting the rights of the free press to survive and function as an effective Fourth Pillar of democracy. Considering the rapidly changing equations of the country increasingly heading towards a form of mono-culturalism and homogeneity, clearly the Kashmir newspapers are putting up a solid defense against it. Certainly, there is much for the newspaper community, especially in small and peripheral states like ours, to mull over very seriously.