Friday, February 26, 2021

Governments & the Free Press

The Nagaland Government is in good company, along with Assam and Jammu & Kashmir, vis-à-vis Government advertisements and payments thereof. You may be aware that the North East Newspaper Society (NENS) has announced a three-day boycott of all Assam Government advertisements, any news and photographs related to the State Government to register its protest against the Government’s apathy towards the problems faced by Assam’s newspaper houses. The boycott began from the March 10 issues of the newspapers. The NENS laments that while the advertisement rates have not been revised since 2014, the cost of newsprint, other printing materials and transportation has escalated manifold ~ consequently the newspaper industry is reeling under a severe crisis. In a meeting with NENS representatives on February 22, 2018, Assam’s Chief Minister had assured to resolve three crucial problems faced by the newspaper houses – centralised payments, payments within 60 days, revise advertisement rates every year, besides clearing all outstanding dues. But clearly the slip between the cup and the lip continues. Even the Gauhati High Court has issued an order in this regard but it is yet to be honoured. Another meeting with the Additional Chief Secretary at a later date also did not yield the desired result and several representations to the Government have fallen on deaf ears. So the NENS issued a statement: “The newspaper houses did not have any other option but to call for the boycott. If the Government fails to initiate any steps to resolve the issues even after that, the newspaper houses will be forced to take sterner decisions,” reported The Assam Tribune on March 9. Meanwhile in Kashmir, most of the leading dailies in the Kashmir valley printed 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. On Sunday, PTI reported that 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 and 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, as a mark of protest, the leading dailies there ~ both English and Urdu ~ printed a blank front page on Sunday. 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. The Government of Nagaland is in good company because last month all Nagaland-based newspapers too had to write a letter to it reminding it to clear advertisement bills owed to Nagaland newspapers. While some payments have been cleared, more remain unpaid. It isn’t just a matter of money ~ issuance and payments of Government advertisements are often used as a tool to make independent newspapers submissive to the political agenda of the Government. Besides, considering the threats across the country to the freedom of speech and a free press, this takes a very ominous trajectory. In Nagaland, despite being empanelled by the state Government, almost all tabloid-sized, black-and-white newspapers continue to be denied of a good number of Government advertisements ~ this gives the impression that for a good number of Nagaland Government Departments and agencies believe that the colour is the message ~ thereby denying a good section of the state readership of their right to know about Government programmes and schemes besides Government employment opportunities. Moreover, some state Government Departments question the circulation numbers of our small-sized and black-and-white papers but fail to notice we are also empanelled with the DAVP for a reason. Much needs to be said on the issue but we will leave that for another day. Much also needs to be said on the pertinence of a free media but suffice it to say for now that any Government worth its salt would be chronicled vis-á-vis the free press ~ at least in a self-respecting democracy and in a world shrunk by technology.