Multiple threats on media

Kashmir Times. Dated: 3/13/2019 1:45:31 PM

With defamation suits, contempt cases, physical threats and choking of finances, free press under excessive threat across India

A recent high court order in Meghalaya that holds the editor and publisher of reputed newspaper Shillong Times in contempt of court once against demonstrates the use of stringent methods to gag and intimidate the press in this country. Not only were the two, Patricia Mukhim and Shobha Chaudhuri, made to sit in a corner of the court for a day, they were also punished with a fine of Rs 2 lakhs each, failing which they would invite arrest and the newspaper would be banned. Such punitive measures despite an unconditional apology tendered by the two is a matter of grave concern. The court ruling was in response to the news reports of court's deliberations over the perks to be awarded to retired judges, and their extension to their families. The judge who gave the verdict is incidentally the one who recently advocated India to become a Hindu country. In this case, the court appears to have taken exception particularly to the heading 'Judges, judge themselves' which only has a metaphoric import and does not amount to contempt of the court. Contempt proceedings have been initiated from time to time against journalists and to this end the ambiguity of the law is often used to intimidate the press and scuttle free expression, even though court proceedings can be reported and court verdicts are open to criticism. The harsh verdict against the Shillong Times to the extent of warning about possible arrest and closure of a reputed and credible newspaper that has been existing for decades sets a terrible precedent in an atmosphere where media is already facing extreme pressures and vulnerability. This is particularly so in the case of media operating from conflict areas, where journalists are literally walking on the razor's edge and constantly facing threats of physical nature, arrests on frivolous pretexts and excessive restrictions. Such threats are known to have disrupted publications for weeks together in Kashmir Valley.
The court directive further augments and magnifies the threats that journalists are putting up with, making it difficult for free press to operate across India, and particularly the conflict zones like north-east and Kashmir. From the threats of physical elimination to court rooms dramas, the journalists are being made to pay a price for speaking truth to power. The threats are not only physical in nature but the more convenient and subtle forms of intimidating the press by choking its finances or imposing huge financial burdens are also being employed. If newspapers like Hindu face defamation suits with damages pegged at disproportionately higher bar than the actual worth of the publication, in Jammu and Kashmir, newspapers have been pushed to the wall by denying them their due share of government advertisements through a systemic process that began in 2010. In 2010, the DAVP advertisements under the central government were stopped to several hand-picked newspapers including this one and while some of them erratically received the advertisements, not a single advertisement was issued to others including this newspaper. Government advertisements are a major source of revenue for newspaper industry in Jammu and Kashmir and denial of advertisements makes their survival extremely difficult. Now in a fresh step to the existing policy of choking the finances of media organisations, two Valley based newspapers, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, have been denied state government advertisements. While the state government's inability to rationalize the system of advertisement distribution or hike up the tariffs was an issue that media bodies were taking up for years, the fresh move seems like the government has proceeded to the next level of victimizing the press and intimidating it into abject silence. Such multiple methods being used to muzzle free press are a matter of grave concern as a vibrant media, which gives voice to the powerless, is one of the prime components of democracy. By making it difficult for media to survive, there are attempts to either make them tow a particular line, submit them to silence or completely shut their businesses.



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