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The challenges for Kashmir media are formidable and structural

IN its order on June 6, 2020 the Department of Information and Public Relations of Jammu and Kashmir has asked the newspapers in the Union Territory to publish the “minimum number of pages required as per advertisement policy, 2016” failing which their papers “will not be entertained for attendance from this month”. The order has come at a time when the local newspapers are grappling with issues of survival in the absence of circulation and adequate advertisements.

Ever since the Covid-19 lockdown, majority of people have given up reading physical newspaper copies for fear that it could be a potential virus carrier. This has forced the owners to simultaneously circulate the PDF versions of their editions among their readers through various social media platforms like WhatsApp, a practice that has since caught one. Though, this is an excellent e-alternative to the physical newspapers, the government has so far refused to empanel the digital editions, let alone issue advertisements for them.

At the same time, there has been a drastic reduction in the government and the corporate ad spend – latter is, anyways, an insignificant part of the revenue of local newspapers – as a result of the sweeping lockdown since August 2019. This has made publishing a newspaper unsustainable.

True, it was not possible for the government to give adverts to newspapers considering most of the government departments were shut during the lockdown period. This, in turn, had brought all official activity to a halt. Only the essential service departments like healthcare, police, food, power and public health engineering departments were functional.  All government attention was and remains focused on fighting the spread of Coronavirus. So, these are challenging times and the government is doing everything in its power to halt the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by Coronavirus, that has so far infected over 4000 people in the union territory.

But at the same time, media is an important tool of the fight against the Covid-19. It plays the critical role in spreading the awareness about the disease. And it has been doing that over the past more than two months, despite having had to publish under very tough circumstances. What is missing, however, is the resources to make it economically viable to do so. Without any advertisements, the newspapers have to bear the entire cost of publishing. More so, at a time when there is also no advertising from the small private sector which is also shut.

It is a well known fact that the Government adverts form around three-fourths of newspaper revenue in J&K, and almost the entire income for smaller newspapers. So, the newspapers look towards the government for the adverts to survive. And the government, in return, wants them to toe its line.

Overall the challenges for  Kashmir media are formidable and structural. The media in Kashmir, comprising English and vernacular press with robust online presence, have a particularly unenviable job to do. The problems faced by it are both universal to the conflict situations and unique to the region.

One of the major problems bedeviling the freedom of expression in Kashmir is the economic sustainability of the local newspapers. Being a place with only a fledgling private sector and little industrial presence, government advertising has been a predominant source of revenue for the newspapers. This gives government enormous power to influence news agenda, rendering the local press prone to the pulls and pressures from the administration and various other interests in the region. Until August last, however, the local media had managed to skirt such pressures and done a largely excellent job of covering the prevailing extraordinary situation. Things have gone downhill since then.

The local newspapers and the reporters working for the various national and international publications have faced their toughest time in discharging their professional duties over the past ten months. The security lockdown and the communication blockade that followed the revocation of Article 370 have hit the Kashmir media hard. Journalists have struggled for an internet connection to get their stories out. The newspapers too have struggled to get the news content and maintain their online presence.

It was days into the nullification of Article 370 that the government put together ‘Media Facilitation Centre’, initially only with four computers for a large media fraternity both local and visiting besides nearly a hundred local publications. Though communication gag has since been relaxed, with the media given broadband access in their offices, this hasn’t made a large difference to the prevailing pathetic state of journalism in Kashmir. Logistically, the situation may have eased, it has progressively worsened in terms of the economy of bringing out a newspaper. Sources of revenue have been drying up affecting critical functions of newsgathering and more importantly an impartial chronicling of the current unprecedented times. This too at a time when the readership has grown exponentially.

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