Local Cable TV becomes a victim of Shopian unrest

Prior to imposing curbs, the owners and editors of Cable TV channels in Kashmir were summoned by the authorities and threatened that they had better "behave properly".
The police intelligence wing monitors the programmes of these channels and then downloads all the news content telecast for reference, reports PEERZADA ARSHAD HAMID. Pix: Take 1 owner Devender Singh Rana

Soon after two women were found dead under mysterious circumstances in Shopian town, 50 kilometer south of Srinagar, on May 29, people came out on roads staging anti-government, anti-India and pro-freedom protest demonstrations.

The  government right from the beginning hampered the protests fearing it might repeat  last year¿s agitation, when people rallied in huge numbers to the local United Nations office demanding implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir.

Last year an agitation broke out over the disagreement over transfer of  the State¿s forest land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). It saw the dissolution of  an elected government well before time and imposition of Governor¿s rule in the troubled state to bring down tempers.  Anti-Indian sentiments run deep into Kashmiri psyche and protests against government inaction quickly get changed into anti-Indian and pro-freedom demonstration.

The Shopian incident too was heading toward pro-independence demonstrations. It added to the anger and suspicion brewing among the masses after forensic reports suggested that the two women were first raped and then murdered. While most of the national media reported the incidents in a cursory way, Cable TV channels operating in the region were giving due coverage to the developments because of their proximity.


As the protests grew in intensity, information dissemination became a cause of concern for the Omar Abdullah led National Conference-Congress coalition government in the state. It reacted by imposing a crackdown on local Cable TV channels. In its June 6 directive to them, it asked them to limit their news telecasts to 15 minutes a day.

The channels were asked not to report anything which goes against the taste of the government and do not give much coverage to the activities of the separatist groups or the protests staged by the masses.

Last year also during the Governor¿s rule Cable TV operations were completely suspended for 15 days.

This time, prior to imposing curbs, the owners and editors of Cable TV channels in Kashmir were summoned by the authorities and threatened that they had better "behave properly". Editors say the meeting was more of a threat than any discussion on Cable TV reporting.  During the meeting, editors were accused of the receiving funds from All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of various separatist organsations operating in Jammu and Kashmir.

" The authorities told us that the Hurriyat creates situations and the Cable TV channels provoke people. They threatened us that they had prepared dossiers against all the editors and can imprison us for two years," said Mr. Zahoor Gulzar, who attended the meeting.

Mr. Gulzar is the programme controller with a local Cable TV Mouj Kashir (Mother Kashmir), one of the Srinagar based Cable TV channels involved in the business of news operations and current affairs since 2007.

However, no written communication from the government has reached to the owners or editors of these Cable TV channels asking them to limit their news bulletins to 15 minutes a day.Earlier on June 3, Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, Mr.Mehraj Ahmad Kakroo send a three-page letter to various Cable TV operators taking cognizance of some "objectionable" coverage.

One such letter has been served to the Mauj Kashir channel as well, where in the channel was accused of giving preferential coverage to the activities of the separatist leadership and also repeatedly shown the glimpses of secessionist activities, stone pelting etc in such a manner that could influence and arouse sentiment of people.

"Such motivated telecasts also hamper the process of peace, prosperity and development of the State," the DC states in the letter addressed to the Managing Director of Mauj Kashir. Citing an example of May 23 bulletin, the DC writes: "Mauj Kashir channel in its News Programme 2134-2212 hours (local GMT) gave extensive coverage to the activities of High Court Bar Association, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and speech of Mr. Syed Ali Shah Geelani for about 11 minutes."

The Cable TV channels view the government curbs as an attack on freedom of press. Comparing last year¿s curbs, the editors say this year¿s restrictions are severe. "We then had the Governor¿s rule in the State. Today we have an elected government and the curbs they imposed are far more severe than those during last year, barring those 15 days," Mr. Gulzar said.

The police intelligence wing monitors the programmes of these channels and then downloads all the news content telecast for reference.

Crackdown blues

The cable operators have suffered a loss in advertising revenue owing to the government crackdown on them. The sponsors of the news and current affairs programmes are looking for other media to boost their business and reach the targeted audience.

"We get most of the sponsors for the news and current affairs programmes and if we won¿t have news operations our business will be badly hit," said Mr. Amjad, owner of Sen Channel (Our Channel), the first Cable TV channel in Srinagar that started its operations in 2005.

Since the channels cannot afford to accommodate all its advertisers and sponsors in 15 minutes allotted time span, it has received a setback in their revenue generation.

Mr. Amjad estimates that the ban has hit 80 per cent of their business and they are contemplating to lay off the staff.

"When we don¿t have sponsors, wherefrom can we bring the budget to sustain our business. Loss of business naturally means we have to curtail our operations, lay off staff – reporters, cameramen, presenters and technical crew," explains Mr Amjad.

The advertisement revenue generated by each channel every month was estimated at more than Rs 2 lakh. Owners say there is every possibility that people associated with the Cable TV will start an agitation in case curbs are not lifted.

"Hundreds of people working with Cable TV channels have families to support. By imposing a ban on it means you are snatching their livelihood. May be their families too will agitate on roads," Mr. Amjad says.

Though these channels feature government news and advertorials and allot the time slot to the state officials, they say government does not pay anything to them for that. During the time of Assembly election last year, the Commissioner Secretary, State Information department, Mr. K B Jandial sent advertisements that featured messages asking people to vote. Until now government has not paid anything in lieu of that to these channels.

"We were asked to telecast these ads and not paid anything at all," said owners.


What do these channels show?

Prior to government crackdown, the transmission of the local Cable TV channels started at 6 am with recitation of Quran, the holy book of Muslims, which was followed by Naat Khawani (recitations praising Muslim Prophet Muhammad) and programs on  Kashmiri culture and folk music. Some channels like Sen Channel also telecast Sikh and Hindu Bajjan¿s at weekends and on Sundays.

The news operations for the day used to started at 0830 hours IST with ¿Surkhiyaan¿, a 30-minute programme informing the viewers about newspaper headlines of a particular day. Thereafter, these channels used to show songs and films with flashing news of and on as it happens. Sometimes the channels show deferred live press conferences and some important footage often newsworthy.

The prime time for news has been fixed at 2000 hours IST for summers. The news ran for about half an hour followed by current affair programmes where in in-depth reports and reporter dispatches are included. The programme duration of this particular programme used to depend upon the flow of news and developments on a particular day. Usually the programme runs for one hour.

"We never took sides. We give due coverage to all the issues. We highlight public grievances, we cover government functions and then we cover daily news," says Mr. Gulzar. "We can¿t afford to become mouth-pieces of any particular group."

Every news bulletin or current affairs programme telecast on the Cable TV channels give due coverage to the developments. It tries to maintain a balance by accommodating two to three government functions, some news items from separatist circles and by showing public interest or public grievance news. The channels get invitations to cover government and police functions and sometimes leaders from mainstream political parties sent vehicles for them to cover their functions.

Pretexts for ban

The Deputy Commissioner (DC) Srinagar in his notice to various Cable TV channels has given a reference of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 guidelines saying that no programme should be carried on Cable network which:

  • Offends good taste or decency.
  • Contains criticism of friendly countries.
  • Contains attack on religious communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.
  • Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths.
  • Is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes.
  • Contains anything affecting the integrity of the nation.

The DC writes that after examining the records and viewing the CD recordings of the programmes of the Mauj Kashir channel, he had reached to a conclusion that telecast of such programmes was in contravention to the provisions of the Cable Television Network (Regulations) Act, 1995 and it was expedient to prohibit the channel from transmitting such programmes and seize its equipment used for operating such transmissions.

However, owners said that the government was coming up with a flawed logic.

"If we are violating the Act {Cable Television Network (Regulations) Act, 1995}, how does the logic of allowing the news operation for 15 minutes hold good. If we are violating the Act, why aren¿t they simply asking us to close down the operations?" questions a proprietor pleading anonymity for fear of reprisal.

"The government is not doing that because it would send a bad signal that the government is curbing the right to freedom of expression and imposing a crackdown on the media," he adds.

Disputed legality

Government officials say that the Cable TV channels do not have legality to operate. But owners say they have got the required permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioners and are registered with Post Master General in Srinagar.

Interestingly, one of the Cable TV channels- Take 1 operating from Srinagar and Jammu cities is owned by Mr. Devender Rana, a big business magnate and a close associate of the incumbent Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah. Rana is also the member of State Legislative Council.

The owners of the Cable TV channels maintain that they fail to understand the fluctuating temperament of the government. "Soon after the new government in the state led by Chief Minister Mr.Omar Abdullah assumed power, I interviewed all his ministers and even the chief minister. When our channels are OK at the time of covering government events how come they become illegal if we give some coverage to the separatists," Mr. Gulzar asks.

The government¿s tacit direction to these channels is not to show people raising anti-government, anti-India or pro-freedom slogans. It wants them to limit their area of concern to government functions."They told us don¿t show what people want, don¿t show what you want, don¿t show what Mr. Syed Ali Shah Geelani wants," said another Cable TV proprietor pleading anonymity.

Mr.Gulzar said that Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah recently asked them to visit his residence. "The chief minister told us that he can¿t close our channels but asked us to play a part. He told us that the Track-II diplomats were giving him a bad feedback about our operations."

Content Analysis

The May 31, 2009 current affairs programme ¿Meezan¿ of 52-minute duration showed interview with the family members of the two women allegedly raped and murdered in Shopian on May 30.

It also featured the entire press conference of Police and Divisional Commissioner Masud Samoon giving the government version of the Shopian incident. The other news items were of Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Affairs, Mr. Ali Muhammad Sagar; State Congress chief Mr. Saifuddin Soz and opposition Peoples Democratic Party President Ms.Mehbooba Mufti. In addition, a feature on World Tobacco Day was also showed.

"We try to maintain balance and bring both the sides but government is not satisfied. If established news channels (national channels) have no problem reporting things, why government is extending ban on us," questions Mr. Gulzar. Perhaps the problem for  the government is that Cable TV channels have more viewership compared to their regional state-run television DD Kashir.

The cable TV channels are functioning since 2005 in Kashmir. Prior to 2008, government never viewed their programming objectionable. So because of what happened during mid 2008 and now in 2009, government was compelled to restrict their operations.

Walking on razor edge

The editors of the Cable TV channels say they shun giving preferential treatment to the news items. In this business they sometimes have to face public wrath as well."If I skip something that is talk of the town during the day, the image of the channel suffers. When my image is tarnished, it will make me more vulnerable," Mr. Gulzar said.

There have been instances when their staff was attacked either on the pretext of intruding or reaching the spot late. "There is peoples¿ threat and there is also the government threat. A slight lapse on our part can be suicidal," said Mr. Amjad.

The operators have a genuine point. Reporting only one side of the story can definitely prove dearer.  "They have to show in detail the atrocities meted out to the people. They are here and controlling operations in the city. How can they play up excuses? If they would report the government activities only and skip atrocities meted to the people, they would face public fury," said Mr. Wasim Khalid, a Srinagar-based journalist.

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More