Media ironies in Pakistan administered Kashmir

IN Media Practice | 04/07/2011
Pak administered Kashmir has newspapers but they lack coverage of the region. And when the mainstream Pak press covers Kashmir they are focused on the Indian side.
Azad Kashmir was never really on the agenda of the Pakistani press, an editor in Islamabad tells ZAFAR CHOUDHARY.
An edited version of an article published in  Rising Kashmir on June 14, 2011
 
From no newspaper until a decade ago to 32 titles today, the Press in Pakistan administered Kashmir owes a lot to General Musharraf. However, there is very little these 32 local newspapers tell us about the land and the people. Compounding that missing coverage is the no show for this region the Pakistani mainstream press.  ‘Azad Kashmir’ is missing from their radar.
 
“Until recently it would be a huge embarrassment when asked by outsiders about the state of Press in the region”, says a senior journalist at Muzaffarabad as he informs us that there was no newspaper in Pakistan administered Kashmir till late 1990s. “It was in 1998 when first two local newspapers came up in Muzaffarabad and today we have some four”, the journalist tells us. Perhaps he did not know that Pakistan administered Kashmir is today producing 32 newspapers every day. He is not the only one. “Are you crazy”, says a voracious reader of Pakistani mainstream newspapers in Muzaffarabad, doubting that such a  large number of papers have come up in the region.
 
 A good newspaper, as they say, is a nation talking to itself! So which is the good newspaper in Pakistan administered Kashmir, and in which languages does it talk to its readers. After a look at the collage of newspapers at a newsstand, the question of which one is better is not relevant. It is more important to know why there weren’t any newspapers in 50 years and how as many as close to three dozen came about in less than 15 years. There are no easy and convincing answers.
 
The publication of newspapers was systematically discouraged in Pakistan administered Kashmir over many decades. The authorities in Islamabad never wanted the Kashmiris to talk about their issues in the press. Some locals we interviewed had different but not so convincing reasons to offer. “Since every city of Azad Kashmir is just two to three hours drive from Islamabad or the neighbouring Rawalpindi, so need was never felt to have newspaper published in Muzaffarabad or Mirpur”, says a local politician. Pakistan administered Kashmir never had a culture of journalism of its own. Despite flaunting 32 local newspapers that culture has yet to take root.
 
There were Pakistani newspapers which catered to readership of PaK over the decades. Of late some of the prominent newspapers –like Jang, Nawa-e-Waqt and Khabrien –published from Rawalpindi and Islamabad, started bringing out their ‘Kashmir editions’. Following, in some measure, the model of Times of India and Tribune for Jammu and Kashmir, these three newspapers have two to three dedicated pages for Pakistan administered Kashmir while keeping front, editorial, oped and other pages intact. The ‘Kashmir edition’ is only in three Urdu newspapers and no English newspaper ever allotted a dedicated space to PaK. Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s most vibrant and thinking newspapers like Dawn, the Nation and Express Tribune would reveal that PaK does not fit in the editorial priorities of country’s mainstream media. By coverage of Kashmir, they simply mean the Valley of Kashmir.
 
A road accident near Muzaffarabad on May 25, killing 35 persons, mostly children, and another accident near Mirpur on June 10 killing 13 persons could not make it to front pages of mainstream Pakistani newspapers. On May 23 when Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani was in Muzaffarabad where he spoke on Kashmir ‘conflict’, the event didn’t get any significant space in mainstream Pakistani newspapers. For example, Dawn, which a special ‘north section’, reported the event on third page of its little read additional pullout.  
Except for a few newspapers no Pakistani media house has a bureau office on in any part of Pakistan administered Kashmir. Admits a senior editor in Islamabad: “our entire imagination about Kashmir has always been the Valley of Kashmir....Azad Kashmir was never really on agenda of the Pakistani press”. However, says the editor, “eve the coverage of Indian Kashmir has undergone a drastic trimming over the recent years and the entire focus of reporting, analysis and comment is about Indo-Pak developments and Kashmir may just be a reference”. Why? Pakistan is now badly embroiled in an array of internal problems, terrorism the most challenging among them. Therefore, Pak administered Kashmir  is no more grist  for the Pakistani press as much as their internal issues are.
 
 So, what brought local newspapers to Pakistan administered Kashmir? “There was always an eagerness among the locals to have their own newspapers but circumstances never permitted”, says a journalist. Indeed, a blessing in disguise -during his post-uniform era, General Musharraf wanted to democratise the institutions in a bid to hang on for a longer while. He encouraged many things that would fit in the realm of democracy. Press was one of them and PaK availed the opportunity. Based on limited success of two newspapers that arrived in 1998, the real race began after 2002 taking the tally of local newspapers to 32 in 2010. All these newspapers are in Urdu and they follow a different procedure of title registration than the mainland Pakistani newspapers. The registration request has to be filed before the local Deputy Commissioner but final approval is given by the Kashmir Council based in Islamabad and not by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
A small strip of land with less than four million population, out of them over a million living or working abroad, does not need close to three dozen newspapers. Interestingly, the number reflects the diversity in the region. There are three newspapers brought out of Rawalakote, five from Mirpur, few from Kotli, around ten from Muzaffarabad. Except two papers from Muzaffarabad city, all are printed, published and edited out of Islamabad or Rawalpindi. There is no colour printing press or a press with technical capacity to print more than four-page paper anywhere in PaK. For technical reasons, all newspapers, except two, are in the name of some place in PaK but their entire operation is based in Islamabad or Rawalpindi. Another reason is distribution. PaK papers have not developed distribution chain of their own. They depend on the distribution network of mainstream Pakistani newspapers.
 
Most of the newspapers are understaffed and they rely on news agencies which again have no priority reporting in PaK. Since news agencies do not have tailor made editorials and op-eds for different newspapers, therefore the thinking section is missing in the PaK press. There are a couple of exceptions. ‘Jammu Kashmir’ is perhaps the most professionally producing and largest selling newspaper of PaK. It is edited and partly owned by Amir Mehboob of Mirpur. A journalist associated with ‘Jammu Kashmir’ claimed its circulation at 10,000. Another prominent newspaper is Dharti published from Rawalakote. This newspaper may have limited print circulation but its online reach is amazing. Ershad Mehmud, a Kashmiri commentator prominence which has extensively written in Pakistani newspapers, says that he never got as much cumulative feedback from all the mainstream newspapers put together as he got about his columns in Dharti. Almost every newspaper has a website and this is where the Diaspora finds information about their region and relatives. Another relatively better newspaper is Chinar.

So in the final analysis, the big number of 32 notwithstanding, Pakistan administered Kashmir is still missing proper press coverage. Thanks to their entire production being in mainland Pakistan, the PaK newspapers end up telling us almost nothing about the region.

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