Down a narrow, winding lane off Lal Chowk, an iconic square in central Srinagar, stands the decrepit Hotel Ash. Past a reception desk with no attendant, and up a rickety flight of stairs, is room number 5, which serves as an office for three local newspapers. Inside, on an October evening, I found Malik Rafi, the 37-year-old owner of the Urdu weekly Kashmir Manzar, peering fixedly at a computer screen. Rafi is the publisher, editor, designer, and sometimes even distributor of the newspaper, which boasts a staff of exactly one. Beside him, two men typed away frantically at their keyboards—one the owner, and the entire staff, of the Kashmir Glacier, and the other of the Daily Nigahban.
Rafi, like dozens of other newspaper owners working out of Hotel Ash, begins work every day at 6 pm. Besides the Kashmir Manzar, he is the only staff member for two other papers too, though these have other owners. He scans the news wires for stories, and picks enough to fill his pages. Then, he starts editing and designing. On the days he needs to close an issue, he finalises it by midnight and sends it to a nearby press. At around 3 am, distributors collect printed copies, before taking them to vendors. Rafi’s papers rarely carry original stories. “Ninety percent of newspapers in Kashmir rely on news agencies,” he told me. “You just have to cut and paste, design the newspaper and deliver the copy.”
Hotel Ash is one of several buildings in Srinagar’s Press Enclave area that, according to several publishers like Rafi, house some five or six dozen small newspapers. These are colloquially called “lithos”—presumably a reference to lithography, a cheap and largely obsolete method of printing, though no one could tell me for sure. They carry little to no original content, and sell no more than 500 copies each—but their publishers get false certificates from chartered accountants reporting inflated circulation figures.
Some lithos have been approved by the department of information. They make up a good chunk of the 167 newspapers approved by the department in the Kashmir Valley, and so can receive government ads at prices higher than they merit, since official rates are pegged in part to a publication’s circulation. This racket is not unique to Kashmir, and is practised across India. An unknown number of Kashmiri papers, though, do not have approval, and depend on other sources of funding—ads from political parties, for instance, or from local businesses. But, as several journalists I met alleged, many lithos, both approved and otherwise, also receive money from the Indian army and intelligence agencies, in exchange for favourable coverage.
The 80-year-old Kashmiri journalist Mohammad Yousuf Taing, who worked with the department of information in the mid 1970s, told me over the phone that lithos were started in the 1950s, as propaganda tools for political parties. This changed in the 1990s, with the rise of militancy in the state. In 1995, Taing said, the army and intelligence agencies started funding small newspapers as part of their public-relations strategy, especially because major Kashmiri newspapers tended to be critical of them. “It was part of their counter-insurgency effort,” he said. “Many of these newspapers were encouraged to write negative articles against militant groups,” and were used “as weapons to break the militant factions by pitting them against each other.”
Other journalists voiced similar allegations. Iftikhar Gilani, the newspaper DNA’s Delhi bureau chief, who has reported from the valley for several years, told me that since Kashmir does not have much of a corporate sector, the primary source of advertising for the media is the information department. “If a paper is being regularly published and there is no support from the information department,” he reasoned, there must be a “hidden hand” behind it. Yusuf Jameel, who has written for publications such as the Asian Age and the New York Times, told me that “organisations and groups under the home ministry” fund the lithos. They help in other ways, too. “If a paper is being sponsored by some agency,” he explained, any formalities it requires to get advertising approval from the information department, based on criteria laid down in a state government advertising policy, “will be completed within a day.”
Rafi, however, told me that no new newspapers have received that approval in Kashmir in at least four years. The department says it doesn’t have the funds to advertise in any more papers, he said. Kashmir Manzar is yet to be approved, but Rafi hoped that it would be. His office-mate’s Daily Nigahban is approved, and to remain so, it has to show a circulation of at least 15,000. But when I spoke to distributors at Lal Chowk, they told me it barely sells 200 copies of each issue.
On 9 October, I picked up the valley’s two leading dailies—Greater Kashmir, with a circulation of around 60,000, and Rising Kashmir, which sells 20,000 copies every day—from a newsstand in Srinagar, along with copies of six small newspapers. One of these small papers was Kashmir Glory, an unapproved, eight-page daily with a large office near Lal Chowk. That day, it carried stories based on three press releases from defence forces—one about the Indian army constructing toilets for schools, another on the air force’s eighty-third anniversary celebrations, and a third on an army-organised body-building contest in Baramulla district. Greater Kashmir carried a small brief based on the air force’s release at the bottom of its eleventh page. Kashmir Glory carried it as an anchor of about 500 words on its page three. Rising Kashmir devoted barely any space to the body-building contest, tucking it away on its page 11. Kashmir Glory used it as a large anchor on page eight.
On Kashmir Glory’s editorial pages, all the articles save for one—which had no byline—were credited “courtesy Indian Express.” These included a piece on net neutrality actually published the previous day by The Hindu. When I visited the Kashmir Glory office the next day, its owner and editor-in-chief, Tanveer-ul-Ahad, told me the paper runs editorials from national dailies with which it shares “friendly relations.” But when I called Vandita Mishra, the Indian Express’s national opinion editor, she told me Kashmir Glory had never approached her paper for permission to re-print articles.
Ahad told me his paper employs 11 reporters—four each in northern and central Kashmir, two in the south of the valley, and one in Jammu. The paper’s 9 October edition, however, carried only three articles with bylines. Kashmir Frontier, Precious Kashmir and Kashmir Horizon had no stories with bylines at all. A few Google searches revealed that their opinion pieces, carried without credits, had been lifted from outlets including Al Jazeera, the Asian Age and NDTV.com.
The Mirror of Kashmir had no stories with bylines, no editorials, no opinion pieces, and not a single article attributed to a news agency. It also had no division of sections: articles on national, international and local news, and also on sport, were all mixed together.
Zaffar Ahmad, the information director general for Jammu and Kashmir, told me at his office that many small newspapers in the state are running only for the sake of advertising money. “That is why we want to revise the advertisement policy so that genuine people come in,” he said. A senior official of the department of information told me that a new draft policy calling for stricter norms has been submitted to the government. This has “rattled” some beneficiaries of the litho business, he said. “Many politicians own newspapers. So, it is for all to see how much of this policy will actually be implemented.” I asked him how so many lithos had managed to get approved in the first place.“In this place, there are multiple power centres,” he said—intelligence agencies, the government, separatists. “Each exerts its own pressure.”
Rafi claimed Kashmir Manzar sells 3,000 copies of each issue, and the owner of Kashmir Glacier gave me the same number for his paper. Ahad claimed a circulation of 6,000 copies, and the owner of Daily Nigahban of 8,000. Many distributors I spoke to contradicted these figures. One, with the Abdullah News Agency, told me he gets only five to ten copies of each of these titles at any time. Another, at the Khan News Agency, told me he gets no more than ten copies of each litho, and only manages to sell five to seven copies per edition. “Their circulation will not be more than 500,” he said. Another distributor put the figure at a maximum of 100.
On 14 October, accompanied by a young newspaper publisher who did not wish to be named, I visited Lal Chowk at 4 am, as vendors gathered to collect bundles of newspapers from distributors. Sitting on a sidewalk, one distributor told me that he sells as many as 1,500 copies of “less famous” newspapers per day. He then turned to the young publisher and said, in Kashmiri: “If we tell her the exact figures, we will get into trouble.”
From inside his tempo, another distributor said the circulation of my companion’s newspaper was about 500. Behind the tempo, the young publisher smiled. “I publish only 200 copies,” he said. “Wonder where he gets 500 copies from.”
Sumegha Gulati was a Delhi-based independent journalist, who wrote about conflict, health, disability rights and heritage.