GST rollout: Jammu and Kashmir scribes cry attack on press freedom as speaker restricts coverage of Assembly debate

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir government had invited journalists, working for different media outlets, to cover a special session of the state Legislative Assembly, which was going to debate the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the state. The BJP-PDP government in the state has been struggling to build a consensus with Opposition parties to implement the new tax regime in the state. Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu was to schedule a resolution on GST in the House.

The state government has been arguing that instead of an 'all India GST' it will have a special GST, though not a separate one, while also insisting that the state government has enough constitutional and administrative control over the overall taxation set-up. But the government failed to reveal the final details of its GST ideation.

Opposition MLA's shout slogans inside Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly during a debate on Goods and Services Tax. PTI

Opposition MLA's shout slogans inside Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly during a debate on Goods and Services Tax. PTI

On Tuesday morning, this author was about to enter the Jammu And Kashmir Civil Secretariat, which is housed inside the state Legislative Assembly in the heart of the summer capital Srinagar, when policeman outside the secretariat stopped the reporters' vehicles, despite a vehicle pass being issued by the information department, to enter the Legislative Assembly complex.

Instead, the journalists were asked to keep their mobile phones, laptops and cameras outside and were only allowed to enter on foot from the main gate of the Legislative Assembly complex.

This is perhaps for the first time in the history of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly that journalists were thoroughly frisked, bringing back for many reporters memories of the numerous crackdowns in the early 1990s.

A poster pasted on the wall of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly complex read, “Media persons carrying cameras, both still and motion, and cell phones will not be permitted into the House. Only pen and paper. This is the direction of the speaker.”

Journalists stood outside the main gate of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, wondering what would have led the BJP-PDP government to impose a gag on mobile phones, cameras, and even resort to tearing the passes of senior journalists on the main gate. What did it want to hide?

The proceedings inside the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly were temporarily disrupted when the Opposition boycotted the House due to curbs on electronic media in the Assembly.

The journalists as a mark of protest boycotted the session, refusing to enter without their cameras and mobile phones. An hour later Muneer ul Islam, Director of Information, asked the journalists to stop protesting and enter the Assembly. When the journalists refused to budge and, instead, asked for the reasons behind the gag, Islam told the journalists to lower the tone of their voices.

After the information director several ministers came out urging the journalists to abide by the dictat.

“There are enough people who know how to write the proceedings of the House, including the armed forces. Why don't you get them here instead of inviting us and insulting the fourth pillar of the democracy,” Masood Hussain, editor-in-chief of Kashmir Life, a weekly magazine, told information and public relations minister Chaudhry Zulfikar Ali.

"This premise is a state within a state, no House in the country is as much powerful as this House is. We have nothing against you. We want you to respect this House,” Hussain, who is also a member of the Editors Guild of Kashmir, told the minister.

"What kind of democracy are you preaching when you don't believe in the biggest institution of democracy in state?” he said.

The PDP-BJP led government in Jammu and Kashmir has had problems with the media after it took office in the politically volatile state. During the 2016 unrest that started after the killing of former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the government banned Kashmir Reader, a leading daily published from the Valley after failing to bring semblances of normalcy on the streets.

"It is a larger constitutional issue. You work under a system that has given you responsibility to protect the fourth pillar of the democracy," a senior journalist told parliamentary affairs minister Abdul Rehman Veeri. He was send by the Assembly speaker to look into the journalists' protest.

When the journalists still refused to budge, Kavinder Gupta, Speaker, Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, finally came out of the House and apologised to protesting journalists.

“I have gone to jail for three months when I was in Class IX for press freedom. I apologies to you for what happened,” Gupta told the reporters outside the Assembly, after which everyone went inside.

The PDP-BJP government has been struggling to mold the public opinion in favour of the new tax regime, especially the trader community. The traders have been against GST because they believe that its implementation compromises the financial autonomy of the state.

The authorities have arrested Yasin Khan, a trade union leader spearheading the anti-GST movement in the state. Khan was slated to lead an anti-GST protest in the city on Tuesday.

Inside the Assembly, the Opposition members wore black bands, registering their protest against the implementation of GST. According to Opposition parties, GST is the first step towards eroding Article 370 under which the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoys a special status in the Constitution of India.

Meanwhile, information minister Ali termed the entire incident as a miscommunication.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2017 21:46 PM

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