A regional NSW council has been accused of politically motivated censorship after it pulled advertising from a free independent newspaper.

The Clarence Valley Independent is a free weekly newspaper in the Clarence Valley that has existed since 1994. Run by nearly two dozen locals, it’s one of the few independent regional newspapers remaining in Australia. As print ads have declined, the council has become its largest single advertiser.

Former federal police agent and local business owner Ursula Tunks has started a petition calling on the council to reinstate its advertising. Tunks believes the council has pulled its advertising out of revenge for unfavourable coverage, particularly surrounding rates rises.

“As the Clarence Valley Council is the major advertising account for The Independent, and The Independent reports objectively on Clarence Valley Council operations, decisions and issues, in particular the CVC’s recent attempts at community consultation on the proposed rate increases, it appears your decision is a deliberate act of retribution to silence this vital community voice,” her petition states. The council hasn’t publicly commented on these specific allegations, but has given a markedly different reason for why it pulled its ads.

Apart from the Independent, which is locally owned, the region is also served by APN-owned daily newspaper The Daily Examiner.

Nonetheless, Tunks says, the region is highly disadvantaged and is reliant on a local, independent newspaper to advocate for it. “We’re left to languish,” she told Crikey. “We’re not on the coast. We’re finally getting a Pacific Highway upgrade. We don’t have crucial health services. The Independent is the one paper getting our voices and opinions out there. And they’re silencing it.”

Tunks also noted that the Independent was freely available, whereas Daily Examiner readers had to pay for the title. “People say print is old school, but most people in the town can’t get access to the internet,” she said. “And many can’t afford to pay.”

The Clarence Valley has suffered an economic downturn in recent years, which has put pressure on the community. Two major employers, an abattoir and a Telstra call centre, have closed down in recent times, and a remand centre, which used to require a lot of local services, has been downsized. It’s understood the closure of large business in the area recently has led to lost advertising revenues for both papers.

The Independent reports on the pulled advertising in today’s edition. A front-page piece tells readers the council advised the Independent it was pulling its advertising in a four-line letter, in which council’s general manager Scott Greensill stated: “I regret to advise that Council will no longer be publishing the weekly block ad in your publication, effective immediately.” The report states the council declined to comment further. Crikey also unsuccessfully approached the council for comment yesterday.

In the letter to the Independent about the advertising, reported in today’s edition, Greensill wrote that advertising was one of the council’s largest expenses. He noted the council was legally required to advertise developments in one local newspaper, and it currently did so in both the Daily Examiner and the Independent. This advertising regularly ran on page 4 of the Independent and has now been dropped, though it’s understood the council will still run other occasional advertising in the paper. Page 4 of the Independent today is left blank in protest against the decision.

The Independent‘s general manager Anne Mazzitelli conceded to Crikey losing the advertising was a “significant blow”.

“But we’re not going to roll over and die … We’ll work our way through it, we hope.”

She nonetheless said it would have been preferable for the council to give the Independent a bit more notice. The council invited both local papers to tender for its advertising in March, and Mazzitelli says they’d asked for a bit of notice if the council decided to drop its advertising.

The paper is one of the few remaining independently owned newspapers in regional Australia, where over recent decades most titles have been bought up by Fairfax, News Corp or APN.

Correction: This article originally stated a remand centre was the largest employer in the Clarence Valley. This isn’t accurate — the centre was downsized some years ago. The piece has above has been corrected.