Since August 4, Kashmir has been under an unprecedented communications blackout, with the suspension of Internet, mobile phone and landline services. This has thrown into disarray the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, many of whom have not been able to send word to their families about their situation even a month after the siege. The imposition of curfews and Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the deployment of extraordinary security on the roads have also severely curtailed the ability of reporters to access information and reports from the ground. In the light of such an unparalleled lockdown, on August 10, Anuradha Bhasin, the Jammu-based Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, approached the Supreme Court. Her petition sought the immediate relaxation of restrictions on the Internet and telecommunication services and on the movement of journalists and mediapersons. The petition was filed through Advocate on Record Sumita Hazarika and sought a direction from the apex court to the government of India to relax all restrictions so that journalists could practise their profession and the residents of the Kashmir Valley could exercise their “right to know”.
Kashmir Times is the largest circulated English daily in Jammu and Kashmir with a daily circulation of 3.5 lakh copies. The de facto blockade on media activities has disabled Kashmir Times , among other newspapers, from printing, publishing and distributing their editions. Anuradha Bhasin spoke to Frontline on her petition and the implications of the sweeping curtailment on information sharing in the Valley. Excerpts:
Could you share the salient features of your petition? What are your hopes from the apex court?
I have filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India seeking directions to ensure that the state creates an enabling environment for journalists and all other media personnel in all parts of Jammu and Kashmir to practise their profession, and that the debilitating restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on Internet and telecommunication services and severe curbs on the movement of photojournalists and reporters be immediately relaxed in order to ensure the freedom of the media. It has been filed on the grounds that such restrictions curb the rights of journalists under the provisions of Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution of India and the people’s right to know the conditions of residents of the Kashmir Valley. The petition also states that the complete shutdown of Internet and telecommunication services, severe restrictions on mobility and sweeping curtailment of information sharing in the Kashmir Valley, at a time when significant political and constitutional changes are being undertaken in New Delhi affecting the status of Jammu and Kashmir, is fuelling anxiety, panic, alarm, insecurity and fear among the residents of Kashmir.
The communication blockade and strict restrictions on the movement of journalists resulted in a virtual blackout, and media reporting and publishing were grievously impacted. We have not been able to print and publish the Kashmir edition of Kashmir Times as a result of the absolute restrictions. Our reportage about Kashmir and five districts of Jammu region has also been severely impacted due to the blockade, and we have been relying largely on bits and pieces of information that are trickling in through the national and international media.
Do you know how many journalists have been detained?
We have no knowledge of how many journalists have been detained. I only know of one reporter of Greater Kashmir , Irfan Malik, who was picked up from his home in Tral, South Kashmir, and later released. This I know from news in the national publications.
The local press in Kashmir was very vibrant. The few newspapers that continue to publish are under terrifying censorship. We hear that even the headlines are being dictated by New Delhi. Could you please elaborate on the specifics of how and what kind of censorship has been put in place?
Yes, indeed, the Kashmir media were mushrooming in terms of quantity and quality in the last decade. Young talented journalists have emerged; they are extremely professional and write beautifully. But this decade has also coincided with bids by successive governments (and this started even before the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power) to weaken them financially by choking their revenues, which are mainly dependent on government advertisements, and through intimidation. It needs to be borne in mind that journalists in Kashmir have been working against many odds like physical threats of both state and non-state actors, arm-twisting and subtle coercive methods of the Central and State governments such as choking both revenue and information flows, killing and imprisonment. Newspapers were not allowed to be published for several days in 2010, 2013 and 2016. Such an intimidating atmosphere was already gradually deepening the practice of self-censorship in many publications. It would, however, be false to say that “every headline is being dictated by the government”. Many journalists have managed to continue their brave efforts, though it is also true that many reporters and columnists have become jobless.
In some ways, the censorship post August 5 is a continuation of that pattern; yet it is very different. The government has not imposed a ban, but the present communication blockade, restrictions and atmosphere of intimidation have made it virtually impossible for newspapers and journalists to function. A handful of newspapers, with reduced size and quality, are coming out. These are brave efforts. I don’t know how these are operating, given the many logistical issues, including the blanket communication ban, the long distance between the main offices and the printing presses and the barricades that journalists have to negotiate every night while going to press. Only a few copies are being printed, and the routine system of circulation is not functioning.
Kashmiris are not new to curfews. But the kind of total communications blackout this time round is unprecedented. In some places, in a kind of civil disobedience, people have dug their heels in and are preparing for a long haul. They refuse to allow the Indian government to show “normalcy”. What are the ramifications of this brutal psychological warfare unleashed by the Indian state?
I have heard stories of “civil disobedience” by the public. Also, of protests and clashes. It is not known how long the government is hoping to continue the clampdown. But the more it is prolonged, the more there will be issues of severe economic fallout, psychological distress and humanitarian crisis. It is also difficult to speculate on the political fallout of the present situation. But there are some questions for the near future. What will happen when the lid is off? Will the new class of political prisoners be released, and what would be their role and vulnerability in the present situation? Would a sustained and prolonged lockout and restrictions enable government to tire out the Kashmiris? But once the fatigue dies down, the eruption could be far more dangerous. Let us also not forget that a situation of alienation of such proportions is a rich crop for Pakistan to exploit.
How has the disinformation, misinformation and non-information by the Indian media affected the situation in Kashmir?
As mentioned in my petition, it is fuelling anxiety, panic, alarm, insecurity and fear among the residents of Kashmir. There is no authentic information they can rely on. The only source of information for them is the television news (those who have dish antennas), and they see the electronic media channels spewing venom against Kashmiris and spreading lies about Kashmir 24 x7. This also deepens the sense of betrayal, bitterness and alienation.
How do you see the role of the Press Council of India?
The Press Council of India has always been a toothless body which has been unable to resist curbs or censorship on the media anywhere in India. Kashmir is no exception. But this was the first time that it came out in the open to defend curbs on media in the name of “national interest”. It appears that there has been resistance from the media across the country and also from within Press Council [in view of the reported arbitrarily taken decision by its chairman] to make the media watchdog retract from its position.