Jammu and Kashmir

Region of unfreedom

Print edition : July 17, 2020

At a news stand during restrictions in Srinagar in September 2019. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The new media policy in Jammu and Kashmir seeks to kill journalism in the troubled region where the local press continues to be in a state of numbness.

SOON after three Associated Press (AP) photojournalists from Jammu and Kashmir were declared winners of the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography in May, the news agency stated in its report that “the story of India’s crackdown on Kashmir last August was difficult to show to the world”. More than 10 months after the Central government unilaterally revoked the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided it into two Union Territories administered amid unprecedented security lockdown and communications restrictions, the challenges for media practitioners in Kashmir have grown manifold. In June, the administration announced a new media policy, which is viewed as an attempt to kill journalism in the troubled region where the local press continues to be in a state of numbness.

Under the new policy, the Union Territory administration through the Directorate of Information and Public Relations could initiate legal action against journalists and regulate advertisements. Since August 5, 2019, the most pressing concern in Srinagar’s meida circles has been the informal, and invariably illegal, interrogation of journalists. In the wake of the Narendra Modi government’s coercive handling of the media in Kashmir, observers say, local newspapers changed their style guides and editorial policies, and advised their regular columnists and cartoonists against touching on issues that could invite the government’s ire. The organisations reduced their staff strength drastically. While most of the organisations struggle to pay salaries, the newspaper columns, observers say, are mostly filled with government press notes, reports of national news agencies or with apolitical articles.

Major rights groups have made scathing observations on the Modi government’s assault on the Kashmiri press. Reacting sharply to the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against photojournalist Masrat Zahra and the “open FIR” (first information report) against The Hindu’s Srinagar-based special correspondent, Peerzada Ashiq, the executive director of Amnesty International India, Avinash Kumar, said in a statement dated April 22: “Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal. In Kashmir, this has been compounded through the general lockdown, prolonged restrictions on internet speed and arbitrary detentions often without any kind of documentation, access to lawyers and recourse to justice. This severely undermines the human rights guarantees of the people of Kashmir and denies the people in India and around the world’s right to know.”

Peerzada Ashiq was summoned to police stations in two different districts within a span of six hours for writing a story on an encounter at Shopian. He had been summoned to the Kothi Bagh Police Station on September 1, 2019, and asked to reveal the source of a story that he had reported on political detentions since August 5, 2019. The police had charged Gowhar Geelani, also a journalist, under the UAPA for allegedly posting “anti-national” posts on social media, in April. In September 2019, Geelani was stopped at the Indira Gandhi International airport from travelling to Germany. He said no written order was given to him on why he was stopped.

Press Club protests

The Kashmir Press Club has organised several silent protests in recent months against harassment of journalists, the Internet gag and media curbs. Its general secretary, Ishfaq Tantry, said: “Though all governments aim to control the media and the narrative, but I still feel the UPA [United Progressive Alliance government] years were comparatively better as far as media functioning is concerned. This government in an effort to stifle the free press in J&K has resorted to direct attack on the media by summoning journalists for their stories to police stations or by filing cases against them.”

In a charge sheet against a local photojournalist, Kamran Yousuf, who was booked under the UAPA in January 2018, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) observed: “He had never covered any developmental activity of any government department/agency, any inauguration of hospital, school building, road, bridge, statement of political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by State government or government of India.” In March 2018, the court granted Yousuf bail as the NIA failed to provide evidence against him. According to local reporters who did not wish to be named fearing reprisals, since then the authorities have nearly forced several journalists to disclose their sources, confiscated their laptops and mobile phones, made them fill forms giving details about their family members, relatives and properties, and so on.

Naseer Ganai of Outlook was summoned by the police for reporting a statement of the banned separatist organisation, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in February. In May, Fahad Shah, editor of Kashmir Walla, was summoned by the Srinagar Cyber Police Station allegedly in connection with a report on the gunfight between militants and security forces. On November 30 last year, Hakeem Irfan (The Economic Times) and Bashaarat Masood (Indian Express) were summoned to “Cargo”, a former interrogation centre, where they were reportedly grilled by the police for six to eight hours. On August 14, 2019, Irfan Amin Malik, a local journalist, was picked up from his residence in Tral and released the next day.

Many journalists who were summoned by the police and counter-insurgency forces in recent months refused to even talk over the phone, saying the authorities had put their cell numbers under surveillance. Their fears do not appear unfounded as about a dozen scribes, including those working for national media from Srinagar, have faced coercive government action for performing their duties. On December 17 last year, Azaan Javaid (The Print) and Anees Zargar (Newsclick) were beaten up by the police in public in Srinagar. On October 30, 2018, Aijaz Ahmad Dar, a videographer with Zee News, was shot with pellets when he was covering a clash between protesters and security personnel in Shopian district. Asif Sultan, an assistant editor with the monthly newsmagazine Kashmir Narrator, is in jail since August 27, 2018. He has been charged under the UAPA. Earlier, Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir-based journalist, was released from the Bareilly district jail, Uttar Pradesh, after charges against him under the Public Safety Act were revoked on April 13. He was arrested in July last year.

Months before its big decision on Kashmir last year, the Modi government had started tightening the noose around leading media houses in the Kasmir Valley. The NIA subjected the editor-in-chief of Greater Kashmir, Fayaz Kaloo, to questioning for over a week in July 2019 for articles carried by his paper during the 2016 agitation, which was triggered by the encounter killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Burhan Wani. Greater Kashmir was rocked by a wave of layoffs nearly a month before his interrogation. Similarly, the editor of Kashmir Reader, Haji Muhammad Hayat Bhat, was investigated by the NIA. The paper has not only reduced the number of pages from 16 to eight, it has also dropped its editorial page.

Noor Ahmad Baba, former dean, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Kashmir, said: “The local newspapers used to be vibrant. One would get to read incisive political commentaries and debates—such articles have gone missing. Earlier, I would preserve newspapers to read the fine articles on later occasions. But now I hardly give even a customary look to them, and that too for the general information. Now people read newspapers for official notices, obituaries, exam date sheets, advertisements and tenders—and not for the news stories or analysis.”

Gulzar, a freelance journalist, said: “We get to know about the incidents of human rights violation from national and international media. Reporters are not allowed to document stories describing circumstances that push youth into militancy. The counter-insurgency operations are not reported on the basis of information gathered by journalists with their feet in the mud anymore.”

Pervez Majeed, a former journalist who currently teaches at Government Degree College, Baramulla, said: “As a journalism teacher and media trainer, I now find it difficult to convince my students that journalism is a profession where you can exercise the right to freedom of expression.”

Changed mediascape

Well before the COVID-19 lockdown, Majeed said: “When Kashmir was put under security lockdown last year, many newspapers stopped production for some time. But none of them commented on the abrogation of the State’s special status or reported mass arrests that followed. During the curfew, people couldn’t avail themselves of health care and emergency services. Educational institutions were shut for a prolonged period. Such critical issues failed to make headlines. Those events were reported only on the basis of information extracted from press notes. We have not seen a single article in the local press criticising the new domicile laws and introduction of new administrative policies.”

Commenting on the changed mediascape, Prof Hameeda Nayeem, a political commentator and professor at the University of Kashmir, said: “We are under siege. Everything has been militarised and every voice has been silenced. Thoughts and ideas have been criminalised. There are tacit instructions to the media that they cannot touch the untouchable realities. There are columnists who have been told to either stop writing or write on soft issues. Dissenting voices were subjected to forced disappearance from newspapers months before August 5 as they (authorities) were preparing the ground for larger political changes.”

Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir Images, said: “What happened last year has completely changed the politics of Kashmir. Those who say that newspapers are not raising the banner of protest must understand that newspapers are just messengers. After August 5, nothing happened on the ground. Some protests were reported. Leaders of big political parties like the National Conference, the Peoples Democratic Party and the Peoples Conference were detained. We reported. How many protests political parties have held in Kashmir against the August 5 government move? Not many. It’s wrong to expect newspapers to do what political parties and society is supposed to do. I have 40-plus employees. Why should I do something that gives the government a reason to stop my publication? All of them will lose their jobs.”

Nazim Nazir, associate editor of Tameel-i-Irshad, a Srinagar-based Urdu daily, said: “Ever since the revocation of J&K’s special status, just like other local newspapers, we pass off general appeals as editorials. The editorial standards die on almost a daily basis…. The press notes that are critical of the government are censored. After the State government’s Department of Information and Public Relations and the Central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity cut advertisements to our newspaper by nearly 80 per cent, we had to lay off half of our staff last year.”

Maintaining that the Urdu press was bearing the brunt of the financial crisis, he said: “Before August 5 last year, we used to publish 60,000 copies daily. Then we reduced the number to 15,000. Today, we are mostly active on social media and circulate a few hard copies, nearly 2,000, in a few pockets of Srinagar.”

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, who had challenged the “communications restrictions” and “media gag” in the Supreme Court last August, said: “The government did not implement the judgment in its true spirit. It was selectively followed as far as restoration of Internet services was concerned. Moreover, it did not have any impact on the overall status of the local press. Due to heavy-handed policies of the government, the voices of the local population are completely missing from the local press. There is no scope for any critique of the government actions at present.” The Kashmir Times group of publications had to close down its Dogri and Hindi editions in 2018 following complete stoppage of government advertisements. Describing the new media policy as “constitutionally untenable”, she said, “it is aimed at intimidating journalists and killing journalism.”

Yusuf Jameel, a Srinagar-based senior journalist, said: “Now the police are deciding here whether a certain news item is fake or not. And then they proceed against you under whatever law. That’s our major concern. It’s infringement on the right to freedom of expression and, therefore, unacceptable to us. In the past also we have raised our voice against media repression but nobody listened to us barring some exceptions. Ironically, even the Press Council of India supported the government on communications restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir in the Supreme Court last year.”

Commenting on how the Modi government’s coercive handling of the media in Kashmir is different from that of the UPA era curbs, Yusuf Jameel said: “The local press in Kashmir has been working under tremendous pressure since 1990. We have lost 18-19 journalists to the conflict. The warring groups would try to browbeat us when militancy was at its peak. Earlier also governments had adopted coercive measures but only a couple of newspapers faced problems and cases against journalists were registered in isolated cases. But now everything is open. There is a climate of fear and self-censorship. It’s an altogether different world. And this situation is not just restricted to Jammu and Kashmir. The story of the media and the judiciary is now almost the same when compared with the rest of the country.”

Reacting to the new media policy, Ishfaq Tantry, said: “If this policy remains unchallenged, a government clerk may decide who should be a journalist in J&K. It is unheard of that for becoming a journalist or to get accreditation, one needs to get the security clearance first. The need of the hour is for all journalists, editors and newspaper owners to come forward and devise a joint response. The Press Council of India has taken cognisance of the issue after we brought it to its notice.”

Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “The new policy makes it amply clear that the government does not want journalists [to be] answerable to their readers and editors. It authorises bureaucrats and security officials to decide whether a news item is “fake, unethical and plagiarised” or “anti-national” before taking legal action against journalists and media organisations. It is part of the pattern wherein the authorities have been using harassment, intimidation, surveillance and online information control to silence critical voices and force journalists to self-censorship.”

Demanding that the new media policy be rolled back immediately, he said: “A free media can help the government take the right action more effectively than sunshine stories. Newspapers in Kashmir unfortunately look like government gazettes now, reminding us of the Emergency era.”

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