Jammu and Kashmir has never been a hassle-free territory for journalists, but the state’s apparatus of repression has only become more brazen in the post August 5, 2019, era, when it was bifurcated, downgraded into a Union Territory and stripped of its special status. Manhandling of journalists, frequent summons to police stations, slapping of anti-terror laws against them and a few arrests, too, have become the order of the day.
The raging question of media freedom has once again come into prominence after a series of assaults on the media fraternity. The year began with a controversial takeover of the Kashmir Press Club. As per media reports, Srinagar’s Additional District Magistrate reportedly issued an order putting on hold the “re-registration” clearance given by the Registrar of Societies and Firms in Jammu and Kashmir to the Press Club on December 29, 2021. The move came just as the Press Club management decided to go ahead with elections to elect its office bearers.
Almost simultaneously, a section of mediapersons took over the management of the club stating that the previous body’s term had ended in July 2021. At least nine journalists’ bodies opposed the development, with many of them describing it, on social media, as an “armed takeover”. As the press fraternity appeared divided, the government returned to the Estates Department the premises given to the media fraternity for the Press Club, thus ensuring that it virtually ceased to exist. The administration argued that because of the “unpleasant turn” of events involving two warring groups using the banner of the Kashmir Press Club it became imperative to withhold the premises.
In February, the harassment of individual journalists continued, and a summons was sent to The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah. He was summoned on February 4 for allegedly “glorifying terrorist activities” and “inciting the public” and has not been released yet. On February 14, a memorandum signed by over 50 journalists and individuals/organisations working in the areas of press freedom and human rights was submitted to Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, exhorting him to intervene and ensure the early release of Fahad Shah.
The memorandum underlined how any reporting critical of the region was being branded as criminal: “[Fahad Shah’s] reporting on events in Jammu and Kashmir is a public service, not a crime, and should be protected under Indian law.” It also pleaded for the Lieutenant Governor’s attention on other cases of journalists being put behind bars under stringent anti-terror laws. “We also urge you to arrange the immediate release of other detained Kashmiri journalists—Sajad Gul, Aasif Sultan and Manan Gular Dar—all of whom, like Shah, have been jailed under anti-terror or preventative detention laws in apparent retaliation for their work,” the memorandum said.
Fahad Shah had been the target of the police earlier as well for reporting candidly on encounters and often highlighting the high-handedness of the police or the Army. In fact, Fahad Shah’s experiences in the aftermath of August 5, 2019, capture the magnitude of the price he has had to pay for questioning the authorities. From an evidently motivated first information report (FIR) carrying attempt-to-murder charges to a spate of formal and informal summons and, in one instance, an “abduction” by the police, Fahad Shah alleged that the people in power have tried everything to throttle the defiant tone of his magazine.
It was in May 2020 that The Kashmir Walla ’s video story of an encounter in Nawakadal in Srinagar riled the authorities. The video showed houses being burned down, with fire raging all over, and women of the neighbourhood wailing during the encounter in which Junaid Sehrai, an elusive, wanted Hizbul Mujahideen militant, was killed. Soon thereafter, Fahad Shah was twice called by the authorities for what he described as “intense lecturing on how journalism ought to be”. In an earlier interaction with this reporter, he shared details of the frequent ordeals he underwent: “There would be four-five senior officials present in a room; while one did all the talking, the others stared, as though to inject a sense of foreboding in me. The accusations were routine, that we focussed only on violence and excluded coverage of their ‘development work’.”
In October 2020, while Fahad Shah was returning from Punjab to Srinagar by road, the police stopped his car outside the Jawahar tunnel, searched it, interrogated him and the photographer who was accompanying him, and pressured the two to sit in a police van. In February 2021, when Fahad Shah talked to Frontline about the incident, he said: “It was an abduction. They took away my cell phone, they did not allow me to contact my lawyer or my family, and I was so scared that they might kill me without leaving a trace.” He was later released.
What has been a disturbing trend in Kashmir is the somewhat abysmal submission of the local press to the administration’s diktat. The general impression is that many news articles critical of the government are beginning to “disappear” from the online archives of newspapers. The intimidation and harassment of individual scribes who have refused to compromise on their journalistic independence lays bare the government’s intent.
Fahad Shah was not the only person to be summoned in February 2022. As per a news article published in Daily Excelsior , a Jammu-based English daily, a well-known scribe and TV commentator was also summoned. Otherwise known for posting fiery critical comments about the government’s excesses in the Kashmir valley, the journalist in question has gone into hibernation and disappeared from social media.
Controversial media policy
The government’s bid to control the media in Kashmir was apparent as early as May 2020, when it came out with a controversial Media Policy. The 53-page document enunciated various dos and don’ts for mediapersons. It enables the government to influence news content by conferring on it the power to decide what constitutes “fake, anti-national or unethical” news. Under this policy, the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) can monitor the media and initiate action against an individual or an organisation for violation of its guidelines. The policy says: “Any individual or group indulging in fake news, unethical or anti-national activities or in plagiarism shall be de-empanelled, besides being proceeded against under law.”
The Media Policy also introduces a set of new stipulations on advertisements: “ … DIPR will not release advertisements to such newspapers, publications and journals which incite or tend to incite communal passions, preach violence, violate broad norms of public decency or carry out any acts or propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.” By 2022, the impact of these coercive stipulations is there for everybody to see, with a large section of the local press keeping mum about the government’s excesses.
Among other incidents of harassment of journalists, the Jammu and Kashmir Cyber Police invoked the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against two Kashmiri journalists, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra, in April 2020 even as the country and the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past one year, the police have been summoning various journalists to police stations; more often than not these are purely arbitrary exercises with no legal protocols being followed. Several Kashmiri journalists who reached out to Frontline in the past few months said they had received calls from the Criminal Investigation Department and, in several instances, were asked to fill up forms giving details about their assets, bank accounts and kin. Frontline has a copy of the questionnaire. It requires journalists to declare whether they have any political allegiance, whether FIRs have been filed against them and whether they have been convicted in any case and whether they have relatives or acquaintances living in Pakistan. The questionnaire also requires them to draft a note on their “present and past activities”.
Although it is impossible to gather documentary evidence about what is transpiring in Kashmir given its reputation as a black box when it comes to any security-related information, this reporter, through his sources, has compiled a list of more than 30 journalists who were either summoned to various police stations or received calls for background checks. At least four well-known journalists embedded with national dailies and weeklies were summoned to police stations. Ostensibly, this was an investigation into stories they had done, but essentially, it was about sounding a note of warning.
There are multiple instances of the authorities manhandling scribes. Auqib Javeed, Mudasir Qadri, Junaid Rafiq, Azaan Javed are among those who were thrashed in the line of duty. Javeed’s case was particularly terrorising. In September 2020, the reporter, who works with a Srinagar-based English daily, was slapped by a masked man inside a police station in Srinagar. Before that, Javeed had done a story alleging that the cyber branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police was intimidating Twitter users who posted opinions critical of the police. Around the same time, the Kashmiri reporters Fayaz Ahmad, Mudasir Qadri and Junaid Rafiq were beaten up in south Kashmir while they were in the field.