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How India muzzles Kashmir's journalists

April 03, 2022
topics: Freedom of Expression
by: Nusrat Sidiq
located in: India
tags: censorship, India, Kashmir, press freedom

Journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir are facing a harsh crackdown by state agencies that exploit India's stringent anti-terrorism laws to quell dissent. Increasing threats and arrests of journalists in the regoin have led to a spike in self-censorship and have taken a toll on the latters' mental health.

Several journalists in the conflict-torn Himalayan region, which has been disputed over by India and Pakistan, told FairPlanet that the authorities have fostered 'systematic fear' to muzzle press freedom in order to control and twist the narrative of the situation on the ground.

Journalists’ fear has significantly grown after Fahad Shah, editor of the weekly magazine Kashmirwalla, and his reporter Sajjad Gul, were arrested by state police for sedition and criminal conspiracy charges under the Indian anti-terror law and sections of the Indian Penal code.

Despite the court granting bail, the authorities in the region detained both of the journalists under the Public Safety Act, a law that permits to jail a person without trial for up to six months and can be extended for up to two years.

On 2 June, 2020 the government in the region rolled out a new 53-page media policy, which gave unrestricted powers to mid-level bureaucrats in the local administration to determine what constitutes "fake news" or "plagiarism" and what is "unethical," "seditious" or "anti-national."

A recent police dossier against journalist Fahad Shah mentions that he has never written on 'Good Governance', reflecting how dangerously the policy can be used to frame the journalists.

A journalist working with an Indian news portal told FairPlanet on condition of anonymity that this policy was introduced to criminalise reporting that is critical of the government in any way.

"This fear has wilted the local press largely now," he added.

Journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir have long contended with various threats and found themselves caught between warring sides. However, their situation dramatically worsened since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, throwing it under a severe security and communication lockdown amid a media blackout.

Journalists in danger

This move by the authorities saw a surge in attacks against journalists that included physical assaults, arrests, threats, summons and intimidation.

According to Human Rights Watch, "at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases for their reporting" since 2019.

Aakash Hassan, a freelance journalist who writes for international media outlets, told FairPlanet that the crackdown has restricted his ability to work freely.

"Every time I think of working on a story or writing even a tweet, I have to look over my shoulder. The situation for journalists is getting worse with each passing day and I am not the only one facing this," he said.

Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was quoted by Al-Jazeera in January this year saying that the Indian authorities appear determined to thwart journalists from doing their jobs.

In a statement on 9 March, the CPJ stated that the rapidly growing number of journalist detentions reflects India’s "utter intolerance" for press freedom and peaceful criticism of the state.

Last year, Reporters without Borders, a media watchdog, ranked India 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. According to the report, India is among the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism in.

Journalism industry on the rocks

Since 2019, nearly 60-70 percent of journalists who worked in various districts of Kashmir for local press outlets have disappeared.

Media experts say this resulted from a deliberate attempt by the authorities to quash local journalism, and that now even local issues unrelated to the conflict are not reported any more.

"Hardly you will find stories in newspapers done by journalists on the ground, there is no scope for it now", Mukhtar Ahmad, a senior journalist in the region who preferred using an alias due to fear of potential repercussions, told FairPlanet.

"The local press is filled mostly by government press releases and agency copies," he added.

A local newspaper, the Kashmir Reader, which began to operate in 2012 has laid off nearly 90 percent of its staff due to the fact that for the last three and half years the paper has operated without any government advertisements - very often a main source of income for local newspapers.

"I had to lay off my staff because I was not able to pay them due to the deep financial crunch," Haji Hayat, the owner of the daily, said.

Hayat added that the government’s decision to ban advertisements in the newspaper in February 2019 came days after the Pulwama attack in which around 40 paramilitaries of the Indian Central Reserve Force were killed.  

"The order was passed verbally, there was no written order till date" he said. "It is a critical situation for us to survive."

Financial strain

Almost every journalist FairPlanet spoke to said that they are reeling under intense stress from this situation with financial hardships hanging over their heads.

"I have become handicapped with this situation and killed four stories last month fearing reprisal from the authorities," Kaisar, a journalist who only wanted to be identified by his first name, told FairPlanet.

He said that the situation created for journalists in KAshmir denies them press freedom, which in turn impacts them mentally and financially as well.

"I don't know how long this will continue, but it is hard to endure it now," Kaisar said.

Self-censorship

For the media presence that remains, self-censorship has significantly grown since the change in 2019.

An editor of a local news portal told FairPlanet that they have been self-censoring and canceling plenty of stories due to censorship and the backlash that comes with publishing such pieces.

"Almost every day we are killing stories that are important. But we can’t survive much longer if we publish these stories," the editor spoke of the dilemma.

In January this year, the government shuttered the Press Club of Kashmir, a body of journalists that used to be a safe space for journalists.

Mental stress

Qazi Zaid, an editor and owner of the news portal Free Press Kashmir, told FairPlanet that due to the growing uncertainty surrounding press freedom in the region he has been seeing a therapist for the last two years to manage his anxieties.

"There is no escape from this situation, it has badly impacted my mental health," Zaid said.

Two other journalists, who spoke to FairPlanet on condition of anonymity, said that they are also seeking help from a therapist to deal with the deep mental strain arising from the incessant surveillance by the state, police summons, online threats and abuse that they are receiving because of their work.

In an article written by freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar in January this year, the writer details how a police and army interrogation followed by a hate crime in the form of auctioning her with a number of muslim women online on a derogatory application titled 'Bulli bai' triggered her panic attacks. Such panic attacks, she wrote, gripped her at public places, and she was haunted by fear for her family’s safety. For many months, she stated, she could not write.

"The situation for journalists is very bad and for me it got worse," Rehbar told FairPlanet. "I had to seek help for my mental health condition."

Ufra Mir, a Peace Psychologist from Kashmir and  founder at International Center for Peace Psychology who voluntarily works to help people cope up with the ramifications of living in conflict zones, told FairPlanet that Kashmir is a difficult place in general but particularly for journalists who wish to report from here, as it comes with various costs.

Mir underlined that she found Kashmiri journalists more vulnerable to stress because of different factors influencing them at the same time.

"It is the ongoing conflict, meeting deadlines, life- threats, wage issues and  consistently dealing with their own pain, that journalists here are fighting against," Mir said.

Earlier this month, a fact-finding committee of the Press Council of India found that the news media in Jammu and Kashmir region, particularly in Kashmir, is slowly being choked because of the extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.

"There is a long list of journalists who have been individually harassed. The object is to create a fear and intimidation to fall in with the government line," the report reads.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the newspaper Kashmir Times told FairPlanet that the curbs against journalists are "scary" and "bone chilling."

"Even one word of fair criticism against the government can land you in jail now," Bhasin said.

Image by Anantha Krishnan

Article written by:
IMG_20210320_122251
Nusrat Sidiq
Author
India
Indian paramilitary forces arrest Aadil Farooq, a local journalist working with a local news agency. Allegedly, two grenades were recovered from him following a grenade attack in Srinagar.
© Yawar Nazir/Getty Images
Kashmiri journalists hold placards during a protest against the high handedness of Indian forces in Srinagar.
© Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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