Press Freedom

Kashmir’s news media faces existential crisis amid restrictions, arrests

On August 5, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a strict communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir after stripping the state of its limited autonomous status under the Indian constitution. A month later as the restrictions continued, CPJ India Correspondent Kunal Majumder traveled to Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, to speak to local journalists and find out how the communication blackout and other restrictions have affected the already-difficult working environment for Kashmiri media.

Qazi Shibli, editor of news website The Kashmiriyat, was detained at a police station in south Kashmir on July 25, after allegedly reporting on troop movements on Twitter. On August 4, I exchanged messages with his sister via a social media app. Shibli’s family had largely kept quiet, because the police had promised to release him soon. Around 11 p.m., I messaged Inspector General of Police Swayam Prakash Pani, asking him to intervene. To my surprise, he responded and said he would look into the matter.

That was the last I heard from Pani or Shibli’s family.

When I reached Srinagar nearly a month later, on August 30, I finally learned more about what happened to Shibli. He had been charged under the Public Safety Act on August 8, according to a court order by the district magistrate of Anantnag, which I reviewed. He is held on charges including “waging war against the Union of India,” “creating fear and panic among common people,” and being “deeply involved in disrupting the peaceful atmosphere” and seeking “to motivate the people to work for seceding the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the union of India.”

His family still does not know where he is being held. Initially they were told that he was being held at the central jail in Srinagar. But they couldn’t find him there, according to journalist Yashraj Sharma, who wrote about Shibli’s plight for Foreign Policy. Then, police said he had been shifted to Agra, where many political prisoners, academics, and journalists from Kashmir are currently being held, his brother Qazi Shoaib told Sharma. His family searched for him in Agra but couldn’t find him. They were told he may be in Varanasi. His brother traveled 380 miles to Varanasi–still, he wasn’t there. On August 27, his Anantnag, Kashmir-based website put out an article, which was uploaded from outside the region, with a headline: “Our editor has been arrested, please help us find him.”

Since August 5, at least three more journalists have been arrested. Greater Kashmir’s Irfan Malik was arrested on August 14 without any explanation, and released on August 16. MT Rasool of Rising Kashmir and Sheikh Saleem of Kashmir Convener were arrested onAugust 10, a day before Eid al-Adha,as potential mobilizers for creating unrest, according to two local journalists who saw them after their arrest. Bothremain in detention in a government-owned guest house in Kashmir’s Bandipora town. Rasool and Saleem also hold separate government jobs, and the police have not clarified the reason for their arrest. Nevertheless, these arrests have sent a chilling message to Kashmir’s journalist community.

CPJ emailed the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, to request comment on the reasons for the arrests of Shibli, Rasool, and Saleem, but did not receive a response. CPJ sent the same questions to Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal over email and WhatsApp, which shows as read, but did not receive a response. CPJ also sent the questions to Director General of Police Dilbag Singh via WhatsApp message, which shows as read, but did not receive a response.

While reporters from the Indian and international media, including me, are allowed to travel and report on the ongoing crisis in Kashmir, I received a reality check when I landed in Srinagar. How does one track down anyone in a city of 1.2 million without mobile phone service or Google maps? Some people have landlines, but who asks for landline numbers in today’s day and age? I was told by reporters returning from Kashmir that most journalists are available either in the media facilitation center or their offices in press colony or the press club.

Indeed, I found a few. For the rest, it was a struggle to locate them without the communications tools that journalists in today’s world have come to rely on.

My conversations with journalists and editors during and after my visit to Srinagar found that the communication blackout, the internet shutdown, limited access to government officials and politicians, strict controls on the flow of information, restrictions on travel, direct and indirect intimidation of journalists, and the long-running problem of dwindling government advertising revenue have pushed the Kashmiri news media to the brink of extinction.

A climate of fear

In the three days I spent in Srinagar, I met more than two dozen local journalists including editors and reporters working for local, national, and international newspapers and channels. No one would speak on the record, expressing fear of myriad forms of retribution. “The government will stop whatever little advertisements my newspaper is getting,” the editor of one periodical told me. “If they can drag out the former home minister of the country in the middle of the night and put him in jail, who am I?” asked another editor, from one of the most circulated newspapers. “The police have already threatened to charge me under PSA,” a journalist with a daily newspaper said, referring to the Public Safety Act.

According to Reuters, which cites a September 6 government report, nearly 4,000 people–including three former chief ministers, academics, and civil society activists–have been detained since August 5. While many have been released, Reuters cites an official saying that dozens are being arrested every day. Many journalists feel they might be next.

At least six well-known local journalists, including two who are associated with international outlets, told me about a rumor that suggests that the government has prepared a list of 32 journalists who might be arrested soon. No one has seen the list or knows anyone personally who has seen it. Yet everyone is talking about it. “I am told I’m number four on that list. I have been getting phone calls from my well-wishers and being asked to be careful with my coverage,” a journalist with an international outlet told me. “I don’t know if such a list exists or not. Honestly I don’t care about it. But it has already done the trick with many local journalists,” a journalist with another international outlet said.

Malik, the governor, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the alleged list. CPJ sent the same question to Kansal over email and WhatsApp, which shows as read, but did not receive a response. CPJ also sent the questions to Singh via WhatsApp message, which shows as read, but did not receive a response.

Over the last month, I have also heard about a number of incidents when the armed forces have specifically targeted Kashmiri reporters. They have been stopped at barricades. They have been pulled out of cars. They have been temporarily detained. A Delhi-based journalist told me how she was traveling to Soura area of Srinagar with a bunch of non-locals and a Kashmiri journalist when security forces stopped their car. The soldier specifically asked the Kashmiri journalist to step out and thrashed him. This story was narrated to me again when I was in Srinagar, by another journalist who had been told about the incident by the victim.

On September 8, Rifat Mohidin, a reporter with national daily newspaper The Tribune, was stopped at a checkpoint in Jehangir Chowk in Srinagar on her way to the government-run media center. After refusing to allow her to proceed in spite of carrying a curfew pass, around half-a-dozen policemen hit her car with batons for several minutes as she sat inside crying, according to Indian daily The Telegraph.

Malik, the governor, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the allegations of assaults on journalists and their vehicles. CPJ sent the same questions to Kansal over email and WhatsApp, which shows as read, but did not receive a response. CPJ also sent the question to Singh via WhatsApp message, which shows as read, but did not receive a response.

Another local journalist who works for an international news channel told me he was specifically stopped by a paramilitary officer at a checkpoint on his way from south Kashmir. When he protested, she said: Do whatever you want to do, I’m not letting you go. He told CPJ that he believed he was stopped because he was from an international channel that is generally considered balanced in its coverage of the Kashmir crisis. “I decided not to argue with her and just take another route to Srinagar,” he said. Another local journalist told me it is easier to move around without a press card. “Security forces seem to have been told that local journalists shouldn’t be allowed to move around freely,” he said.

On September 18, representatives of Kashmir Press Club met Inspector General of Police Pani to demand immediate restoration of mobile calls and internet services for journalists, and also an end to harassment by security personnel, according to a press release emailed by the press club to CPJ. Pani said security forces are being sensitized so that journalists are allowed to do their work without restrictions, and asked the press club to submit a list of accredited journalists and editors for restoration of their mobile phones, according to the press release. CPJ sent a WhatsApp message to Pani to confirm the details of the meeting, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Information warfare

“I can tell you what Donald Trump had for breakfast but I can’t tell you what is happening in Kashmir,” quipped an editor as he chatted with me in his empty newsroom in Srinagar. Apart from the daily briefing by a government spokesperson, there is no other source of information. In the absence of mobile phones and the internet, newspaper editors have not been able to contact their district reporters for over a month. “The government has relaxed usage of landline phones but then not everyone has a landline phone,” said a journalist who works with a leading English-language daily. Since the crisis began, newspapers in Kashmir have not been able to publish beyond a bare minimum number of pages. Most of the newspaper columns are filled with wire reports, items from the daily government briefing, and blown-up photographs. The few first-hand reports are from Srinagar.

Television reporters for Indian news channels have mostly stuck to reporting in and around the

media facilitation center set up by the government at a luxury hotel next to the United Nations office, which has become a nerve center for all media-related activities in Kashmir. “We don’t know anything except what the government is telling us in the evening briefing,” a journalist with a national news channel told me.

Some of the local journalists working for international news channels have traveled beyond Srinagar. They face different challenges. “Even the common people don’t trust the news media any more. They say news channels are lying about the reality on the ground in Kashmir. I have to convince them that I work for a global outlet and [am] doing my job without pushing the state’s narrative,” a local journalist who works for an international news channel told me.

At least two newspaper editors told me that they wanted to temporarily shut down their operations. “But we were told we must come out with at least 27 issues in a month or else our advertisement will be stopped by the government,” he said. “So we are forced to fill absolute rubbish to fill our pages. This gives an illusion to the outside world that everything is just fine in Kashmir.”

CPJ emailed Malik, the governor, to request comment on the allegations of threats to withdraw government advertising, but did not receive a response. CPJ sent the same question to Kansal over email and WhatsApp, which shows as read, but did not receive a response.

One of Kashmir’s leading daily newspapers, Greater Kashmir, did not publish a single editorial or opinion piece on the ongoing crisis from August 6 to September 1, according to a CPJ review of the paper’s content. The newspaper didn’t even cover the August 14 arrest of its own reporter, Irfan Malik.Greater Kashmir’s editor-in-chief and owner, Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo, was summoned by India’s National Investigation Authority (NIA) for questioning about his source of funding just weeks before the current crisis unfolded. The newspaper has also been stripped of all government advertisements. Kaloo did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment. A senior journalist who was with the paper until recently said the newspaper has cut down the salaries of their staff by nearly 75 percent. “With NIA summons and no government advertisement, Kaloo is left with no option but to fall in line,” he said.

Another newspaper editor, who initially published two editorials on the abrogation of Article 370 but has since refrained from writing anything as the newspaper’s point of view, was more blunt. “I do not want the government to shut down the newspaper because of a few editorials. My first responsibility is towards my staff. What will happen to them?” he asked me.

I had no answer.

A Srinagar-based correspondent with a privately owned Indian television channel best summed up the challenge for the average Kashmiri journalist. “Every day we do a balancing act between the truth and my safety. I do not know if we’re compromising both,” he said.

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