Press under fire in Kashmir

Journalists who try to report on the situation in the beleaguered state are often beaten and jailed as India keeps the area in lockdown by cutting off all lines of communication.

Intimidation, harassment and coercion of local media and strict restrictions on foreign press have been the hallmarks of the ongoing communications blackout in disputed Jammu and Kashmir. This unprecedented repression of press in the Himalayan state was enforced after the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government annulled the region’s special status on 5 August 2019. 

Indian forces harassed, physically abused and detained local journalists, as well as deliberately targeted media personnel to deter them from reporting the fallout of Delhi’s unpopular and unilateral decision.

On the day the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government imposed a curfew on the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, and sent the area into an information black-hole, I, along with three other journalists attempted to reach the capital Srinagar’s primary press club, with the hope of accessing the internet to ascertain the reason for such a massive lockdown. Initially, no one knew what Delhi had been planning and why such measures were imposed. 

After negotiating our way through several checkpoints that had been erected all across the city, we arrived at the main check-post on Zero Bridge, a historic overpass that separates the upper parts of Srinagar city with the central and downtown areas. Several dozen Indian paramilitary personnel, who were being directed by a senior officer, manned this critical juncture.

After showing our identity and press cards, we were directed to the commanding officer for his consent to cross the bridge. As the officer looked through our IDs without uttering a word, a car with a press sticker approached the barricaded bridge. He aggressively shouted at his subordinate to stop this car specifically and loudly proclaimed: “These journalists are real troublemakers, and we have to teach them a lesson.” After enquiring why we wanted to cross, he allowed us to move but cautioned us that we were doing so at our “own risk”, and may not be allowed to pass through the same point again. 

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On the second day of the clampdown, we decided to go to the downtown area to ascertain the situation in the most volatile parts of the city. This time around, a different paramilitary group was manning the bridge. While checking our IDs again, the new officer taunted that we didn’t look anything like journalists but rather more like “brothers of Burhan Wani” – the charismatic Kashmiri rebel leader whose killing in 2016 triggered open defiance against Indian rule and is largely credited with reviving and legitimising the image of militancy in the region. This was, again, a sarcastic reference to imply that all Kashmiris, irrespective of their background, were “terrorists” and “militants” in the eyes of Indian forces.

On 11 August, I was accompanying two journalists from Delhi and one from the United States, who was freelancing for US-based NPR and Intercept. Information of a massive protest in the Soura area of Srinagar city had been trickling in through word of mouth, and we attempted to reach the locality in anticipation of another protest demonstrations. After negotiating our way through several barricades, we arrived at a fourth and final checkpoint, where both Indian paramilitary and the special counterinsurgency group of Kashmir police were positioned. 

When we informed the officer that we were journalists and trying to reach Soura – where the government had been claiming no protest demonstrations occurred – the policeman asked me to get out of the car. He had probably realised I was a local journalist accompanying non-local members of the press. To make an example of me, he lined me up against the road divider and hit me with a fiberglass rod, abused and threatened dire consequences if I didn’t leave the spot immediately. “If I see you, I will make sure your bones are broken,” he shouted at me while I limped back to the car.

Silencing the press through fear and intimidation

According to a report by the International Federation for Human Rights, also known as FIDH, the communication blockade in Kashmir has “effectively ensured that alleged human rights violations in the form of illegal arrests, detentions under the PSA (Public Safety Act), beatings, harassment and destruction of private property at the hands of armed forces remain unreported and therefore unaccounted for.” 

The Paris-based body noted that newspapers have been “forced” to publish a reduced number of pages because of the unavailability of the internet and the restrictions on journalists’ movements. “Journalists have also faced reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing clampdown and mass arrests.”

Qazi Shibli, editor of news website The Kashmiriyat, was detained by police on 25 July for allegedly reporting troop movements on Twitter. As per reports, Shibli was charged under the draconian PSA on 8 August and is being held on charges that include “waging war against the Union of India” and seeking “to motivate the people to work for seceding the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the union of India”. His friends and family still do not know his whereabouts.

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On 14 August, the Kashmir police arbitrarily arrested a local journalist, Irfan Amin Malik, during a midnight raid at his home in South Kashmir’s Tral town. Malik, who works with Kashmir’s largest English newspaper, Greater Kashmir, became the first journalist detained following Delhi’s clampdown. He was subsequently released but neither the police nor the state authorities disclosed the charges against Malik.

Later, a photojournalist from South Kashmir’s Kulgam was picked up by the Indian Army and Special Operations Group and detained for five days. He was released on 16 September, but no reasons for his detention were revealed. Haziq Qadri, a correspondent for the news website Brut India, was also detained for about 12 hours on 11 August and his phone was confiscated for recording videos of the lockdown.

Despite valid identity documents and movement passes, journalists were harassed and told not to move, photograph or speak to anyone. In some cases the journalists were also asked by the authorities to reveal their sources of information. According to a statement issued by the Srinagar-based Kashmir Press Club on 3 September, police summoned a local journalist and ordered him to reveal his sources for a story on the number of arrests recorded in the Kashmir valley.

Indian forces and state authorities in the region have always remained hostile towards journalists in the valley, and often the local press face the ire of the state for reporting on subjects that raise questions on the functioning of the Indian state and forces in the region. However, the present blockade of internet and mobile services along with severe restrictions on movement has not only left them paralysed but also very fearful in the wake of physical and verbal harassment.

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On 8 September, Indian forces harassed Rifat Mohidin, a correspondent for Chandigarh-based newspaper The Tribune, when she was on the way to the media facilitation centre set up by the authorities for local journalists. The personnel rained their batons on the reporter’s car “for several minutes” as she sat inside. Kashmir’s Women Journalists Association issued a statement to condemn the attack, and noted that the journalists working in the region often faced “disrespect and abuses” by forces. “Scores of journalists have complained of harassment and misbehaviour by government forces. Despite valid ID proof and curfew passes, journalists are not allowed free and smooth movement,” it said.

On 31 August, Immigration officials at Delhi’s International Airport stopped a senior Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, from boarding his flight to Germany for an editors’ conference of the Deutsche Welle, a state-owned public broadcaster. The Indian officials cited “a request by the [Central] Intelligence Bureau” as the reason for stopping the journalist. Amnesty International said the “attempts to restrict the freedom of the press”, like in the case of Geelani, had further “compounded the effect” of the communication blackout.

The Kashmiri Working Journalists Association (KWJA) – a local group of journalists – issued a statement noting that the local media has been rendered “defunct”. Terming the situation “utterly disabling and perilous”, the KWJA said that because of “harassment and pressure from government agencies,” the local press was “avoiding reports about the human rights violations, even skipping reports about local protests, clashes, large-scale arrests and detentions, not daring to question the official propaganda, and sticking to government hand-outs, even if they fail to make sense on the ground”.

Earlier in September, at least three prominent journalists in the valley, two of whom represented Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), were directed by authorities to vacate their government-issued properties. Amnesty termed this move as “nothing but harassment aimed at coercing journalists [into toeing] a particular line”.

India’s history of muzzling press freedom

Global human rights bodies and media watchdogs have regularly highlighted that freedom of expression and the press in Kashmir are muzzled by the Indian state. “Foreign reporters are barred from Kashmir and the internet is often disconnected there,” noted Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – an advocacy group dealing with issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press. “When not detained, Kashmiri journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by paramilitaries acting with the central government’s tacit consent,” it asserted. India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, dropping two places in rankings from 138th in 2018.

In August last year, Kashmir police arrested Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who is with the Kashmir Narrator monthly magazine, for doing a cover story on Burhan Wani. He was arrested on charges of aiding insurgents even though his editor and family say he was merely reporting on them. In August, he was awarded the Press Freedom Award by American National Press Club, which noted that: “Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir.”

In December 2017, state police arrested French journalist and documentary filmmaker Paul Comiti for filming protests in the valley and deported him from the region. In 2016, following mass protests across Kashmir, Zuhaib Maqbool, a freelance photojournalist, suffered injuries in both eyes due to pellets, and eventually lost his sight in one eye.

The ongoing communications clampdown in Kashmir seems evidently directed not only at stopping large public gatherings and imposing collective punishment on the resentful population. It is also aimed at muzzling the press to stop voices of dissent reaching the international community. 

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