Shooting the Messenger?Will the Kashmir news media survive the blackout to report from ground zero?

Kashmir’s news media has been stifled, heckled and silenced since the August 5 lockdown

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The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, imposed an unprecedented communications blackout in Jammu and Kashmir, after stripping the State of its special status on August 5. Restrictions came ahead of a speech announcing the revocation of the state’s autonomy by Amit Shah, India’s Home Minister. Shah made the televised address in the country’s parliament. A virtual information blackout has ensued ever since.

Speaking about the clampdown on the media, editors and rights groups have opined that by harassing journalists, the Indian government is effectively stifling reports of the unrest in Kashmir. Journalists aren’t able to report, they’re questioned if they move around and have been restricted from taking photos and videos and are always in fear of being arrested.

A spokesman of the Kashmir Press Club, which has around 300 members on its rolls, said the organisation had sent several reminders to the government for restoring internet and mobile phone connections to the club, newspaper offices and journalists.

India has had a long history with blocking communications, but the grave move in Kashmir is only likely to aggravate the fear and frustration among the Kashmiris. With reports of arrests, protests and casualties spread dire panic and aid uncertainty among the people, verified information from Kashmir is vital.

Systemic Clampdown

The problems of the Kashmir news media did not begin on August 5. On March 10 this year Kashmir newspapers – both English and Urdu, published blank front pages with a clear message: “In protest against unexplained denial of government advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader”.

The action against the two papers was taken after the Pulwama attack on the CRPF personnel on February 16.

In the past, the two dailies have never been barred from receiving state government advertisements, Bhat and Makhdoomi confirmed, but, both newspapers have been banned from receiving advertisements from the DAVP since September 2016. Kashmiri Reader was banned post-Burhan Wani’s killing for around three months for being “critical of India” from October 2 to December 28.

Since the ban was lifted, Kashmir Reader has not received any advertisement from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity. The newspaper has been incurring a loss of around Rs 3-4 lakhs per month since.

Journalist and political commentator, Gowhar Geelani said that this was seen as a collective punishment for the reporting from ground zero impartially and fairly.

It is the current BJP government that has pulled out all the stops – political and militaristic with regards to the conflict in Kashmir. The media already face a tough fight to report the truth from one of the most highly militarised zones in the world. Now, they seem to be losing the battle. The government has made all voices ‘invisible’. The uncalled for degree of surveillance, informal ‘investigations’ and unwarranted arrests, ad bans and restrictions on journalists’ mobility in certain areas has put the media into a state of rigor mortis.

Attacks, Detention and Arrests

Qazi Shibli, editor of news website The Kashmiriyat, was detained at a police station in south Kashmir on July 25, for allegedly reporting on troop movements in the valley on Twitter. He was later arrested under the Public Safety Act 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.” on August 8. The court order for his arrest was issued by the District Magistrate of Anantnag. His family still does not know where he is being held.

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 on August 10, a day before Eid al-Adha, as potential mobilizers for creating unrest, according to two local journalists who saw them after their arrest. Both remain in detention in a government-owned guest house in Kashmir’s Bandipora town.

On September 8, Rifat Mohidin was abused by policemen in the heart of Srinagar. Around half-a-dozen policemen rained their batons on her car ‘for several minutes’ as she sat inside, crying through ‘hell’.

Local news journalists were thrashed by the police on August 6 in downtown Srinagar for clicking photos of the barricade. The police took away their cameras and phones, deleted the photos, snatched their IDs and took a photo of their vehicle’s license plate.

Threats and violence by the police have become a common occurrence in the accounts of what reportage from behind the communications blockade looks like.

Aasif Sultan, a reporter for Kashmir Narrator, who has been behind bars for more than a year. He was arrested during a raid of his home in August 2018, months later was charged with “complicity” in “harbouring known terrorists,” and has been repeatedly interrogated and asked to reveal his sources in a cover story written about a militant leader slain in July 2016.

Shahana Butt, a senior TV journalist working with Press TV said that the blackout served as a hotbed for rumour-mongering and that she had never seen such a situation in her 11 years of working as a professional journalist in the valley.

Death of the Freedom of Expression

Even before the current crisis, it was difficult to get information out of J&K with the internet and mobile phone signals constantly being blocked. Amnesty International said that the communications blackout denied the Kashmiris their right to freedom of expression.

As the United Nations Security Council discussed Kashmir for the first time in 48 years,David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, described the communication blackout as “unprecedented” for a democratic society. He expressed his concern about the situation saying, “… this kind of shutdown interferes in a very disproportionate way with the rights of everyone in Kashmir to have access to information… “

Messiahs to the Rescue

Kashmiris around the country and the world were left bereft of any information of their loved ones in the State blackout after the abrogation on August 5. With no phones and no internet to quell horrid rumours and pacify people about the safety of their loved ones, Gulistan News, a New Delhi-based satellite news channel helped thousands of families outside of J&K get in touch with their relatives through a helpline telephone service.

The channel received and aired more than 30,000 messages in the form of voice calls, text messages and video calls from distressed family members who suffered from radio silence since August 5.

Will the media ever rise from the ashes?

Media persons in Kashmir are battling with a rumour that the government has prepared a list of 32 journalists who might be arrested soon. Greater Kashmir, did not publish a single editorial or opinion piece on the ongoing crisis from August 6 to September 1. It did not even publish about the arrest of its own reporter, Irfan Malik.

A journalist’s fundamental responsibility is to report the truth ‘as is’. But between reporting the truth and running for safety, what will a journalist choose anymore?

Compiled by Priyanka Kavish



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