State intimidation forces Kashmiri journalists to self-censor

Quratulain Rehbar

Independent journalist Shakir Mir was interviewing people about a gunfight on 17 September 2020 in Srinagar’s Batamaloo, when the family at whose house the gunfight had occurred and neighbours accused soldiers of stealing jewellery.

Mir intended to begin the story with this allegation of theft, but he was worried about the repercussions.

Eleven months earlier, The Kashmir Walla, an independent website, reported a similar theft of valuables during a firefight.

Shortly after, editor-in-chief Fahad Shah was summoned by the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police and questioned about his organisation’s reporting.

“I held back and only tucked away the detail in a small quote,” Mir said, adding that this was not the first time he had left out uncomfortable facts in his stories for fear of unnecessary police attention.

Another journalist, who didn’t want to be named, recounted an incident from 2019 when a family in a south Kashmir village was beaten by security forces soon after they discovered the family had spoken to the reporter about how the alleged harassment of young men in south Kashmir had led some of them to militancy.

“If my work is putting anyone in trouble, how would I do it?” the reporter said, adding that he had stopped pursuing stories that highlighted harassment by security forces.

In Kashmir, one of the world’s most-militarised conflict zones, and a dateline that has virtually disappeared from mainstream Indian newspapers and television channels, journalists employ a variety of tactics to bypass state pressure.

They stay away from “controversial” stories and downplay or hold back critical information. They keep sources and the people quoted in their stories anonymous. Sometimes, they even conceal their bylines.

Indeed, many reporters who write for Article 14 are anxious that headlines do not appear antagonistic to the police, army or the government.
The dangers of being a journalist in Kashmir are only too real.

Since 2019, according to the Kashmir Press Club (KPC), at least five Kashmiri journalists have had criminal cases filed against them, with at least five journalists summoned to police stations in the course of their work.

On 5 March 2020, Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) released a report that cited 14 examples of a surge in harassment of journalists and forced violations of the confidentiality of their sources in Kashmir since 2019.

In September 2020, an Article 14 reporter was summoned by police of the cyber wing, slapped twice and intimidated over five hours for a story he wrote on cyber bullying.

Reporters and photojournalists are routinely attacked by security forces while reporting stories.

In other words, Kashmiri journalists are intimidated for merely doing their jobs, as the Editors Guild of India noted on 8 March.

The Guild said it was “shocked by the casual manner in which the editors of Kashmir-based publications are routinely detained by security forces for reporting or for their editorials”.

The menacing of the media is not new to Kashmir and was largely responsible for the erosion of India’s global ranking on press freedom even before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.

In 2014, when Modi first came to power, India ranked 140 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, 18 places lower than its 122 rankings in 2010, largely on account of the restraints placed on the media in Kashmir.

The slide continued after 2014, but the life of Kashmiri journalists significantly worsened after August 2019, when the region was stripped of its special constitutional status.

On 4 March 2021, when US government-funded non-profit Freedom House downgraded India’s democratic status from “free” to “partly free” in its report ‘Democracy Under Siege’, Kashmir, which it rates separately, was downgraded to “not free” from “partly free”.

The report said that Kashmir’s changed status was “due to the Indian government’s abrupt revocation of the region’s autonomy, the postponement or elimination of legislative elections, and a security crackdown that sharply curtailed civil liberties and included mass arrests of local politicians and activists”.

RSF cited a similar reason when India fell by two places to 142 out of 180 countries in its 2020 press freedom index.

The media watchdog said India’s ranking was heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir, after the government put the valley under a communications blackout “making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison”.

Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy, said that self-censorship had increased in the region in response to state threats and intimidation.

“The Indian government tries to control the narrative by trying to control what sort of stories come out of Kashmir, and, in turn, they have furthered the environment of fear and harassment for the press,” Iftikhar said.

When 2021 began on a cautionary note for Kashmiri journalists with the police accusing two media organisations of publishing “fake news” against the Indian army, it was an indication of things to come.

The J&K police began an investigation against The Kashmir Walla’s Yashraj Sharma and The Kashmiryat’s Mir Junaid, for their reports about the army forcing a school in south Kashmir’s Shopian to celebrate Republic Day.

They were accused of violating sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code,1860.

A court in J&K denied anticipatory bail to Sharma and his editor, Shah, which means that they can be arrested anytime the government chooses.

Shah said he was not surprised by the underreporting of such incidents in daily newspapers. He believed there were dozens of similar stories from Kashmir that journalists had stayed away from reporting.

“Journalists are scared, but I don’t blame them. There are situations when you need to think of your life more than a story,” said Shah. “Many people do that, and some don’t.”

In the last two months, at least three more incidents of harassment, beating, and filing first information reports (FIR) against journalists have been reported.

On 12 February, a case was lodged against Bandipora-based freelancer Sajad Gul for “rioting, trespassing, and assault.” He was accused of taking part in “illegal demonstration against home demolitions”.

“My hands shiver whenever I try to write a story now,” he said. “It has impacted my mental health and I am unable to think properly when I have to work.”

Gul, also a student of journalism, tweeted that he missed an examination paper because he had to appear in court regarding his case.

Gul said his family is now pressuring him to leave journalism and find a government job to avoid any further trouble.

On 5 March, Shafat Farooq, a multimedia journalist with the BBC, and freelancer Saqib Majeed, accused the police of heckling and attacking them while they covered protests outside the Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar.

Farooq was moved to Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a “soft injury” in his back. “I was caught on the wrong side of the clashes between police and protesters and assaulted,” he said.

Later that day, Kashmir Walla’s Shah was summoned to a police station in Srinagar for publishing a video of protesters clashing with police. He said the police questioned him for three hours about the video before releasing him.

“When will this stop? Beating up, thrashing, insulting, humiliating, harassing journalists during work doesn’t stop.

Again our colleagues are beaten up by police. Kashmir journalist bodies need to be proactive about this before no journalist is left,” Shah tweeted after he left the police station.

In its statement, The Editors Guild of India demanded an atmosphere that allowed the media to work freely. Citing the recent summoning of Shah, the Guild statement noted that “this is the third time that Shah was detained for his writing”.

Shams Irfan, a journalist who has extensively covered human rights violations in the region, said there were “continuous attempts to silence Kashmiri journalists and make them follow a state-sponsored narrative”.

He added that the trouble usually begins when a journalist starts “questioning the manufactured narrative”.

“Because of the atmosphere of fear we are not able to report everything that needs to be told and that is our biggest loss,” he said.

[Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. The article was first published in web portal]