India: A year of throttling journalism in Kashmir

On the first anniversary of the Indian government’s sudden decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its semi-autonomy and simultaneously disconnect telecommunications there, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has examined the current state of press freedom in this northern territory with the help of its journalists. In the light of their alarming accounts, RSF calls on the Indian government to immediately change its policy or go down in history as a regime that deprived the region’s 8 million inhabitants of reliable news and information at the height of a pandemic.


The streets of Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, were completely deserted this morning. The only human presence were the paramilitaries who are occupying the city and patrolling all of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a result of an order issued two days ago by the government in New Delhi to impose a “full curfew” throughout the territory ahead of the anniversary.


For Kashmir’s citizens, this is a sad reminder of what happened a year ago, on 5 August 2019, when it became one of the world’s biggest news and information black holes, with all forms of communication – Internet, mobile data, TV and fixed-line telephone – suddenly suspended. The Kashmir Valley, from which foreign reporters had already been barred for several months, was cut off from the world. As RSF pointed out in February, New Delhi has succeeded in imposing the longest e-curfew in history.


Democracies don’t do this


“Working has been hell for journalists in Kashmir for the past year,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Drastic controls on information, obstructing the dissemination of articles and videos, intimidation by the security forces in the field, every kind of judicial harassment and violation of the confidentiality of sources – the list of press freedom violations by the Indian authorities in Kashmir is unworthy of a democracy. If Narendra Modi’s government maintains these policies, it will go down in history as the one that deprived 8 million citizens of reliable news and information in mid-pandemic.”


One of the latest edifying example of this situation was the arrest of Qazi Shibli, the editor of The Kashmiriyat news website, on 31 July. The police confirmed yesterday that he is being held in Srinagar prison but gave no reason for his arrest. He was released in April after being detained provisionally for nine months for nothing more than a tweet.


Aside from this kind of police harassment, Kashmir’s journalists are subjected to far more pernicious curbs on their freedom, starting with the suspension of high-speed mobile Internet. This is one of the biggest problems for journalists, Kashmir Press Club vice-president Moazum Mohammad told RSF. “Many of us don’t have high-speed fixed-line Internet, so we have to go to the media facilitation centre to work.”


Risk of infection


This “media facilitation centre” was set up in Srinagar as a face-saving tactic after telecommunications has been shut down for ten days. It consists of ten computers with Internet connections. What with the inadequate number of workstations and complete lack of respect for confidentiality, RSF already called it an absurdity last November. Now Covid-19 has compounded its flaws. “In the pandemic, it has become almost impossible to work in such a crowded place as the media centre,” Mohammad said.


Having to rely on a facility controlled by the central government is a major challenge for independent journalists not working in newsrooms. Kashmir Walla assistant editor Rayan Naqash told RSF: “I went to the media facilitation centre a couple of times when I was on deadline and my Internet wasn’t working at home. It’s simply impossible to maintain social distancing there. The risks were quite obvious.”


Safwat Zargar, who reports for the news portal, told RSF that the very idea that journalists have to go to a government facility to use the Internet at a time when people around the world are working from home and practicing physical distancing is “just terrible.”


“This Internet ban not only jeopardizes the lives of these journalists but also puts their families at risk,” he said. “And the absurdity is that the government wants us journalists to be thankful that they created this centre.”


No coverage outside Srinagar


Coverage of parts of Kashmir outside Srinagar has become virtually impossible because of the difficulties of working there, freelancer Quratulain Rehbar says. “I am from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district where the Internet is usually disconnected for one reason or another, such as gunfights,” she said. “The Internet cuts are the only reason I’m based in Srinagar, far from my home.”


She added: “I go to the media facilitation centre to email my stories to media outlets, which is already tiresome. But, because of the slow-speed Internet, I often miss my deadlines. And I haven't been able to apply for any fellowships or grants because of the Internet blackouts.”


Official disdain


Rehbar, whose strings include the investigative website The Wire, says she and her colleagues are also the victims of the disdain that officials show towards information obtained from sources they don’t control directly. “Our stories are usually incomplete because we didn't get a quote from authorities,” she said.


“As a freelance journalist, this affects me a lot because, when I’m reporting for any national or international outlet, they need all sides of the story.” As a result, she has sometimes had to scrap stories or omit information because officials refused to either confirm or deny it.


Last March, RSF reported a rise in cases of police intimidation and violations of the confidentiality of sources. There has been little improvement since then. “There have been incidents in which reporters and photojournalists were roughed up by cops although they were just doing their jobs as journalists,” Srinagar-based freelancer Syed Ali Safvi said. “Harassing reporters by summoning them to police stations poses a serious threat to the free flow of information.”


Intimidating journalists


Everything indicates that journalists are being forced to perform a balancing act if they want to keep working independently. And the security forces often try to throw them off balance, as was the case last April, when RSF reported a harassment campaign in which three journalists were arrested in the space of just three days. The criminal accusations brought against them were all completely baseless and probably had no other aim but to intimidate all journalists.


All the harassment and obstruction of journalists is deliberate policy, Zargar thinks. “All this points to one thing, that journalists need to behave in a certain way acceptable to state,” he said. “And this is being done in a very brazen manner. Now that most of the local media have already been brought to heel, I think the government wants to control independent journalists and those writing for prestigious national and international outlets.”


Chinese-style censorship


To this end, the New Delhi-controlled government of Jammu and Kashmir unveiled an Orwellian project for regulating the media in June. Called the “New Media Policy,” it allows the government to control and censor all journalistic content deemed to constitute “fake news,” without providing any definition of what that means.


“What with widespread self-censorship within the local press and India’s national media already being subjected to intermittent intimidation because of their coverage, the new media policy has clearly doomed journalism in Kashmir,” one journalist said on condition of anonymity.


It means that central government-appointed bureaucrats are now able to say what is true and what is “fake,” and to decide what is acceptable and what is “anti-national.” “This looks like the Chinese state censorship model,” Zargar said.


China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while India is ranked 142nd after falling gradually for years and falling another two places in 2020, in part because of the press freedom violations in Kashmir.