In Srinagar, the largest city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a small five-kilometer stretch along the high-security zone from Gupkar Road to the state secretariat of Indian-administered Kashmir has become the center of media activity. Every day, journalists gather in the basement of Sarovar Portico, a local hotel designated by the government as the “media center,” to file their reports.
The conference hall in the basement is packed. At least 100 journalists wait, sometimes for hours, to get their turn to access email via one of the four computers tucked in one corner of the hall. Most of the time, only two or three computers are accessible, since at least one is always occupied by an official of the state information department. Reporters write their stories on their laptops, copy them onto a thumb drive, and then try to quickly send them by email to their offices, via agonizingly slow internet connections. After waiting for hours, journalists sometimes find that their emails just refuse to load.
Meanwhile, government officials fill in the details of every call made by journalists, including the name of the person called, the reason for the call, and its duration.
Restrictions have created dueling narratives of what’s happening in Kashmir
While they wait, journalists are subjected to a steady stream of police updates. Police officials and district administrators read statements, invariably claiming that the situation in Kashmir is returning to normal, from a small podium erected in another corner of the room.
Since August 4, when the Indian government imposed a curfew in Kashmir and shut down all means of communication—landlines, mobile phones, and the internet—the four computers, a few telephones, and the police statements at the media center are all the access scores of reporters from the local, national, and international press have.
One reporter covering the conflict in the disputed territory says the restrictions on the press are unprecedented. Narrating the daily struggle to reach the newsroom, this reporter starts early in the morning to avoid Indian troop deployments and returns at night after the security services are back in their barracks. “At times I tell lies, like I am from police department; other times I am an official. Sometimes I get away, and at other times I am threatened to turn back,” says this person, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals.
The press crackdown in Kashmir coincided with the Indian government’s announcement of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, which safeguarded the semi-autonomous status of India’s only Muslim-majority state. Along with this decree came a lockdown and communication blockade in the entire Kashmir Valley, with its nearly eight million residents. Successive Indian governments have eroded the special status of Kashmir. The abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A has long been an explicit goal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir has been at the center of hostilities between India and Pakistan since India was partitioned along religious lines in 1947. Jammu and Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India. The accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India was conditional on the central Indian government’s power to legislate matters of defense, foreign affairs, and communication. The agreement also provided assurances that Kashmiris would be allowed to determine their own political future. Separatist groups, some of whom want independence and some of whom want to join Pakistan, have been active since the start of partition. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir.
While Kashmiris continue to suffer from a lack of essential supplies and emergency assistance, local journalists have come under increased scrutiny and censorship. Reporting from and about Kashmir has become increasingly perilous as the government has used state investigative agencies against journalists and media owners. Kashmir has over 170 registered newspapers, of which more than half are English and the rest in local languages. The largest circulating daily is Greater Kashmir, followed by another English daily, Rising Kashmir. Local reporters routinely brave the bullets and batons of the security forces as well as death threats from armed militants. Reporters Without Borders currently ranks India 140 out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.
The current restrictions have forced more than 80 percent papers to stop publication.
Only five papers managed to publish from Kashmir during the first few days of the curfew, and even then the number of pages was reduced from as much as 12 to two.
Having covered Kashmir for almost nine years as bureau chief for the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English-language circulating dailies, I’ve reported on protests and conflicts in the region before. In previous crises, reporting was still possible. What’s different now is how thorough the crackdown has been. There is a near complete absence of reporting by local Kashmiri journalists working in the national media. And even some of the most prominent Indian reporters say their reports are being killed by reputable newspapers in Delhi, while television reporters are given limited air time.
Anuradha Bhasin, editor-in-chief of the Kashmir Times, filed a petition seeking court intervention to restore freedom of the press in the region, so far without success. The Press Council of India, a statutory body created to protect freedom of the press, has supported restrictions, arguing they are in the national interest.
“Since August 5, we have not published our Srinagar edition of the newspaper,” Bhasin says. “For days we depended on television, reporting in international media, and government handouts. After almost 12 days we managed to get in touch with our Srinagar bureau. Since they have to file from the media center, some days they manage to send stories and others they don’t.” Bashin says she has yet to get in touch with her reporters from South and North Kashmir and the hilly districts of Jammu. Even in Srinagar, the reporting is confined to the high-security area, while suburban and downtown Srinagar remain inaccessible.
International media have had more success in getting stories out of Kashmir. Organizations like the BBC, Al Jazeera, and AFP use thumb drives to send stories to their bureaus in Delhi. “We would somehow manage to reach the airport and hand over pictures and articles on the drives to some Delhi-bound person,” says Tauseef Mustafa, a photojournalist working for AFP. “We would request people to call the phone number given, and our colleagues in Delhi would get the drives collected.”
Other organizations made more elaborate arrangements. “Delhi would send a person in one flight; we would hand over the news material in a drive, and he would take the next flight to Delhi,” says a photographer working for an international media group.
“It’s back to [the] 1990s when BBC radio and Voice of America were the only sources of authentic news,” says a resident of Lal Bazar near Srinagar’s old city. “In [Indian] national channels there is more noise than news. Earlier the news channels would demonize Kashmiris as stone-pelters; today, they want people to believe that Kashmiris are patriotic and looking forward to development in the name of abrogation of Article 370.”
The restrictions have created dueling narratives of what’s happening in Kashmir.
Crews from most Indian national news channels are reporting that Kashmir is returning to normal. No reports of arrests or unrest are aired on these channels. Some journalists from media outlets in Delhi claim they were taken for a helicopter tour of the city to show how there were no protests on ground. News channels also aired visuals of government security advisor, Ajit Doval, sharing a meal with a few Kashmiri men in a shutdown market as a sign of peace. Indian authorities have criticized the international media for presenting a false image of the situation in Kashmir.
The local Kashmiri heads of bureaus for Hindi news channels have not been on air since August 5. While the English-language channels initially allowed some airtime to Srinagar reports, much of the airtime is now taken by reporters based outside the region. “The last I came on air was August 5 morning,” says a reporter for a Hindi news channel who did not want to be named. “After that, I dress up in the morning, fight restrictions to reach the office; in fact, stayed a few days in the vicinity of my office to report. But very little of what I report goes on air, and I have never been called for a live report even once since then.”
“You won’t see any Kashmiri voices in these reports,” says one reporter working with an Indian news channel who also requested anonymity. “The reports from Srinagar would either have an official speaking or the reporters would be giving analysis of the situation on the ground—without any ground reporting.”
While Indian news channels report positive developments, Kashmir and the four Muslim-majority districts of Jammu continue to be under lockdown. Opposition leaders remain detained. Reports from local media in Kashmir and international news organizations suggest at least 4,000 people, including political leaders, lawyers, and human rights activists, have been jailed. Schools and businesses are closed. While perishable food items like milk and vegetables are available locally, small grocery stores are running out of supplies, and pharmacists have to leave Kashmir in order to obtain medicines.
The BBC claimed it witnessed police opening fire to disperse protestors on August 10 in one Srinagar neighborhood. Al Jazeera also reported how crowds defied government orders and hit the streets to protest. After denying the reports for three days, the Indian government admitted the protests did indeed take place.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has “called on the Indian government to immediately stop its harassment of journalists in Jammu and Kashmir and to allow them to work freely.” Journalists in Kashmir face multiple forms of intimidation, from charges under the country’s anti-terrorist laws to police beatings to death threats. During the current unrest, the government ordered the Kashmir Reader, an English language daily, to stop publishing.
For those covering Kashmir, the intimidation is not new. On June 14 in 2018, Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, and two of his bodyguards were killed in broad daylight by unknown gunmen. Police blamed Pakistan-based organizations like the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba. No organization has claimed responsibility for the murders.
Aasif Sultan, an assistant editor with the magazine Kashmir Narrator, has been detained since August 27, 2018. According to a police statement seen by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sultan was detained during a raid on his home in Srinagar and later charged with “complicity” in “harboring known terrorists” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Sultan’s arrest followed the detention a year earlier of a photojournalist in Kashmir, Kamran Yusuf. He was arrested by the National Investigation Agency under the country’s anti-terror laws. The NIA charge sheet accuses Yusuf of forming “strategies and action plans to launch violent protests and communicate the same to the masses.” Yusuf is also “accused of neglecting his moral duties to cover government development programs,” such as the inaugurations of new roads and bridges. Yusuf was granted bail in March 2018.
In July of this year, the NIA summoned to Delhi a number of Kashmiri journalists, including Fayaz Kaloo, editor of Greater Kashmir, for questioning. According to several Indian media outlets, Kaloo was questioned for articles published in the newspaper and also for “terror funding.”
While the government has long pressured smaller news organizations by pulling advertising, now even bigger organizations like Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir face similar threats. Officials have been barred from talking to the media. No one wants to speak on the record, for fear of reprisals or because of “national security” concerns. The conditions make newsgathering very difficult, which the Indian government uses to accuse Kashmiri journalists of lacking credibility.
For Kashmiri journalists, it is increasingly vital that they themselves report the news of what’s happening in the region
Kashmiri journalists routinely receive messages from militant groups whenever their reports are aired. Even apparently innocuous messages are a way of telling journalists they are being watched. “Never have we witnessed such forms of arm twisting and harassment as we have witnessed for the past few years,” says Bashir Manzar, editor of the daily Kashmir Images.
Though reporters are still refused entry into volatile areas, stories have begun to filter out about hospitals unable to provide patient care, shortages of medicines due to the lockdown, and corroborating stories about violence against locals. Nighttime raids by security forces and local protests are starting to get covered, too, as are stories highlighting the pain of people who can’t connect with their loved ones.
“If the national media doesn’t publish, the international media is publishing,” says a senior editor at one Delhi-based newspaper. “Our aim should be to get the story out, not let the abnormal conditions prevailing for almost a month be considered as normal.”
For Kashmiri journalists, it is increasingly vital that they themselves report the news of what’s happening in the region. “The oppressor cannot always have the pen,” says one Kashmiri journalist. “We need to tell our stories ourselves.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, a quote from AFP photojournalist Tauseef Mustafa was misattributed.