India beats press freedom and journalists in Kashmir detained

SRINAGAR: For five years, Sajad Gul has written about the conflict ravaging Indian-occupied Kashmir, his homeland where resistance against New Delhi and India’s brutal response have raged for more than three decades.

That changed on a snowy Wednesday night this month with a knock at his house. Gul was surrounded by Indian soldiers armed with automatic rifles who loaded him into a vehicle and fled, winding down the snow-covered trail to Hajin, a quiet village about 30 kilometers from Srinagar, his mother, Gulshana, said.

Journalists have long faced various threats in the valley and found themselves caught between belligerents. But their situation has worsened dramatically since India revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomy in 2019, placing it under a severe security and communications lockdown and the media in a black hole. A number of journalists have been arrested, interrogated and investigated under harsh laws. Fearing reprisals, the local press largely withered under the pressure.

Indian authorities appear determined to prevent journalists from doing their job, said Steven Butler, Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Gul’s arrest, which CPJ condemned, underscored the rapid erosion of press freedom and the criminalization of journalists in detained Kashmir.

Police told Gul’s family that he was arrested for “inciting people to use violence”. A statement later described him as having a habit of spreading misinformation and false narratives on social media.

He was detained days after his single tweet linked to a video clip of a protest against Indian rule, following the killing of a Kashmiri fighter. He spent 11 days locked up before a court granted him bail.

Instead of releasing Gul, authorities charged him in a new case under the Public Security Law, which allows officials to jail anyone for up to two years without trial.

The media has always been tightly controlled in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Arm twisting and fear have been widely used to intimidate the press since 1989, when Kashmiris began fighting Indian soldiers.

The various media in the region have flourished despite the relentless pressure from the Indian authorities.

That changed in 2019, when authorities began bringing criminal charges against some journalists. Several of them were forced to reveal their sources, while others were physically assaulted.

The authorities created systematic fear and launched a direct attack on free media. There is total intolerance of even a single critical word, said Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times.

Bhasin was among the few to petition India’s Supreme Court, resulting in a partial restoration of communications services after the 2019 power outage, which the government said was needed to block anti-protests. Indian.

But she soon found herself in the crosshairs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Bhasin’s newspaper office in Srinagar, operating out of a rented government building, was sealed off by authorities without notice. His staff were not allowed to take out equipment.

“They are killing local media except those who are willing to become government reporters,” Bhasin said.

Reduced freedom of the press

Under Narendra Modi, press freedom in India has steadily declined since its first election in 2014. Last year, India was ranked 142nd in the World Press Freedom Index by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders behind Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

Nowhere has this slide been more blatant than in held Kashmir.

Authorities pressured newspapers by reprimanding editors and depriving them of advertising funds to cool aggressive reporting.

For the most part, the newspapers appear to have cooperated and self-censored the stories, fearing they would be branded anti-national by a government that equates criticism with secessionism.

“We have just tried to stay afloat and have barely been able to do proper journalism for various reasons, one being that we mainly depend on government advertisements,” said Sajjad Haider, editor of Kashmir Observer. .

There have been press crackdowns in the region before, especially during times of heightened resistance to Indian rule. But the ongoing crackdown is significantly worse.

Last week, a few pro-Indian government journalists, with the help of armed police, took control of the valley’s only independent press club. Authorities shut it down a day later, drawing heavy criticism from journalistic organizations.

The Editors Guild of India accused the government of being brazenly complicit and called it an armed takeover. Reporters Without Borders called it an undeclared coup and said the region was gradually turning into a black hole for news and information.

The press club is the latest civil society group in the region to face growing government repression. For the past two years, authorities have prevented the Kashmir High Court Bar Association and the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce from holding elections.

New Delhi defended its decision citing a potential public order situation and the safety of bona fide journalists. He said the club had failed to register under a new law and hold elections for a new governing body.

The Indian government’s move contrasts sharply with its policies in the Hindu-dominated city of Jammu, where another press club continues to operate without having held an election for five years.

Majid Maqbool, a journalist, said the club had extended its institutional support to journalists working in difficult conditions. “It was like a second home for us.”

Journalists were often the only eyes on the ground for global audiences, especially after New Delhi banned foreign journalists from the region without official permission a few years ago.

Authorities are now seeking to control any narrative seen as opposing the broad consensus in India that the region is an integral part of the country.

In this battle of stories, journalists have been reprimanded by authorities for not using the term terrorists to refer to anti-Indian fighters. Government statements appear mostly on the front page, and statements by groups critical of Modi’s policies are barely published.

Newspaper editorials reflecting the conflict are largely absent. Rare reporting on rights abuses is often dismissed as politically motivated fabrications, emboldening authoritarian military and police to muzzle the press.

Some journalists have been subjected to grueling hours of police questioning, a tactic condemned by the United Nations last year.

Aakash Hassan, a Kashmiri freelance journalist who writes mainly for the international press, said he has been summoned seven times by Indian authorities in the past two years.

Hassan said sometimes officers questioned his “motives for reporting and lecturing me on how to do journalism the right way.”

“It’s a way of dissuading us from filing a complaint,” he said, adding that the police questioned his parents several times and probed their finances.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth being a journalist in Kashmir,” Hassan said. “But I know silence doesn’t help.

Posted in Dawn, January 24, 2022

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