‘Systematic fear’: How India undermined press freedom in Kashmir | Press Freedom News

For five years, Sajad Gul has written about the conflict ravaging his homeland of Indian-administered Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan territory where armed rebellion and brutal Indian repression have raged for more than three decades.

That changed on a snowy Wednesday night this month with a knock on his door.

Gul found himself surrounded by Indian soldiers wielding automatic rifles who loaded him into a vehicle and fled, winding their way down the snow-covered trail to Hajin, a quiet village about 32 km (20 miles) from Srinagar, the main town. of the area, said his mother. , Gulshana, which uses only one name.

Journalists have long faced various threats in Indian-administered Kashmir and found themselves caught between warring parties. But their situation has worsened considerably since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, placing it under a severe security and communications lockdown and the media in a black hole.

A year later, the government’s new media policy aimed to more effectively control the press to censor independent reporting. Dozens of people have been arrested, interrogated and investigated under tough anti-terrorism laws.

Fear of reprisals caused the local press to wither under pressure.

“Indian authorities seem determined to prevent journalists from doing their job,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Kashmiri journalists work during a surprise search of pedestrians by security forces in Srinagar [Dar Yasin/AP]

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

Police told Gul’s family that he was arrested for inciting people to “use violence and disturb public order”. A police statement later described him as “habitual 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 rebel. He spent 11 days locked up before a local court granted him bail.

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

“My son is not a criminal,” Gulshana said. “He was just writing. »

“Direct attack on free media”

The media has always been tightly controlled in Indian-administered Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region. Arm twisting and fear have been widely used to intimidate the press since 1989, when rebels began fighting Indian soldiers in a bid to establish an independent Kashmir or a union with Pakistan.

Pakistan controls the other part of Kashmir and both counties fiercely claim the entire territory.

The fighting left tens of thousands dead. Yet the various media outlets in Indian-administered Kashmir have thrived despite relentless pressure from Indian authorities and rebel groups.

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 have created systematic fear and launched a direct attack on free media. There is complete intolerance of even a single critical word,” said Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times, a leading English daily established in 1954.

Journalist Aasif Sultan handcuffed as he surrendered to police custodyKashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan handcuffed after his 2018 arrest [File: Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

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 legacy 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.

Under 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 fall been more flagrant than in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Authorities pressured newspapers by reprimanding editors and depriving them of advertising funds, their main source of income, to cool aggressive reporting.

“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. .

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.

There have been press crackdowns in the region before, especially during times of mass public uprisings. But the ongoing crackdown is significantly worse.

Closure of the Kashmir Press Club

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

A sealed lock hangs on the door of the closed Kashmir Press ClubA sealed lock hangs from the door of the closed Kashmir Press Club building in Srinagar [Dar Yasin/AP Photo]

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 is “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 internal elections.

The government 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 club said a new registration was granted by authorities after “six months of rigorous police checks” at the end of December, but was “on hold” a day later for unknown reasons.

The government’s decision 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 nearly five years.

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

Kashmiri Journalists Discuss Kashmir Press Club Shutdown Kashmiri journalists attend a meeting to discuss the closure of the Kashmir Press Club [Dar Yasin/AP]

Kashmir’s local journalists were often the only eyes on the ground for global audiences, especially after New Delhi banned foreign journalists from the region – unless they had official approval – a few years ago. years. Most of the reporting has focused on the Kashmir conflict and government crackdowns.

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 separatist rebels. Government statements appear mostly on the front page, and statements by pro-India Kashmiri groups critical of Modi’s policies are rarely published.

Newspaper editorials reflecting the conflict are largely absent. Rare reporting on rights abuses is often dismissed as politically motivated fabrications, emboldening the region’s 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 by Indian authorities at least seven times in the past two years.

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

“It’s a way of deterring us from pressing charges,” he said, adding that police also 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.”

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