'Everyone is under watch': Kashmir faces media blackout amid Indian government crackdown

'Everyone is under watch': Kashmir faces media blackout amid Indian government crackdown
India's crackdown on Kashmir has led to a full media blackout, as journalists work under strict surveillance and are subject to censorship.
7 min read
17 September, 2019
India has cracked down on occupied Kashmir [Getty]
Indian government forces have allegedly "crippled" Kashmiri media outlets in the embattled region where it is claimed journalists are under "a high degree of surveillance." 

The impact of the "crackdown" on local press was reported in a recent study by the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI).

Entitled News Behind the Barbed Wire: Kashmir's Information Blockade, the study claims the media is working "in the shadow of security forces in one of the most highly militarised zones of the world".

It states "high surveillance" has led to journalists getting arrested, interrogated and restricted from travelling into certain areas, including to hospitals to report on casualties.

The study's authors Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu spoke to over 70 print and online journalists, correspondents and editors in Srinagar and south Kashmir between 30 August and 3 September 2019. 

They claim journalists face "severe restrictions in all processes of news gathering, verification and dissemination" and are asked by authorities to "reveal sources" of stories considered "sensitive" or "adverse to the government and security forces".

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Local journalists interviewed for the study said they were given white coloured citizen passes, restricting movement, while national media from Delhi were granted red-coloured ones allowing access to restricted areas.

The lockdown in the region has been brandished "the most crippling communications shutdown of all time". 

Findings of the study also conclude local media "play it safe to avoid harassment," because they fear for their wellbeing and do not want to risk losing jobs, leading to a "sort of self-censorship". 

Playing it safe for some Kashmiri newspapers means that instead of writing stories about the restrictions, they are publishing ones about "joint pain" or "how to keep the house clean," the study has claimed. Others, it states, are "forced" into leading with headlines like "should you consume caffeine during summer?" or "planetary thinking." 

But despite the lockdown, there has been no official curfew or notification in place. 

According to Indian government information, the internet ban is a precautionary measure and justified in order to prevent violence after Indian PM Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 on 5 August, stripping the region of the "special status" that gave it a right to its own constitution and internal administration.

Murty said the unofficial curfew is now being justified to prevent "terrorist activity" and "communication between terrorists". 

But for India's Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, there is little choice in the matter. In an interview with Politico earlier this month, he said: "How do I cut off communications between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand, but keep the internet open for other people? I would be delighted to know." 

Journalists interviewed in the study claim the lockdown has meant they cannot maintain communication with correspondents to verify facts, thus compromising the credibility of their stories. 

This is the first time that all communications, including broadband internet, landlines and cable television have been cut off at the same time

One reporter in the study is quoted as stating: "There is no access to officials. Our stories are complete but if we don't get an official confirmation, how can we use them? This is another way of stalling the news till it becomes irrelevant."

Murthy told The New Arab that both herself and Seshu have frequented the region on several occasions, but on this visit, there was a heightened "sense of being watched." 

She said the lack of public transport and people on the streets led them to feel "vulnerable".

Local people though, she said, were "initially cautious" of the two journalists, "given their mistrust, particularly of 'Indian' mainstream television".

Female journalists, it is reported, are confronted with "mistrust from locals and "suspicion" from security personnel.

Murthy added that locals opened up to them once it was made clear that they were "not there to project an all-is-well picture, but to look at what is happening on the ground." 

She said 22 journalists have been killed in Kashmir since the armed insurgency began in 1989, including the editor of the newspaper Rising Kashmir, Sujaat Bukhari, and one of his guards, who were shot dead in 2018 by unidentified gunmen in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar. 

The situation, added Seshu, has led to a "sort of self censorship" among Kashmiri media outlets.

A media facilitation centre has been set up by the administration in Srinagar for journalists to utilise and for government press briefings. It contains five computers, one telephone and an internet connection. 

Such press briefings, the study states, "last about 10-15 minutes, where questions are either not taken or not answered."

The report adds that journalists can also be waiting in queues an entire day in order to access the facility to file stories and upload reports to online news sites. 

One journalist in the study is cited as stating: "We are all in the queue for four or five computers and the internet speed is barely 2kbps. They stand behind us to check who is filing what. Everyone is under watch."

But the clampdown on communications is nothing new in Kashmir. There have been 180 shutdowns in the region since 2012. However, the study claims that this is the first time that all communications, including broadband internet, landlines and cable television have been cut off at the same time. 

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The longest ban took place over 133 days in July 2015 following protests that erupted over the killing of Burhan Wani, commander of Kashmiri militant and separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen.

But according to Principle Secretary Rohit Kansal, communication in the region is being restored. In a tweet on 17 August, Kansal declared: "Over 23,000 landline phones become functional by late evening today."  

Last month, Kansal also said 190 schools would re-open in Srinagar. However, the study claimed many children continue to steer clear of school and stay home because of fears for their safety.

The study also highlights the lack of access to official facts and figures surrounding pellet wound injuries and the number of people detained under section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which was implemented to "prevent unlawful assembly."

Lists of people detained or arrested, are however, available at District Commissioner offices in the region, and where throngs of people can be seen trying to locate members of their families, Murthy said. 

But local journalists and people, according to the study's authors, have estimated the figure for the number of detainees to be at around 8,000.

According to the study, local people claim boys as young as 12 were being taken from homes in their villages by night, "kept in custody for short periods, beaten, tortured and then released."

They are told to return the following day or are detained under the Public Safety Act before they are transported to "out of state jails in Agra, Bareilly, Jodhpur, Rohtak and Jhajjar."

The lack of information and clampdown on communications has led The Kashmir Times – the region's oldest newspaper – to challenge the restrictions on media. 

In a "call to duty", the newspaper's executive editor, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal petitioned the Supreme Court under Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution of India to lift the communications lockdown and relax restrictions on press freedom in order to exercise the right to report.

The newspaper, which publishes editions for both Jammu and Srinagar, stalled production of the latter when the curfew kicked in on 5 August. 

But Jamwal said it was the impact of the curfew and the inability to publish The Kashmir Times that moved her to take legal action against the clampdown.

In three decades of conflict, she said the newspaper has experienced its "fair share of turmoil," with its  stance in Jammu at the brunt of hostility from militant groups in the 90s. However, the current situation, she said, is "unprecedented".

But the prospects for independent media in the future, she said "look bleak."

She added: "It's a complete violation of human rights and freedom of expression. I don't know how long this will go on for."