Kashmir press - umer asif
Journalists protesting against internet ban and summoning of journalists in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

Welcome to The Kashmir Walla’s weekly newsletter for members-only that keeps you up to date about Jammu and Kashmir and its adjoining regions. This time we are sending you one year review of our work and have kept the newsletter along with e-paper edition of our newspaper freely available to everyone. If you want to receive weekly newsletter along with the e-paper and other features, do join us as a member below.

On the morning of 5 August 2019, Kashmir woke up to the harshest curfew and communication blackout it had ever been through. Hundreds of kilometres away, in New Delhi, the parliament rewrote Kashmir’s destiny even as it locked down its millions of citizens and downgraded a state into a federally-governed territory.

In doing so, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ripped apart the seven decades-old understanding between Jammu and Kashmir and the Union of India: Article 370 of the constitution. In its original form, the article gave J-K substantial autonomy, allowing the erstwhile state to, among other things, define its citizens. A separate flag and a constitution conferred under the so-called special status represented the Kashmiri identity within the Indian Union.

All the prominent unionist leaders were demonised and detained. Three former chief ministers—Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti—were even slapped with the draconian laws like the Public Safety Act (PSA).

Young boys were picked up by the government forces from their homes and streets, at night and day. Opinion was rarely coming out as the total communication blackout continued.

New Delhi made Kashmir a desolation. And called it peace.

Initially, the communication blackout made it nearly impossible for the journalists to report stories as press freedom touched a new low. From about a million, the Kashmir Walla’s traffic dropped to almost nil readers. Once in a month or so, one of our team members would fly outside to publish stories on the website.

We reported stories, but had no way to publish them on the website. Being an independent media organization, we majorly depended on online advertisements and the blackout drained out our resources. Salaries had to be slashed.

But the intimidation was a bigger issue.

Local media, which had to inform and analyse issues for local populace, was pushed to the wall. Local leading newspapers didn’t publish editorials. (You can find all our editorials here) Journalists were questioned as the something-will-happen rumour grew stronger. Others self-censored.

“They have imprisoned three chief ministers, who are we?” — became the saying of the clampdown, for journalists and the people.

The Kashmir Walla continued the job despite hardships

The concerns for the Kashmir Walla were the same. The clampdown forced us to halt the print for two weeks. The printing press operators  weren’t reachable for days. When restarted, after two weeks, we had to slash the circulation to a fourth, print on a low-quality paper. However, tough it was, we continued reporting the stories of people, printing the weekly newspaper, distributing it ourselves at major spots and not succumbing to the communication blackout.

But the impact of August spilled over in the later months. We continued for months until in November we reached a point to shutdown, as financials were nil and silence in the media community was permanent. Reporting freely became harder. After two months, break and firm resolve we started again in January 2020, only to keep free press alive in Kashmir. The only hope for stories of Kashmir was the strong independent media. That’s kept us going.

But it became further impossible after two Kashmiri journalists were booked under India’s anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in April 2020 and the methods of intimidation knocked every door.

Other than a series of informal calls to remain quiet, after a multimedia reportage on a gunfight in Srinagar, where at least fifteen houses were rendered inhabitable, our founding-editor, Fahad Shah, was summoned and questioned for six hours. But here, the process has been made the punishment.

The intimidation seeped into the newsroom, too. And Mr. Shah’s questioning inevitably impacted the staffers as the work was thrown off the track. A month later, he was summoned again for an FIR number 70/2020, which mentioned several charges including “attempt to murder and instigation”.

The Kashmir Walla had denounced it and called on the authorities to end the methods of intimidation. Our resolve to strengthen the independent media continued.

Here are some of our stories from last one year

In August, we reported about the immediate impact of the military lockdown on healthcare services, wherein doctors weren’t allowed to reach hospitals. And the communication gag coupled with the lockdown also snatched the breathing space for traders. Was there any scope left?

Mid-August, one of our reporters went to Kargil, where Buddhist-dominated Leh region of Ladakh welcomed the decision and celebrated the move, the Muslim dominated Kargil protested against it and sang the dissent rhymes hand-in-hand with the Kashmir Valley.

In September, we profiled a family in downtown Srinagar as it navigated life through the clampdown with all the means to bring food to the table vanished.

In October, we explored if New Delhi has left any space for democratic politics in Kashmir for Kashmiri Muslim politicians as their detention continued. However, the BJP continued with its politics as usual — but what are there chances to stand a fight where they haven’t won an assembly seat ever?

Also, the deadline was here: 31 October 2019, when the J-K Reorganisation Act had to be implemented. As J-K was downgraded to a federally-governed territory, nearly all the laws changed. In a reported analysis, we broke down some important and complicated laws for our readers on what this act will change on ground.

On 31 October, we reported, “uncertainty prevailed and faces were anxious – of civilians walking on empty roads, or of a forces’ personnel [as] everyone [waited] how things [would] unfold in an inevitable new Kashmir.”

Among all the crises, education suffered the worst. We reported how without the internet services and restrictions in place, more than a million students were put outside classes for months. “Snatch education from them and you have destroyed them forever. Other losses can be filled, but not education,” a government teacher told Kashmir Walla in October 2019. Later, we also reported how the continued lockdown has delayed degrees of thousands of Kashmiri students in the regional universities. And also its huge impact on the mental health of the students.

Even in 2020, the mobile internet restriction continued – which is still in place as high-speed internet connectivity is disallowed.

When the restricted mobile internet was thrown open, the social media sites were blacklisted for months. As Virtual Private Network (VPN) application became a handy tool to surpass the censorship, we reported how it also connected an old mother to her son offshore after months of clampdown.

In the run up to the anniversary, we continued to report on human rights violations committed by the government forces in a village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district; trail of destruction as homes were lost to gunfights in Srinagar and other areas in Kashmir; and journalism fell under the jackboot. Not just in Srinagar, but in rural areas, our staff reported on arrest of minors near gunfight site and how pellets injured a child, leaving him in pain, among several others stories.

A struggle to build independent media in Kashmir

As Kashmir is now pushed into unchartered territories, political impositions from the Government of India being just one aspect, covering the ground has never been as important. We have continued to do so and opposed the official censorship of the press through a media policy. We have remained firm to comment on the major issues that impact not just the media but every aspect of Kashmir’s society.

Kashmir is also in an era where years later if one were to look back to this period, they would find little about the ground coverage in the traditional media. Independent media is, perhaps, the only way we shall continue to witness and document our history in the making. To sum up the last one year, we have prepared a series of stories this week, including the weekly e-paper edition. In our editorial, this week, we believe “this relentless effort to enforce a silence, criminalise dissent, stop media, disallow any political and social activity on ground can only ensure peace of a graveyard. A silence enforced by the barrel of a gun and fear of jail can never be long lasting.”

As an independent media organization, we entirely depend on your support. To continue the quality journalism, and inform the world about issues and happening in Kashmir — uninfluenced by anyone — we need your support in every way possible. Without the help, your story in Kashmir’s traditional media might vanish. We hope you will continue supporting our work and not let the freedom of press be history.

Thank you for supporting us always. If you like the work we do, consider supporting us monetarily as good journalism costs. You can join The Kashmir Walla’s membership programme or support one time below. Independent media in Kashmir is now more important than ever, and we need you to show support.

The Kashmir Walla needs you, urgently. Only you can do it.

We have always come to you for help: The Kashmir Walla is battling at multiple fronts — and if you don’t act now, it would be too late. 2020 was a year like no other and we walked into it already battered. The freedom of the press in Kashmir was touching new lows as the entire population was gradually coming out of one of the longest communication blackouts in the world.

We are not a big organization. A few thousand rupees from each one of you would make a huge difference.

The Kashmir Walla plans to extensively and honestly cover — break, report, and analyze — everything that matters to you. You can help us.

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