world press freedom day
Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla

In Kashmir, the Indian establishment is curbing freedom of the press in the same breath as it vows to defend it. It is the only explanation for its priorities – interrogating journalists over what the police has slyly termed “fake news” and “glorification of terrorism” – amid a spreading pandemic that has locked down not only India but several countries across the world. Three journalists have been targeted in separate cases on the same crime scene: social media. 

The first journalist, national daily The Hindu’s Srinagar correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, was summoned on 19 April in relation to social media posts about one of his reports. On 20 April, independent photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under the stringent anti-terror legislation, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). On 21 April, well-known author and journalist Gowhar Geelani was booked under the same law as Ms. Zahra.

Statements issued by the police accused these journalists of instigating the public for violence and promoting “the commission of offences” against the state. The police defended its actions even as it drew criticism from within India and global outrage over what was perceived as an attempt to criminalise journalism. 

Another statement issued by the police on 23 April quoted the chief of police in Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, as having said that “only one journalist has been questioned about a journalistic work as only one FIR of instigating people for violence has been registered” while Ms. Zahra and Mr. Geelani were booked because “they have posted explicitly seditious, incendiary and incriminating texts on social media, challenging sovereignty and integrity of India and attempting to instigate people for violence”.

Mr. Kumar termed concerns of deteriorating freedom of the press in Kashmir as “broad generalisations” by “Media persons and other relevant organisations” without “ascertaining the facts” and declared, solely on the merit of his assertion, that the police “has always maintained highest regard for freedom of press”. These statements, however, merit a deeper examination for context rather than being seen in isolation.

Flattening the criticism

The Indian establishment has for long intimidated the press in Kashmir and chipped away its freedoms. As the phase of violent intimidation post the eruption of insurgency – through assassinations, beatings and physical threats – that was partly guised by an ongoing widespread violence had ebbed, the establishment in Kashmir resorted to subtler methods to coerce the press into falling in line.

After 120 civilians were killed during the 2010 uprising that began with outrage over extra judicial murder of civilians by government forces, the Congress led government in New Delhi had stopped central advertisements to prominent Kashmir based papers for allegedly “fostering separatism and leading to disharmony in the Kashmir region”.

It is unclear if the Indian establishment has ever publicly taken note of the impact spiral of violence and killings of civilians by government forces as causing alienation among people but instead, it has for long blamed the press in Kashmir for spreading anti-India propaganda and fostering separatist sentiment.

The curve of criticism was completely flattened on 5 August when New Delhi locked down Kashmir and snapped all its communications as it abrogated the region’s limited autonomy and statehood.

After the uprising of 2016 sparked by the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani – described by the ANI as “Charming, handsome and charismatic” who had become “a narrative of heroism for the people” – led to more than ninety killings, New Delhi once again took note of the “anti-national articles” and “highly radicalised content glamorising terrorists and anti-national elements”. In both uprisings, the government resorted to blatantly denying the circulation of prominent newspapers in the Valley.

Since then the establishment used both coercion and intimidation. Prominent newspapers were denied advertisements by the local government without official communication, the local police reopened a decades old case against an editor, and journalists were summoned to New Delhi by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), including editors of prominent newspapers. Simultaneously, the establishment has also attempted to push journalists to the wall with constant denial of information or hounding by the police for their sources of information.

The curve of criticism was completely flattened on 5 August when New Delhi locked down Kashmir and snapped all its communications as it abrogated the region’s limited autonomy and statehood. The initial suspension of a few days has now meant to be a suspension of journalism still in effect, newspapers having curtailed independent reporting and editorials since then. Simultaneously, the establishment has also attempted to push journalists to the wall with constant denial of information or hounding by the police for their sources of information.

Fake news tantrums

In the backdrop of the series of subtle and overt attacks on the press, the establishment’s recent moves hints at its more sweeping motives of discrediting journalism rather than individually targeting journalists or organisations.

At a time when the administration in Jammu and Kashmir has made communication almost unidirectional, bureaucrats dictating to a select few journalists and taking questions from even fewer, the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) launched a purported Fact Check platform on 4 April, self avowedly to “kill fake news and empower the public with information”.

On 16 April, the platform “fact checked” a report by Peerzada Ashiq in The Hindu that alleged diversion of COVID-19 testing kits from Kashmir to the seemingly new power centre, the Hindu dominated Jammu region. At the time few journalists expressed resentment over the report being rebutted in a fact check, subtly implying that it was “fake news”. 

After the director of the DIPR, Sehrish Asghar, seemingly set the precedent, the Jammu and Kashmir Police pitched in to what seems to be the establishment gradually inching towards a Trump-esque labelling of journalism that the establishment disagrees with as fake news.

A statement issued by the police on 20 April quoted the chief of police in Kashmir, Mr. Kumar, cautioning journalists “not to publish fake/fabricated news/stories” – his underlying assumption seems to be that journalists in fact publish fake news – which have a “bearing on national security and which has the potential of causing social instability and can lead to law and order problem”. 

A routine feature of press releases is the mention of information on users from ‘reliable sources’ and ‘regular monitoring and patrolling of social media platforms’. 

The reference to the press is clear in the statement that remains vague on definitions of what it construed as a national security threat.

Fake news is described by Wikipedia as “a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media”. The Indian establishment’s focus, however, remains much narrower on the law and order situation in Kashmir while fake news and hate targeted against minority groups, primarily Muslims, has gone largely unchecked.

On 19 April, Mr. Ashiq reported for The Hindu that the family of a slain militant from south Kashmir’s Shopian district had received permission for exhumation of the militant’s body that was forcibly buried, in the absence of family members, by the administration in north Kashmir. The report was circulated on social media with a sigh of relief by Kashmiris who were otherwise angry at the Indian state’s denial of religious rituals to the families of the slain militants.

Ironically, the police had instead summoned Mr. Ashiq over the report calling it a “fake news item”. He was first summoned to the cyber police station in Srinagar and later by the Anantnag police station, at least 70 kilometres away. It turned out that the family of the slain militant had mistaken a curfew pass as permission to exhume the body. 

The 20 April police statement said: “The details reflected in the news item were found factually incorrect and the said news could cause fear or alarm in the minds of the public. The said news was published without seeking confirmation from the District authorities”. The police, however, ignored the fact that Mr. Ashiq had diligently attempted to seek a clarification on the matter from the district authorities who did not respond. 

The statement further quoted Mr. Kumar as having said that “any such information be clarified / confirmed before publication” but left the implications of the consistent unavailability of government officials to journalists open to interpretation by the journalist community.

The report, since corrected by The Hindu, still mentions “Yasin Choudhary, Deputy Commissioner, Shopian, was not available for comment”.

Big Brother

In the days before the police targeted journalists, it had seemingly not only stepped up the surveillance of social media but also made those public. A routine feature of press releases is the mention of information on users from “reliable sources” and “regular monitoring and patrolling of social media platforms”. 

The police’s sleight of hand is apparent in statements that identified Ms. Zahra as a “Facebook user” and Mr. Geelani as merely “an individual” but also from the fact that while Mr. Ashiq and his organisation were identified in a statement, their names do not figure on the complaint registered by the Anantnag Police against social media users in south Kashmir.

However, in the days before this, Mr. Geelani was openly detesting a “vilification campaign” against expatriate Kashmiris that he alleged was done by people linked to the state. The same tweet was responded to by a Kashmiri expatriate saying if politeness did not convey the message, they could also resort to being disrespectful.

In a separate tweet hours after Mr. Geelani, the expatriate uploaded a video of a debate on the television channel Republic TV that painted the participants, claiming to be politicians and activists, as alternate faces of a “Naya Kashmir” after the abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy and simultaneous detention of nearly all of its unionist politicians.

Indian television debates that are viewed with scorn in Kashmir for their brazen attempts at pushing pro-state narratives while downplaying the emotional and human cost of the conflict and government policies in Kashmir.

However, soon after this one of the participants on the debate, as aspiring politician took to Twitter tagging the Jammu and Kashmir Police along with screenshots of both tweets, of the expatriate’s description of the video and his response to Mr. Geelani. The intimidated individual, an aspiring unionist politician was among those who were sometime back under the scanner by Kashmiri netizens over their links to a controversial Srinagar based think-tank.

However, in the subsequent press release on 23 April (also quoted earlier in the story) attributed to police chief Mr. Kumar, does not mention threat to the security of the state but instead insists that Geelani had “exposed life of some peaceful and law abiding citizens to grave risk by posting incriminating and provocative adjectives against them on social media platforms like FB and Twitter”.

Thought crime

In a few moves, the establishment has seemingly aimed for both the message and the messenger. The statements issued by the police – on 20, 21, and 23 April – in the case of the three journalists shows a common pattern of accusation and a broader outcome.

The police has deemed their social media posts to be “prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India”, “glorifying terrorism”, “causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public”, and promoting “offences against public tranquillity and the security of State”.

What could cause disaffection against the country or alarm in the minds of the public – evident from the cases of Mr. Ashiq and Mr. Geelani – could be interpreted broadly; in the case of Asif Sultan, a Srinagar-based journalist with a monthly magazine, the police has accused him of links to militants and promoting them on social media. 

Mr. Sultan’s family believes he was targeted for a cover story on Burhan Wani and prior to his arrest, the magazine had received an email from the police regarding the same. The police had sought to know why the magazine would want to “glorify terrorism”. Today, it seems the authorities have taken another step in that same direction and in many words the establishment in Kashmir has, in the past two weeks, seemingly accused these journalists of perpetuating thought crimes.

The security establishment in Kashmir has been particularly wary of photojournalists simply owing to their medium’s ability to cross barriers of language to reach a wider audience and convey what journalists in Kashmir, especially those reporting for Indian publications, would find difficult to put in writing. What had offended the security establishment in the case of photojournalist Ms.. Zahra, seems to be a series of pictures she had uploaded on her Facebook timeline in April. 

In a post on 31 March, Ms. Zahra observed comparisons being drawn to the lockdown in Kashmir. “As the whole world is under a lockdown and many comparing and seeking tips from Kashmiris who have suffered worst state-imposed lockdowns in the recent years. I want to use a picture everyday here to let the world know how lockdowns are different here,” she wrote.

On 1 April, Ms. Zahra uploaded a photograph of a Kashmiri man walking past masked and armed government forces along with a paragraph from the book called Terra Nullius, a novel on the natives in a dystopian Australia where by an aboriginal Noongar writer Claire G. Coleman. 

A novel written, according to the author, “to provoke empathy in people who had none”.

Another picture, uploaded on 5 April, showed Kashmiri women walking past a shop shutter with the word “azadi”, or freedom, spray painted onto it. The picture was uploaded with a quote from British fiction writer Alexander McCall Smith’s novel The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Yet another picture, uploaded on 8 April, shows half a dozen government force personnel apprehending a protester outside downtown Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, accompanied by a quote from Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The same picture was shared by another Kashmiri photojournalist with a similar image, captioned: “Nothing has changed in a decade”. That was perhaps the context which the journalists had in mind while putting up these posts and the police while targeting them.

Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.

Published as part of the Free Speech Defence Project – an initiative by The Kashmir Walla to promote and defend freedom of speech.

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