Srinagar: When the government clamped down on Kashmir, last year, and snapped all lines of communication for weeks – the media fraternity was isolated. The idea of press freedom couldn’t get grimmer, everyone thought. Then came 2020; as the scare of pandemic sweeps the world, the government hardened the crackdown on journalists in the Valley.
In March 2020, the government booked two journalists under the country’s anti-terror law: Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Another FIR was filed against a report from Shopian, south Kashmir, published in The Hindu. A long list of summons by the government forces and agencies – asking journalists to explain their stories – often goes unreported. So does the physical harassment of journalists by the government forces.
But, many say, there seems to be a method to it. Prior to August 2019, when the Central government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the government blocked advertisements to leading newspapers. An editor, in the follow-up, was summoned by the National Investigative Agency (NIA).
As the undeniable pressure mounts up on the local newspapers and its reporters, The Kashmir Walla asked editors and media watchers: what is the future of news in Kashmir?
Anuradha Bhasin, editor at Kashmir Times
There is a climate of fear for a period of time. The August clampdown strengthened that. In a larger sense, there wasn’t much information coming out – other than the official narrative in August. And now the recent cases against three journalists are in line with a long pattern – a mechanism to control the narrative and information.
These intimidating tactics have been used by the government earlier as well, but journalists were not criminalized – except for a few cases. However, these controlling tactics, sued for long by authoritarian governments, have never succeeded in the long term.
[Another issue is] the dependency of the local media on the government advertisements as the revenue model of newspapers. That model was only designed to publicize the government’s agendas and control the press. It forces the newspapers to toe the government’s line.
This economic dependency and threats [by the government] that we will choke your resources is another form of intimidation.
It is a deliberate design. Local people rely on local media for information – their issues and problems are supposed to be there. If you want to disempower a population then the first step is to crush their local media.
These tactics will have an impact on the news that comes from the region. And not in the future but the local papers are already reflecting the impact. Newspapers fear persecution.
A revenue model free of government is one of the answers to this problem. And to have a free media is an evolutionary process that will happen over a period of time.
Right now, the immediate future looks very dark. And very bleak. I wish that I’m wrong. But it is temporary and only a matter of time before history takes a turn, again.
Gowhar Geelani, a Kashmir-based senior journalist, who was charged under the UAPA
Last year, I said in an interview that darker days are ahead. The way things are happenings since August 2019, the space for debate and journalism is shrinking further. In the near future, it is feared that the state will have more control over our lives. Surveillance will be higher. And quality journalism would be harder.
If we take a cue from across India, the journalism is not in safe hands. Due to COVID-19 lockdown, salaries are slashed and journalists are losing jobs. That’s one impact. Another is how the ruling government is treating journalists including Siddharth Vardarajan [editor of The Wire] – it poses real dangers to the institute of journalism. It is very scary that way.
For me, the idea of free speech is going to a garden that has different flowers. It looks beautiful because of its different nature – if it has one flower then it cannot be called a garden or beautiful.
However, we can’t be pessimistic. These tactics by the government also make more and more people speak against it.
But it is not happening for the first time – Faiz Ahmed Faiz was jailed in Pakistan. So was George Orwell in England. Kashmiri journalists have seen worst in the 1990s, wherein militants would kidnap or summon journalists.
However, now the state organs are involved in it and hence it seems a larger battle. They seem to be criminalizing opinions. One is rebutting story but you don’t threaten journalists with anti-terror laws.
And it has already led to self-censorship. Local media has already disgracefully surrendered – either due to pressure or summons. They could have resisted but they chose self-censorship. The leading newspapers look like an arm of the government –handouts of DIPR [Department of Information and Public Relation].
If you have to save the institution of journalism in the future, then speak up. The only silver lining there is in younger journalists – they have done excellent stories under great pressure; it provides a window of hope that not all is lost.
Geeta Seshu, a journalist and co-founder of Free Speech Collective
The fact is that the nature of news coming out from Kashmir on a daily basis has already changed. The parachuting journalists left Kashmir [in 2019] as the news-cycle changed for the national media. But local journalists have to stay and keep a tab on the government. Now, if they are intimidated then it will have a chilling impact on the news as well.
Many journalists were very, very frightened about their jobs. But the media can only operate in Kashmir if the government allows to. Though that’s the situation across India – it is more severe in Kashmir.
Governments across the world make an example of journalists. It is done to send a signal to journalists that – behave.
Kashmir has been in conflict for years, but now BJP is changing a lot of the games; they are really changing the laws: including Articles 370 and 35-a and then domicile law. All of these things must be constantly questioned – but local media cannot do it.
And it is also the first generation of young women journalists in Kashmir – except a few in the past. After these charges against Masrat [Zahra], the other young journalists would also find it more difficult to work. It will affect the young journalists, who are the future of journalism.
However, there has been much condemnation and resistance against these charges and the young will see that. Kashmir’s media fraternity has been united and that is fabulous. That unity will help them in the future.
The future is going to be tough; being a journalist is not easy. Being one in Kashmir is the most difficult. But the young cannot sit quietly or just bear witness. In the future, they will be braver.
Kunal Majumder, India correspondent of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
When I was there last August, I felt that there was a chilling effect on journalists. And now these FIRs and charges against on Masrat [Zahra] or Gowhar [Geelani], or the summons to journalists to justify the articles – it doesn’t seem to be happening suddenly. It seems to be a part of a larger scheme.
I think things have been getting worst for journalists – earlier pressure was on editors and publishers, but now the government has gone down to individual levels. They are targeting reporters.
And it will definitely lead to self-censorship. I noticed how two biggest papers in Kashmir – Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir – immediately went silent after the abrogation of Article 370. Not even editorials.
How is that possible that in the world’s largest democracy, when such a big incident has happened, the biggest newspaper doesn’t have an opinion?
And these are practical data – not what people told me. It is evident to show that there is censorship. One just need to connect the dots.
There is growing intolerance on press freedom at every level of the government – particularly at the local level. It is not just in Kashmir but in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and elsewhere.
If this trend of hauling up journalists to justify their reporting continues in Kashmir, there is no doubt that journalists will start self-censoring.
The only silver lining is journalists across the country have started outraging against growing violations of press freedom. Press freedom is essential for our democracy to survive.
Certainly, the future is not going to be easy. Perhaps things would become far worse before it becomes better.
Yashraj Sharma is an Assitant Editor at The Kashmir Walla