Internet shutdown in Kashmir, no word on service restoration

This is an excerpt from 120 Days: 5th August to 5th December — A Report by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a collective of relatives of victims of enforced and involuntary disappearances in Kashmir.

History of challenges in reporting the truth from Kashmir

After the Indian government unilaterally undermined Kashmir’s autonomy, the freedom of press has been severely restricted and violated. Voices of dissent in the field of journalism have been repressed in all forms. This is evident when one compares the coverage of the issue from the ground by the international media and Indian national media. However, this elimination of truth and suppression of the freedom of expression through the systematic silencing of local media had been set in motion ever since the 1990s. This chapter highlights how local journalists in Kashmir (and their stories from the ground) have repeatedly been throttled; a constant feature of Kashmiri media and journalists’ decades of oppression and challenges.

Since the 1990s, with a surge in the militancy in Kashmir along with the rising resistance of people, successive Indian governments have tried to control Kashmir through different ways. However, none of them have factored in the possibility of self-determination. Governments have relied on silencing the media to suppress the truth of military oppression. There has been a visible absence of news from Kashmir in the Indian media barring few over the past few years. Where these exist, they were usually concocted stories in line with the majoritarian and communal propaganda ( Moreover, historically, journalists who tried to report on the truth have either been silenced or heckled through the central policing agencies, harassed and imprisoned at time even without trials.

For example, the fake encounter of Junaid Ahmed Khuroo, in2001, was reported in The Hindu as “a militant committing suicide inside a mosque. It failed to show the truth, later, proceedings of the SHRC (State Human Rights Commission), found the case to be “cold blooded murder”. Other national newspapers did not even feature a story on this. This type of misreporting and untrue stories create an impression in the minds of the readers, which in the long run becomes their dominant understand of Kashmir. Although Greater Kashmir followed up the story, a Kashmir based paper, it has hardly any readership in Indian mainland. Whereas this year on 26th July, 2019, the SHRC on the same case ordered further probe into the ‘fake encounter’ under CBI (the news links copies that covered the incident unfortunately has been removed both from the site of GK and Kashmir Observer).

In another incident, in Dhoodhipora (in Kupwara) in 2006, the Indian Army, without any provocation, killed four civilians including two minors. The dreadful incident happened in course of a CASO (Cordon And Search Operation). The media had been silent on this issue, and there was no reporting of this incident. Only a report was carried by PTI and republished by Times of India. A magisterial probe was ordered by the then C.M. of J&K, but it bore no fruit, and the families of the victims are still fighting the case in SHRC.

The murder of a renowned journalist Sujhat Bukhari, who was a regular contributor to The Hindu and the Editor of Rising Kashmir in 2018, did not lead to extensive coverage by the Indian media. They did not raise the issue, and his murder remains unresolved, like many other killings in Kashmir. While reporting for BBC, in 2016 Bukhari said, “Threats to life, intimidation, assault, arrest, and censorship have been part of the life of a typical local journalist.” The harassment of reporters by security forces, police and agencies has been a common practice in Kashmir.

Harassment of Journalists: Between 2016 and August 05 2019

Since the change of government in 2014, the use of law enforcement for going after Kashmiri journalists increased many folds. Aasif Sultan, a journalist in the Kashmir Narrator, has now been jailed for over one year at the time of writing this piece. He has not been charged for any crime or tried by a court. The police only said that his laptop contained ‘incriminating’ evidence. The local journalist association protested against Aasif’s arrest and his editor went on record that the crackdown was because of a well-reported article he wrote on slain militant commander Burhan Wani. The report traced the life story of Burhan Wani and some of his fellow mates; it was published on his death anniversary.

Recently Aasif Sultan also won the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award 2019. However, according to reports, he and his family might not even be aware of this because of the clamp down in Kashmir for the last 100 days (at the time of writing this report). In the press release of this award, the National Press Club wrote, “Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir, a region in northern India that is partly controlled by India and partly by Pakistan. The Indian-controlled section has been semi-autonomous for decades.

But the current Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, moved earlier this month to bring the region fully under the central government’s control. Modi’s government has instituted a crackdown and a communications blackout that has left journalists struggling to report the news and many have been incarcerated or beaten.”

Another such case which has been reported is that of the harassment of Aquib Javed, a reporter for Kashmir Observer. Initially in 2018, he was called form a police station in Kashmir and there he met the officials of National Investigation Agency, who summoned him to New Delhi the day after. There he was questioned for interviewing separatist leaders. Even his family members were harassed. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) along with its affiliate, the Indian Journalists Union (IJU), after the incident has also condemned the actions of the Indian government.

Earlier in September 2017, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was arrested later on in January 2018 he was accused as ‘stone-pelter’. He returned six months later on bail, when the judge of the special court in his bail order said, “NIA has not placed on record any single photo/video showing that the applicant/accused was indulging in stone pelting activities at any site.” This unprovoked harassment by the Indian authorities has always been present. For criticism of the government’s action newspapers have also faced funds crunch at different points of time. After the Pulwama attack and the Balakot air strike, in March 2019, major newspapers in both Urdu and English kept their first page blank as a mark of protest. Also, the DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) stopped its advertisement in Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Observer. As per reports of Al Jazeera, in a statement, the Asia-Pacific head of Reporters Sans Frontiers, Daniel Bastard said, “Targeting the two newspapers in this completely arbitrary manner clearly constitutes an act of crude intimidation.” Even after the criticism and protests, the advertisements have not been restored on the DAVP website until date.

Kashmiri journalists hold placards and laptops in Srinagar last month to protest the Internet shutdown. (Farooq Khan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Harassment Post August 05th 2019

While this harassment has been common for Kashmiri media, in late July panic crept in, when Indian authorities started sending in more forces and troops into the valley. The BJP government unprecedentedly stopped a Hindu pilgrimage in south Kashmir-Amarnath Yatra, and asked all tourists in the valley to return on the pretext of an unsubstantiated intelligence report of an imminent terror attack. Finally, on August 4th the government placed pro-India politicians and separatist leaders under house arrest. By midnight, they had placed the valley under a virtual curfew. The communication clampdown that was placed in the valley since the midnight of August 05 is largely still in place. The next morning, the majoritarian BJP regime, unilaterally stripped Kashmir of the remnants of its left-over autonomy, and most importantly of its identity, as it revoked Article 370 and further reduced the State of Jammu & Kashmir into two Union Territories, bringing it under the ambit of its direct control.

Ever since then, international and national media (of India) has produced contradictory stories. The mainstream media in India, which has been accused several times of not being independent, and being supportive of the current government and its policies, were united in praise for the government for bringing Kashmir into the Indian Union. The newspapers portrayed this move as “history made in one stroke”, and some regional language newspapers even termed it as a ‘saffron revolution’. Barring some voices of dissent from the alternate national digital media houses (which do not have as much reach as the mainstream print and broadcast media), there was an appalling scarcity of news especially on how these changes impacted people living in Kashmir. The next barrage of news came from the television media, when they described the curfew-ridden grimly empty road in Srinagar, as an exemplary scene of ‘normalcy’. Staged celebrations by BJP party-workers were reported as proof of a festive atmosphere in the valley.

On the same date, the international media reports in Kashmir were entirely different. Various news channels across the spectrum expressed caution over this move. From calling it a ‘disturbing turn’ in “India’s settler colonial project to explaining why article 370 mattered CNN, NYT, The Washington Post, BBC, RT News and Al Jazeera, all expressed concern for Kashmiris. However, during this time, not a single news piece from Kashmiri newspapers could be seen, as all major newspapers’ online sites were down due to the internet shutdown.

What went on after that between the Indian and international media was perhaps the biggest contradiction of the last decade. The contradictions were such that, it was virtually impossible to acknowledge they were being reported from the same region.

On the one hand the Indian media boasted of “normalcy in Kashmir”, by publishing photographs of the Indian National Security Adviser enjoying Biryani lunch with some local Kashmiris. At the time, the BBC reported a video of the first large protest in Soura, Srinagar. Both the government and certain sections of Indian media denied this video, and made all efforts to project it as fake. However later the Indian government reluctantly accepted that the BBC report on the Soura protests was accurate.

Intimidation of Kashmir based newspapers continues

During this time, the attack on Kashmir based newspaper and magazines increased, exponentially. Litigation was filed in the apex court of the country against the press gag in Kashmir. Meanwhile, the newspapers’ circulation was paralyzed by the restrictions. Journalists were not allowed access to different areas and curfew passes were not issued to many local journalists. The procurement of newsprint was stopped as curfews were in place. Constant intimidation of the journalists continued as per various reports. Anuradha Bhasin the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times termed this move by the government as ‘a virtual siege’ leading to an information vacuum,’ while filing a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the communication shutdown and information blackout.

While measures were draconian, the consequences are grim and dark. Even the registration of the newspapers is at risk at the moment. Due to the low circulation, their RNI (Registrar of Newspaper for India) registration could be cancelled, thereby forcing them to shut down.

The government has continued to harass and intimidate reporters, getting them arrested for frivolous reasons. The first reports of a journalist detained related to this move was Qazi Shiblion on July 25th when he reported unusual movement of troops inside the valley. The reason for his arrest according to reports was ‘waging war against the Union of India”, which is yet to be proved. Reports until 27 August suggested that he was in custody but his family was not aware of his whereabouts. Next, Greater Kashmir journalist Irfan Malik was detained as per reports and was in custody for a day. Even Haziq Qadri, a reporter of Brut India who hails from Kashmir was detained for twelve hours as per a report by CPJ.

Photo: PTI

Press Freedom and its importance: a must for Kashmir and any functional democracy

As a conflict zone over the years Kashmir has witnessed a constant deterioration of human rights in the region. The Indian government’s increasing turn towards a settler colonial project in Kashmir has made the role of press all the more important, as it has become the only medium to forward the grievances of the oppressed. It is the only way left to reach out to the world about the atrocities faced by the people. A land torn by conflict has only few options to reach out to combat military excesses. If local stories from Kashmir are suppressed and not allowed to reach the world, then this could be the worst human rights violation, as even the right to information and right to share pain is gagged.

Freedom of expression

International human rights law guarantees the freedom of expression. Article 19 of the ICCPR states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. In its General Comment on this issue, the UN Human Rights Committee reinforced how “A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. The public also has a corresponding right to receive media output”.

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