In the basement of a Srinagar hotel last summer, hundreds of journalists in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir jostled to report the most important story of their generation.
They queued for hours to use one of just four computers with an internet connection for an allotted 15 minutes, in a city thrust into an unprecedented communications blackout.
On August 5, 2019, the Indian central government cut the internet, phone lines and cable connections to suppress dissent, and to prevent an anticipated violent pushback, as it stripped the state of its special status, and deployed tens of thousands of troops in the region.
Journalists were not excluded from the shutdown. Newspapers went offline. For weeks, print editions did not run. Five days into the shutdown, the Editors’ Guild of India released a statement urging the government to restore communication.
“The government knows very well that it is impossible to process and publish news now without the internet. It owes it to the people of India, including all in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, to allow the press, a vital institution of democracy, to function freely,” the statement said.
Amid the outcry, the government set up a communications center, called the Media Facilitation Center, in a hotel in the capital. The four computers provided were the only way Srinagar’s media industry could get online. “I was shocked to see almost 300 journalists in the center and everybody queuing up in front of the desktops to wait for their turn to access the internet for 15 minutes,” said Aarabu Ahmad Sultan.
Sultan has for years operated as a freelance journalist and photographer in one of the world’s most volatile regions, navigating roadblocks, sporadic violence and unreliable communication lines to tell stories, but this, he said, was unprecedented. Attempts to report what was unfolding in Kashmir were further frustrated by the government’s efforts to spread its own message through daily news releases that reporters at the center were encouraged to download and run verbatim in their publications.
The effect was evident on newsstands.
Sajjad Hussain’s family used to begin their day by reading the Greater Kashmir, the English-language daily, and the Daily Sun, published in the local language, Urdu. When the papers reappeared after weeks of silence at the end of August, their content had changed, Hussain said. Page numbers had been slashed. There were no detailed reports, no investigative pieces, no editorials, no analysis and definitely no opinion pieces.
“By no standards was the copy of Greater Kashmir that arrived our home a newspaper,” Hussain said. “Every report was a government version.” It was reduced to propaganda, he said.
Hussain canceled his subscription.
Journalists and editors who worked during the shutdown say the government restrictions made reporting all but impossible. And in the months since, they say colleagues have been intimidated, questioned and even charged under anti-terrorism laws for pursuing stories deemed critical of the government. Almost one year after the start of the communications blackout, while internet and phone lines have now largely been restored, many newspapers are relying on government advertising revenue to stay afloat.
All that has caused some to question whether an independent press in Jammu and Kashmir is possible at a time when readers need it most.
Communications blackouts are common in Jammu and Kashmir — there have been more than 200 since 2012.
Despite the pressures of operating in that kind of environment, more than 100 newspaper titles are published in the Kashmir valley, according to Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Information and Public Relations. They serve a population of more than 7 million people.
In the past, attempts have been made to use newspapers as a political weapon in Kashmir, an 86,000-square-mile patch of the Himalayas that nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have fought over since gaining independence in 1947, causing thousands to die. In 1989, an armed movement broke out in Kashmir, with militants demanding freedom from India or a merger with Pakistan.
“When the conflict began in the late 1980s, each party wanted the media to be on its side. The militant groups wanted to control the media and the government wanted to control the media,” said Altaf Hussain, senior journalist and former north India correspondent for the BBC.
Treading the dangerous middle ground between Indian security forces and militants, journalists are often viewed with suspicion from both sides. Some have paid with their lives.
“We have a fair idea who killed whom, but we resisted the pressures and that is how to date the freedom of press has been a reality in Kashmir,” said Hussain.
Raashid Maqbool, a media scholar who is pursuing a PhD on media history in Kashmir, said while advertising has long been used as a means of repression and coercion, the situation has worsened for local media since August 2019.
Until that point, Delhi gave Jammu and Kashmir state the power to have its own constitution, flag and limited autonomy over certain matters. In converting its status to a union territory, India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BPJ), was satisfying an election promise to exert more control over a region beset by violence. When the move was announced, a lockdown was immediately imposed to suppress dissent.
The region’s private sector tanked, making newspapers in Kashmir financially dependent on the government for their survival — not by direct funding but through advertising revenue.
This year, India dropped two spots to 142 in the World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, said India’s score had been “heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir.” The communications blackout made it “virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison,” it said.
CNN has requested comment from India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the administration of Jammu and Kashmir but has not received a response.
‘Nobody risked anything’
As Delhi tightened its control on the region last summer, journalists faced a mix of harassment, surveillance, intimidation and information policing. Roadblocks made it impossible to get to the office, and the lack of telephone and internet connections meant little independent information could be gathered and published anyway.
Newspapers that wanted to get back into print had to send their journalists to the government-controlled Media Facilitation Center. Under constant government surveillance, reporters there were asked to download approved material, including government press releases, for publication in their newspapers, some of the journalists said.
Shams Irfan, a senior reporter for weekly news magazine Kashmir Life until March, said too few computers and phones lines were made available to reporters — and even when they had a chance to file, connection speeds were frustratingly slow.
“It was like living in a dark age. In order to make a one-minute call from the Media Facilitation Center or to access to a computer connected with the internet, we had to sometimes wait for over an hour,” he said.
Irfan, who now works as a freelance journalist, said it was an open secret that journalists were kept under surveillance in Kashmir. In some instances, police would question some journalists about their stories. The pressure led to self-censorship, Irfan said.
“At times, journalists self-censor some information knowing they will get in trouble (if they) report the truth,” he said. “With no mechanism in place to safeguard journalists in a conflict zone like Kashmir, your organization is as helpless as you are.”
Independent journalists in Kashmir believe the local press succumbed to pressure after the August 5 shutdown.
“To say that the coverage of the Kashmir story in the local press has been shameful would be an understatement,” said Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani.
The former editor of the Kashmir Reader newspaper, Hilal Mir, said local media could have done better. “Their hands were tied, no doubt, but they also did nothing to resist it,” he said. “We can’t say what was at risk because nobody risked anything.”
But Masood Hussain, editor and publisher of Kashmir Life, rejects the idea that newspapers failed in their duty to be critical of the government during this period.
“The media tells readers what the stakeholders say. Where were Kashmir’s stakeholders? They all were in jail,” he said. “Tell me the day when the stakeholders of Kashmir, be it the separatists or the mainstream politicians spoke and the press didn’t report it?”
Social activists, lawyers, human rights activists, all were restricted and nobody was talking, Hussain said. There were no opinion pieces, he said, because most people “stopped sharing their opinions.”
Pressure on reporters
Many journalists say they stopped producing critical work.
Irfan Malik, then a reporter with Greater Kashmir newspaper, said Indian paramilitary and police arrived at his home just before midnight on August 14, 2019. The 26-year-old reporter was taken to the local police station in his hometown of Tral, almost 50 km south of Srinagar. He said he wasn’t questioned about anything specific and officers released him the next day.
“Until now, I am not being told why I was detained,” Malik said.
Malik was not alone.
In recent months, many journalists have been summoned to police stations and had cases filed against them under draconian laws. In some cases, reporters were asked to reveal the source of their stories and explain the pieces of reportage, according to Ishfaq Tantray, the General Secretary of the Kashmir Press Club.
“The summons to journalists and FIRs (First Information Reports) are clearly aimed at muzzling the press and, as a club, we denounce this practice,” Tantray said. “The authorities by these summons and FIRs want to create a fear psychosis among the journalists and force them to toe a particular line.” First Information Reports are police complaints that trigger an investigation, which could lead to a charge under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
The UAPA allows individuals named as suspected terrorists to be investigated by the National Investigation Agency, a state body established by the Indian government. The law was introduced to combat terrorism, but rights groups including Amnesty International say it’s being used to curb free speech.
In April this year, charges were filed under UAPA against a photojournalist Masrat Zahra and journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for unspecified social media posts allegedly promoting anti-nationalist content.
The same month, an FIR was filed against Peerzada Ashiq, Srinagar correspondent for English daily The Hindu — one of India’s leading newspapers — for a story about attempts by the families of killed militants to exhume their bodies. Authorities termed the story as “fake” news. To date, Ashiq has not been charged.
In June, the administration in Jammu and Kashmir tightened press freedoms even further by approving a new media policy. The “Media Policy-2020” authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations (DIPR) to “examine” the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities,” and take action against journalists and media organizations.
It also states that the government will not release advertisements to news outlets that “incite or tend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of lndia or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour.”
“It is definitely going to choke the space for the journalists in the region and curb whatever freedom of the press is left,” said Tantray, from the Kashmir Press Club.
Shrinking media landscape
With the fall in advertising revenue, restricted operating conditions and an atmosphere of fear among journalists, some newspapers have resorted to job cuts to survive.
In October, Malik was asked by Greater Kashmir to stop reporting for the newspaper. He was not sent an official dismissal email by the newspaper but was told verbally, like several other reporters, that he was no longer part of the organization. CNN’s requests to interview editors and management at Greater Kashmir about the reporting environment went unanswered.
Copy editors and reporters, especially those operating in more remote districts outside Srinagar for a variety of publications, were laid-off. Many who survived the job cuts found themselves muzzled.
Publications have had to toe the line — or risk going out of business. Masood, from Kashmir Life, said that copy is read again and again to ensure there’s nothing that can provoke a backlash.
“Earlier, once the copy was sub-edited and ready for publishing, it would be read just for grammatical errors by one person but now the same copy is re-read three to four times,” he said. “We are more cautious with what we write but that doesn’t mean we have stopped doing journalism.”
Currently, the front pages are normally filled by updates about the spread of the coronavirus. The shift in news focus has spared the media from testing the boundaries of the new media policy, said Hussain, the veteran Kashmir correspondent.
“Be it the pro-India or separatist leaders, everybody is hiding behind Covid-19 in Kashmir. There is no political activity, there are no statements issued by the pro-India or pro-freedom leadership, so local media doesn’t have to make any choices what to publish and what not to publish,” he said.
“Covid-19 situation has given breathing space to media in Kashmir, but when this pandemic passes and political activity resumes, we have to see how the local media behaves. We have to see whether they will face the challenges or succumb.”