Press freedom chilled in Kashmir as reporting is ‘criminalized’

According to Human Rights Watch, since 2019 at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases” in relation to their work.

Among the highest-profile cases is that of Fahad Shah, founder and editor in chief of the weekly magazine Kashmir Walla, who was arrested in February under anti-terror and sedition laws.

The case related to the magazine’s coverage of a gunfight the previous month between separatist rebels and Indian troops in which a teenage boy was killed; the magazine quoted family members challenging police claims that the boy was a militant.

Shah, 32, was released on bail and then rearrested over other reporting several times before being charged in March under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years. He was the second Kashmir Walla journalist to be charged under the law after Sajad Gul, 26, a trainee reporter who was detained over a social media post about the same gunfight.

In April, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, 35, was also re-arrested under the Public Safety Act after a court released him on bail in a 2018 case, saying the government had failed to provide evidence to support its claim that he had harbored militants. Police dossiers accuse the three men of threatening national security under the pretext of journalism.

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, which promotes press freedom in India, said authorities in Kashmir were using such legal maneuvers to prevent journalists from doing their work.

“It is a blatant abuse of law,” she said.

Her concerns were echoed by Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, who said court orders were not being respected.

“They are flaunting the orders of the judiciary at their own will, challenging the integrity of the courts, which is disturbing,” he said.

Kashmir’s director general of police and inspector general of police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Indian government forces in Srinagar after the protest last month.Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

Since coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have been accused of escalating attacks on independent media not just in Kashmir but also throughout India, which is ranked 150 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog.

Journalists in Kashmir say they have been actively targeted by authorities. A 53-page media policy released in 2020 leaves it to local officials to decide whether news reports are “fake,” “unethical” or “anti-national.” The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar was raided and shut down by local authorities at the beginning of this year.

But media experts say local journalism has also suffered simply because there are fewer local reporters.

Since 2019, many local news outlets in Kashmir have lost about half of their staff, because of the crackdown on dissent as well as economic reasons.

Two paramilitary soldiers
Two paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar in January.Nusrat Sidiq / NBC News

Noor-ul-Haq, a reporter for the English-language daily Rising Kashmir, said he and others were told to stop coming to work in late 2019 because of the communications blackout, a leave they thought would be short-term.

He was only called back to the paper this month. Though he had found work as a public relations officer at a school, “this is something which my heart always wants to do,” Haq said.

While Haq was able to find his way back, other journalists have become teachers and shopkeepers or joined family businesses.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of The Kashmir Times, an English-language daily that is one of the region’s oldest newspapers, said it was unfortunate to see how local journalists had been sidelined by state intimidation and self-censorship.

“You’ve got to feel bad for people who were passionate journalists but didn’t find any support from the organizations they were working in,” she said.

Kashmir Reader, an English-language daily whose coverage has long been criticized by the government, laid off almost 90 percent of its 40 employees in February.

Mohammad Hayat Bhat, the newspaper’s owner and editor in chief, said he was “helpless” to pay staff without the income provided by government advertisements, which have not appeared in the paper for more than three years.

“I don’t know how long this newspaper will survive,” he said, “but it’s getting more difficult with each passing day.”

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