Jism par qaid hai jazbaat pe zanjeerein hain
Fikr mehboos hai guftaar pe taazerein hain
(With caged bodies and chained emotions
Imprisoned are our thoughts and utterances censored)
This verse from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s epic poem, Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan, encapsulates the individual tragedy of an ordinary Kashmiri and also the collective tragedy of India-administered Kashmir. Daily life for most in the valley is a never-ending struggle: to exist and to survive to tell the tale. Surviving, they say, is an act of rebellion in the ‘new order’.
Since November 2022, when police raided the residences of at least 17 journalists and a media researcher in Kashmir following threats by suspected militants, the very identity of journalists is suspect. The two rounds of raids on those journalists were conducted as police considered their body of work problematic and anti-establishment. Ironically, while a blog from a self-styled militant outfit alleged that some journalists were pro-government and police “informers”, the police quickly lodged an First Information Report (FIR) and conducted searches on independent journalists, seizing their electronic gadgets, including laptops and mobile phones.
The aim appeared to make the very identity of journalists suspect, as stories related to police raids and orchestrated smear campaigns against journalists adds to their woes. Five journalists resigned from their jobs after being named. However, journalists alleged to be pro-government, were left unscathed by these raids.
In this ‘new order’, story tellers are criminalised and their messages tell a new tale.
The ‘new order’, according to the New Delhi-led administration headed by a Lieutenant Governor, is the Naya Kashmir (New Kashmir) post-August 5, 2019, a day when the restive region lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood. It is a tectonic shift which has rendered objective and fair chronicling of events on the ground as ‘acts of treason’. A new Media Policy 2020 introduced by the administration empowers a clerk or a bureaucrat in its Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) to initiate a legal action against a newspaper owner, proprietor, editor, journalist and reporter and paint their reportage ‘anti-national’, ‘seditious’ and ‘fake’.
“Post-August 2019, even the residual press freedom has been stifled in Jammu and Kashmir. From headlines to opinion pieces in all major newspapers, the narrative is identical. And it is the pro-government narrative. The fear in media fraternity is now deep-rooted. There is an industry of fear,” said an opinion editor of a Srinagar-based daily newspaper, requesting anonymity.
The Media Policy 2020 issued by the General Administration Department vide order number GDC-89/CM/2020 on 15 May 2020, sets out to “focus on creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the Government in media.” “J&K (India-administered Jammu and Kashmir) has significant law and order and security considerations. It has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border. In such a situation, it is extremely important that the efforts of ‘anti-social’ and ‘anti-national’ elements to disturb the peace are thwarted,” reads the media policy.
Besides several other problematic provisions in the J&K Media Policy, it also grants sweeping powers to a bureaucrat to decide the empanelment of newspapers.
Anuradha Bhasin, managing editor of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times, believes that the “bureaucrat is not operating out of his/her volition but doing so at the behest of entire administration and its machinery – which is ideologically wedded to the ruling dispensation in New Delhi.”
Bhasin, who has recently published the book ‘Dismantling The State’, told Free Speech Collective, “We journalists are not the mouthpieces of the administration to highlight its so-called development or achievements. To serve that purpose, it has its full-fledged PR wing.”
Erasure of digital archives
Barely six months after the new media policy was announced, several journalists in Kashmir, including Hilal Mir, a former editor, began to realize that their previous body of work had been wiped out of the newspaper websites they had worked for. For him, multiple searches on Google did not bear any fruit. Mir has served as editor with the Srinagar-based English dailies such as Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, and previously worked as assistant editor with the Hindustan Times in New Delhi. According to a report by Codastory.com in November 2021, Mir was “puzzled to find four years’ worth of his written work missing from the (newspaper) website.”
Mir is not alone. It turned out that he is one of dozens of reporters and journalists in the Kashmir Valley whose work has simply disappeared from the web pages and author archives of local newspapers. The writer of this piece is also a victim.
When the journalists reached out to their newspaper editors and online editors with a query why their work was missing from the archives, they did not get a satisfactory answer. The Codastory mentioned that at least seven present and former employees of the Srinagar-based Rising Kashmir, an English daily, had raised the issue before their editor but were instead ‘advised’ to lay emphasis on “stories of youth and positivity”.
Journalists working for Greater Kashmir, another English daily, say that soon after their editor-in-chief, Fayaz Kaloo, was formally interrogated, in July 2019, by an investigation agency in India’s capital New Delhi over the newspaper’s coverage of the civilian protests in the aftermath of a killing of militant commander, Burhan Wani, in July 2016, the articles began disappearing from the archive. Earlier, the owners of at least three newspapers had said that the government had either fully stopped or curtailed advertisements to them on account of their alleged ‘separatist content’. This erasure of memory has dealt a serious blow to journalism as an institution, which is meant to chronicle events and preserve memory for posterity. Censorship by the authorities destroys our individual and collective memories of the past.
Criminalising the story-tellers
Telling stories in a conflict-torn region like India-administered Jammu and Kashmir is fraught with danger. Often, journalists in Kashmir admit that they face a “hopeless situation” and say, “all of us are choked!” They share an overwhelming sense of fear and foreboding: any journalist can arbitrarily land in prison for telling a story, for making a comment, for a tweet or a Facebook post.
Three Kashmiri journalists are currently languishing in prisons. They are Asif Sultan, arrested from his Srinagar residence on August 27, 2018, and accused of ‘harbouring militancy’ in Kashmir has been incarcerated for over 1600 days now, Sajad Gul (booked under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) for activities allegedly ‘prejudicial to the security and sovereignty of India’) and Kashmirwalla Editor, Fahad Shah (arrested under the draconian Unlawful Prevention (Activities) Act, UAPA, sedition, and charged under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections of ‘rioting, abetment, attempt to murder, printing or engraving defamatory matter and public mischief).
On January 4, 2023, photojournalist Manan Dar, arrested on October 22, 2021 and charged with terrorism under the UAPA, was granted bail by Additional Sessions Judge Shailender Malik, whose order said that the allegation made by the NIA “does not appear to be cogent and true”. Previously, multimedia journalist Kamran Yusuf was charged under the UAPA and spent about six months at Delhi’s Tihar jail until he was granted bail. Only after five years of a mentally draining judicial process, he was discharged in an order by special judge Parveen Singh of the National Investigation Agency court, who said that the allegations were unsubstantiated opinions and evidence provided was on a very ‘weak footing.’
Leading journalists such as Peerzada Ashiq (The Hindu), Naseer Ganai (The Outlook), Masrat Zehra (independent journalist), Gowhar Geelani (journalist-author), Shahid Tantray (The Caravan) and dozens of others are facing charges under the UAPA, PSA, and various sections of the IPC, ranging from disturbing public order law, and Sections 153A, 107/151 CrPC (apprehension of threat to peace, law and order etc.
On June 8, 2022, the Jammu and Kashmir Police in a tweet claimed that a complaint had been filed against Tantray by unnamed “prominent persons” for his article “False Flags” published on 01 June 2022.Tantray was being accused of naming names in his article in a “mischievous manner which is akin to giving targets to terror groups and puts them in danger.”
Another adverse impact on journalists in Kashmir due to the new media policy is unbridled surveillance and arbitrary summoning of journalists to cyber police stations and local police stations or even the Indian army camps. According to this exhaustive report on journalism in Kashmir published in The Caravan magazine, since the abrogation of Art 370, scores of journalists in Kashmir have been summoned by various security agencies, cyber police, local intelligence sleuths and spy masters to their offices and police stations where they have faced unprecedented mental harassment.
Routine summons to police stations, prolonged personal interrogation, illegal surveillance which includes physical searches, stalking and confiscating their laptops, computers and mobile phone devices etc) and fake charges — of disturbing public tranquillity, disturbing law and order or acting prejudicial to the security and sovereignty of the state for instance — have adversely impacted journalism in Kashmir.
For journalists, the prolonged court proceedings, even if there is no formal arrest in some cases, is grave psychological punishment and adversely impacts their work. Journalists end up self-censoring, engage less with the public on social media platforms and do safe stories that are apolitical or related to human interest and entertainment.
Clipping their wings
More than 40 Kashmiri journalists have been put on ‘No Fly List’ (Exit Control List) and ‘Lookout Circulars’ issued against their names while some of them, including young Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Sanna Mattoo, have been prevented from flying at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. According to a story published in Economic Times in 2019, as many as 450 persons including prominent traders, civil society actors, politicians, journalists and lawyers were put on temporary ‘No Fly List’. Since then the list has been reviewed and updated from time to time.
On the intervening night of August 30 and September 1, 2019, journalist Gowhar Geelani was barred from flying to Bonn to attend Deutsche Welle’s training programme for editors and to rejoin Germany’s public broadcaster as Editor. In September 2021, journalist and academic Zahid Rafiq was not allowed to board a flight to the United States. He was to teach creative writing at the prestigious Cornell University there. Journalists Ruwa Shah and Aakash Hassan were not allowed to board international flights. Human rights activists like Bilal Bashir and Khurram Parvez also faced the same ordeal. Parvez, arrested under the UAPA in November 2021, is still in prison.
No reason was given for the deboarding of photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who ironically won the Pulitzer Prize for a photo showing the Indian government’s vaccination drive, twice – once in July 2022 to France and the second time, in October 2022 to USA to receive the Pulitzer award. Though condemned by several journalists’ organisations, the government remained unresponsive and refused to provide any clarity as to why she was stopped.
Getting the media to defame the media
Another dangerous trend is the vilification and smear campaigns launched by journalists close to the establishment that routinely target independent journalists on social media platforms and in widely circulated newspapers.
On June 12, 2022, the Srinagar-based newspaper Greater Kashmir published a report entitled ‘For endorsing terror factory, self-proclaimed keyboard warrior now in the dock’ by Emaad Makhdoomi which criticised the work of journalists like Shahid Tantray of Caravan magazine and Aasif Sultan (calling the journalist, in jail since 2018, as a ‘glaring example of an arm-chair factory of so-called scribes’).
Rising Kashmir newspapers published articles authored by Majeed Ahmed, a journalist little known in Kashmir’s media fraternity, which described journalists of repute as “Vultures of Single Narrative Feasting on Misery”. Other articles appear in right-wing sites targeting journalist Gowhar Geelani and posters that came up in Srinagar and other cities that described him as a ‘stenographer of terrorism’ and said he was ‘absconding’.
If ink and pen are snatched from me, shall I
Who have dipped my fingers in my heart’s blood complain—
Or if they seal my tongue, when I have made,
A mouth of every round link of my chain?
Faiz wrote these immortal verses originally in Urdu. The above translation is by Victor Kiernan, the eminent Marxist historian who knew Faiz in person and also knew the poet and his poetry. Faiz was himself a journalist and knew what it meant to be one.
(This is Part I of a special report on the media in Kashmir published in collaboration with the International Press Institute’s project on fighting attacks on journalists in South Asia. The author chose to remain anonymous).
(Eds: This piece has been updated for greater clarity)
Tomorrow – Part II: The Forgotten Stories