“In the peak of the militancy in the ‘90s, there was no Internet, no mobiles then. But landlines worked, faxes worked. Mobility was not an issue. The media could move about freely. There was no harassment. Even during the Kargil war, we had no water, but phones worked.”
"In the media centre, when the officials respond, there are bursts of laughter as their answers are so absurd. When we asked them how many arrests were made, they say these are operational details and they can't share it."
“The local media in Kashmir is completely crushed between the Indian media and the International media. Can we tell our own stories? Do we even have the right to our own narrative?"
A month since the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the continuing information and communication clampdown in Kashmir has it made it difficult to get voices from the ground. The above are some of the distressed voices from Kashmir Valley recorded by two journalists, Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu, a two-member team from the Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) and the Free Speech Collective (FSC), who spent five days between August 30 and September 3 in the Valley.
Laxmi and Geeta’s findings are based on interviews with over 70 journalists, correspondents and editors of newspapers and news sites in Srinagar and south Kashmir, and members of the local administration and citizens. Their report titled 'News Behind the Barbed Wire: Kashmir’s Information Blockade', paints a rather grim picture that includes reports on the undermining of local journalists, self-censorship, alleged intimidation of reporters by police and politicians, as well as human rights violations.
Despite no official curfew in place, the Valley is experiencing restrictions on mobility and near total clampdown in communication. While government figures claim that 26,000 landlines across Jammu and Kashmir have been restored, the majority being in Jammu and Ladakh, landlines are working only in some areas of the Kashmir Valley. However, at the press enclave where most newspaper offices are located, none of the lines work. The administration justifies this, saying that the press enclave is in the ‘sensitive’ Lal Chowk area.
Geeta and Laxmi noted that in the absence of internet, and hurdles in independent news gathering, a bizarre way in which the authorities are trying to control the media is through a Media Facilitation Centre set up at a private hotel on August 10. This centre has five computers, a BSNL internet connection, and a phone line controlled and managed by government officials with the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR).
“Journalists queue up to access the Internet, file stories and upload pages for their newspapers. Often, they wait an entire day just to send one file. If, as often happens, the media house they file for has queries or clarifications on their stories, they have no way of responding and stories are often held back or not used as a result,” the report says.
Press conferences are also held infrequently, and last only 10-15 minutes. Journalists’ questions are either not taken, or not answered. For instance, Manoj Pandita, senior SP leader and spokesperson responded to a reporter’s question by saying they can obtain details for follow-ups on Twitter. This was ironic, given that the journalists can’t get online so easily.
Television cameras line up in anticipation of a press briefing at the Media Centre on September 2 addressed by Principal Secretary Rohit Kansal in Srinagar, the only administrative exercise to 'speak' to the media. The meeting lasted exactly 12 minutes. He took three questions and answered none.
Further, journalists' demand for the ban on internet to be lifted has been met with the administration saying they will try to have more computers at the Media Centre.
Allegations of intimidation and self-censorship
“When life is at stake, credibility takes a backseat,” one senior journalist told the NWMI team.
The report says that journalists in the Valley face the very real threat of retribution from state machinery if they publish unflattering narratives: “Journalists who file reports based on verified information are summoned by the police for questioning about their sources. As a result, most journalists we spoke to said they were forced to practice self-censorship.”
For instance, on August 14, Greater Kashmir’s (highest circulated English daily in the Valley) Irfan Malik, was detained by security forces, who, according to Irfan’s family, climbed the wall of his home in South Kashmir’s Traal and took him away. However, after public furore, he was released on August 17 without any explanation for his detention.
Many journalists have had similar experiences, but fear speaking about it publicly. Geeta and Laxmi heard statements like: “If we are picked up or disappeared, no one will even come to know" and “We are telling each other: Don’t do that story, stay safe.”
An ‘unofficial’ directive was reportedly in place about what could be published. Reporters told the NWMI team that high ranking police officials had allegedly told media persons to keep away from topics like protests and stone pelting. “The team heard that BJP members are landing up at media offices with 7-8 stories, demanding they be published every day,” the report said. There is also a clear anti-Pakistan stand that is being pushed.
Television journalists set up their camera at the historic Lal Chowk blocked by security forces before the Friday prayers on August 30.
Further, editors said that they had no contact from or information about their correspondents and stringers who were in the districts.
And while photojournalists were trying to do their best to keep visual records of what was happening, like the unprecedented deployment of troops, they were “regularly accosted and forced to delete footage of protests, especially stone pelting,” the report said.
Local media undermined
Local reporters noted that the administration had been preferring the ‘national’ media from Delhi. Non-local media were reportedly handed out the red-coloured movement pass given to government officials and security forces, and internet access to file stories. “’Embedded’ journalists, mostly from the national media are creating a narrative friendly to the government, said local journalists,” Geeta and Laxmi reported.
“Local journalists shared their frustration and sense of alienation at being asked by the media houses they worked for to step aside while bureaus based in Delhi or elsewhere sent reporters to file stories. 'I would have written the story differently. It was clear they did not want my report. So now, I don't file anything,' said one journalist working with a prominent newspaper,” the report added.
Newspaper vendor in Shopian. The stall was opened after more than 20 days and he made a two-hour journey to cover the 50 kms to Srinagar early in the morning to obtain copies for sale.
This environment has also put the local media in a financial crisis. The lack of government advertisements is compounded by the lack of revenue from private entities due to the lockdown. Major papers have laid off 75% of their staff, while seniors have taken pay-cuts of up to 30%.
Local journalists with national dailies are also concerned that their inability to file stories may result in them eventually losing their contracts. Freelancers too have found themselves in a soup. “On August 20, I finally managed to access my mail and found that I had 12 assignments. I couldn’t respond to a single one,” one said.
Women journalists are also facing challenges. Apart from severe restrictions on movement and heavily guarded roads, many do not have private transport, and are further under family pressure to stay safe.
International media under scrutiny too
While the report said that the international media has been able to do a somewhat better job at authentic reportage through senior local journalists, they too are facing the pressures.
Reportedly, a list of seven journalists namely Fayaz Bukhari (Reuters), Riyaz Masroor (BBC), Parvez Bukhari (AFP), Aijaz Hussain (AP), Nazir Masoodi (NDTV), Basharat Peer (NYT) and Mirza Waheed, writer resident in the UK, has been compiled by the authorities. Of these, Fayaz, Nazir and Aijaz, who are among the 70 plus journalists who have been allotted government quarters, have been verbally told to vacate immediately. Their demand for written eviction notices has not been met.
Unabated hunger for news: A reader walks along a deserted Pulwama road at 8:23 am on September 1, catching up on the news.
These issues have essentially meant that several stories on ground are not making it to the news, such as those of boys as young as 12 allegedly being picked up by the police from districts and being tortured before release; stories on the continued denial of healthcare; no clear statistics for pellet injuries; and human rights violations of journalists themselves.
The report concludes that it is imperative that internet and communication is restored, monitoring and surveillance of journalists is stopped, and the safety and access of journalists is ensured, “thus enabling the full exercise of the right to Freedom of Expression.”
Photos by Geeta Seshu and Laxmi Murthy