Srinagar: On Monday, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s estate department shut down the Srinagar offices of the Kashmir Times newspaper — the second publication to be evicted in a span of a week after Kashmir News Service, a local media agency.
Both publications had been allotted government quarters at the Press Enclave area in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.
Kashmir Times Editor Anuradha Bhasin alleged that the eviction from the office, where the paper operated for almost 30 years, came without any notice and is part of a crackdown launched by the union territory government since August last year when the special status of the erstwhile J&K state was revoked.
“In 2009 we had sought permission from the estates department to undertake construction, which was allowed but because it was government property the department was supposed to pay for the construction,” Bhasin said.
“Instead, they told us to pay from our pockets and that it will be adjusted in the rent that we are supposed to pay. In fact they owe us money.”
She added that the government did not offer any reason for shutting the office.
Journalists here, however, say the recent sealing of offices of Kashmiri publications is only a fraction of the harassment unleashed on the fraternity since last August.
As many as 18 journalists have been summoned or questioned by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and over a dozen were alleged to have been physically assaulted since August last year, according to data collected by ThePrint.
Two freelance journalists have been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in this period and a couple of others have had police cases lodged against them under other sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
“I have been reporting in Kashmir since 2002 and we have done some bold stories that were critical of authorities. Obviously, harassment of journalists has always been there, but what we are facing since 5 August last year is unprecedented,” said senior journalist Ishfaq Tantray who is also the general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club (KPC).
“There is a pattern to what journalists have been facing since last August. Some have been questioned over their stories. Others have been asked to reveal their sources.”
Among those summoned by the police include senior journalist Naseer Ganai who works for Outlook magazine. Ganai in February this year had written a story about a call for strike given by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Not only was Ganai questioned but he claimed that during his questioning, his phone was taken by the authorities and thoroughly checked before being handed back.
“The police asked me why I had written a story on the strike call. JKLF used to be covered as a beat by journalists covering politics. It was a news development and naturally for any journalist it had to be covered,” Ganai said.
Sources in the J&K Police, however, told ThePrint that the report furthered the agenda of a banned outfit. The JKLF was banned last year after the Pulwama attack.
“Even if the police logic is taken at face value, what was the need to take away my phone and check it? To what end?” said Ganai, who has nearly two decades of experience in covering Kashmir.
Director General of J&K Police, Dilbag Singh, did not respond to a request for an interview with ThePrint on the issue. He also did not respond to calls or to the queries sent on WhatsApp by ThePrint.
Inspector General of Police (Kashmir division) Vijay Kumar did not offer any comments when called on his mobile number. A subsequent email sent on his official email ID Tuesday night, requesting for his comments on allegations of harassment of journalists did not receive a response till the publishing of this report.
The J&K government spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, too did not respond to ThePrint’s queries for comment sent via WhatsApp.
Even senior journalists not spared
Media personnel — from freelancers to industry veterans — have been targeted.
Senior journalists Basharat Masood and Hakeem Irfan of The Indian Express and Economic Times were summoned, questioned and allegedly asked to reveal their sources for a story they had done in November last year on the administration restoring broadband internet connection after making subscribers sign an undertaking, promising to share all the contents and infrastructure of the internet as and when required by security agencies.
J&K Police sources, however, told ThePrint that no such undertaking existed, so the report was inaccurate.
Senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq of The Hindu was allegedly asked to reveal his sources for a story he had written on the number of detentions in J&K following the abrogation of Article 370.
Most recently Auqib Javeed, a journalist with Kashmir Observer, had written a story for Article 14 website about Kashmiri residents being questioned for their social media activity. Javeed claimed that he was slapped around by police as he waited for his questioning.
Like Ganai, Javeed’s phone was also allegedly taken for a search but when it was returned, several applications, including those meant for messaging, did not work.
“That incident has truly shaken me,” Javeed said. “I was waiting to be questioned when a masked policeman just slapped me. When I said I was a journalist and have been called for questioning, he slapped me again.”
The police in a press statement, however, denied the incident took place. A senior police official, on the condition of anonymity, told ThePrint that only journalists who had “inaccuracies in their stories” were being questioned. He didn’t specify the inaccuracies.
While for Ganai, Javeed and many others, things stopped at being questioned, freelance journalists Masarat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani were accused of posting anti-national content on social media and booked under the controversial UAPA, a law used against alleged terrorists.
Zahra had back in April told ThePrint that she had shared pictures from an assignment on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. One of the pictures included Shia mourners raising posters of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani; the police contended that Zahra’s “activities” were akin to glorifying militancy.
While Geelani was questioned at the Sadder police station in Srinagar, Zahra was questioned at the Cyber police station.
Such action has also come under scrutiny globally. In an email correspondence with ThePrint, Daniel Bastard, the Head of Asia-Pacific desk of the Reporters Without Borders, an global media rights organisation, said, “It seems that everything is designed to ensure that only the New Delhi-promoted version of events is being heard.
“Apart from a drastic control on information, J&K security forces have been obstructing the dissemination of articles and videos, intimidating reporters in the field, and every kind of judicial harassment and violation of the confidentiality of sources,” he added. “RSF has clearly witnessed a drastic surge in the number of journalists summoned over their story.”
We are self-censoring, say journalists
ThePrint spoke to around dozen journalists who said the summoning and harassment has led to self-censorship, especially in the local media.
According to government data with ThePrint, at present there are 164 empanelled publications, including newspapers, magazines, weeklies and fortnightlies in Kashmir eligible to receive advertisements.
These include 41 English dailies, 59 Urdu dailies and 56 English and Urdu weeklies. There are two Kashmiri Dailies. There are also 67 publications which are yet to be empanelled.
In Jammu, there are 248 empanelled publications including 84 English Dailies, 31 in Urdu, 24 in Hindi, 14 multilingual (Hindi/Dogri) weeklies, 37 Urdu weeklies and 30 English weeklies.
“The local media would hardly miss any stories, which would give perspective to people as well as journalists in national and international publications. The local press had a well established network of reporters deputed in every corner of J&K but this is not reflected in the kind of reportage that has come out from them in the past year,” said Shafat Farooq who works with the BBC in J&K.
“Recently, in Bemina, where dozens were injured with pellet fire in Muharram processions, local media blacked out the incident completely even though national and international media covered it,” he added.
Aakash Hassan, a freelance journalist, said that the fear began days before the scrapping of J&K’s special provisions.
“To understand what journalists went through we have to also examine the days ahead of abrogation. There were rumours that the government was planning mass arrests of politicians, lawyers, activists and journalists,” he said. “Mass arrests were inconceivable at that time but when arrests started to take place on the night of 4 August, the journalist fraternity waited for its turn. Everyday we would hear rumours of a list of journalists likely to be arrested.
“Mass arrest of journalists did not take place. Instead something worse happened. The fear psychosis had resulted in self-censorship,” he added.
“When journalists finally began to report the ground situation, their summoning began. Eventually, some were booked by police to create an example for the rest. Even today we receive calls from the administration or police even on stories that they don’t find objectionable.”
Last week, the J&K High Court had ruled that “fair and frank reporting of events by electronic and print media cannot be curbed”. The ruling came while quashing an FIR filed against a journalist with a national daily by Valley tour operators for a report on a stone pelting incident against tourists in 2018.
Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times, said that there is little accountability for the government’s actions.
“Doing journalism here was never easy. In the ’90s, journalists were under pressure from all sides — militant groups, security forces, the Ikhwan (government-backed militia),” she said. “But today the crackdown is largely done by the state. In a democratic country, a government can be held accountable, not the non-state actors. What happens then when the state itself is the one cracking down on you?”
Sajad Haider, the editor of Kashmir Observer and president of Kashmir Editors Guild, says all of this has brought the media here on its knees.
“In the ’90s, we hardly had any English dailies as most people here would read Urdu news. Once we burst onto the scene, it was challenging to sustain,” he said. “We had no resources or access and on top of that, we were seen suspiciously by the authorities. But we sustained. Now the situation is such that the media in Kashmir is on a death row. We are gasping for breath.”
One of the chief reasons for this, the senior editor said, is the “drying up of government advertisements”.
“Government advertisements are not a favour but a right. It is information that has to be made public and the best way to do it is to publish the information in credible newspapers and not flimsy newspapers,” Haider said.
He alleged that the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) was issuing advertisements to only a select few papers.
According to government documents, however, in Kashmir alone, advertisements worth Rs 32.34 crore were issued in August last year. Between April 2019 and March 2020, advertisements worth Rs 43.87 crore were issued.
The DIPR has denied the charges of bias.
“First of all, DIPR issues advertisements sent to us by client departments that specify the kind of newspapers they want to see their advertisements in,” said Haris Ahmed Handoo, joint director in the DIPR.
“DIPR does not generate advertisements, so where does the question arise that we are stopping advertisements? Yes, there the flow of issuing advertisements was affected for a few months due to Covid-19 pandemic but that was only for a couple of months. Now the flow of advertisements is as smooth as it was before. This is proved by the number of advertisements issued, which is 23,628 since 1 August, 2019.
“The government cannot act arbitrarily. We follow rules and regulations and whenever there has been a complaint we take appropriate action,” Handoo added.