Written By Shubham Bijalwan & Abhishek Sanwaria
While media censorship is an issue pestering the entire nation today, the situation in Kashmir is grave. The self-governing territory has become a testing laboratory for several undemocratic practices. Some half a dozen journalists have confirmed the reports of unjust practices being followed by the government authorities to suppress the individuals’ right to freedom of speech and expression. There have been nearly 350+ instances of Internet Shutdown in India since 2014, more than half of which have taken place in the Kashmir Valley. Evidently, for Kashmir, Internet Shutdowns have become the new normal. The most recent internet lapse was enforced on August 5, 2019, right when Article 370 was diluted, giving special status to Kashmir.
Visibly, the powerhouses in Kashmir expect media houses to act as their PR. Almost every parallel thought a Kashmiri Journalist has, is delegitimized through force or by levying anti-national charges against media persons. Without adhering to the formal protocols, the reporters are summoned to local police stations for interrogation purposes regarding their findings.
Mentioned hereby is the sequence of events the new form of censorship brought in mid-2020 that has left many media houses paralyzed to operate in the Valley.
- A Region-wide curfew was put in place in J&K on August 4, 2019, imposing a completeban on all communication channels, including landline, mobile network, and broadband.
- On August 5, 2019, GoI revoked the ‘special status’ (Article 370) of J&K. Offices of newspapers and publishing houses were shut down for around three months.
- Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times, filed a petition in SC to restore communication in J&K on August 10, 2019.
- The next day, the government revoked sponsorship (significant ad revenues) for Kashmir Times and other newspapers. Evidently, newspapers were not able to sustain themselves.
- A woman independently fighting for the fundamental constitutional right of “Freedom of Speech and Expression” and seeking basic freedom to practice a profession over the internet gets it all back from the government. Her Srinagar office got sealed. All the authorities, independence, and tools of a journalist were taken away.
Establishment of Media Facilitation Centres:
After the SC began hearing on November 19, 2019, communication was partially restored through landline telephones, but there was still no internet connection.
The local government started Media Facilitation Centres, which were small government-owned offices from where media houses had to conduct their operations under strict surveillance. At these centres, 100 to 200 journalists shared a common space, getting 15 minutes each.
- On January 10, 2020, the SC verdict was passed, with a declaration that the government could not ban the internet for prolonged periods. Additionally, the verdict seemed to seek the government to review the situation.
- Later, on June 2nd, 2020, a new Media Policy was announced to ensure that the government’s positive narrative reaches the The governmentalso got the right to decide what is anti-national and fake.
In a conversation about the implications of the Supreme Court’s judgment, Prabodh Jamwal, Editor-In-Chief, and Publisher of Kashmir Times said, “The SC declared the definition of a prolonged period to be 15 days, but then there is no clarity on whether the order could be revised every 15th day. Hence, the restriction continued for long durations.”
As a follow-up, the SC did not remove restrictions even after taking five months to decide on the petition. Moreover, the J&K authorities sealed the Srinagar office of Kashmir Times in October 2020.
Challenges faced by a Media Person in the Valley:
The journalists of the so-called “Paradise on Earth” regularly set off in fear of trepidation. They are repeatedly summoned, intimated, and detained by the government without giving sufficient justifications.
When the reporters publish the raw side of their opinions and stories on government policies,
- The journalists are forcibly picked up from their houses and are interrogated for hours.
- They are often charged with false cases of income tax fraud and hoax labor cases, involving them in terror trials.
The government’s way of controlling the media is becoming sophisticated with each passing day.
During the ground research, it was found that currently, two journalists from Srinagar are facing criminal charges for writing anti-national news stories.
Apparently, these arrests are not formal summons:
- The reporters are called up and interrogated against their will.
- They are discouraged and threatened to write about real events.
- Their offices are shut down.
- They are accused of circulating fake news without conducting a thorough trial and investigation.
- They are not given a chance to take back the advertising support that helps a newspaper run its operations.
Apart from what happened with Kashmir Times, there were other restrictions in place for the public at large and journalists specifically. Just after Article 370 was repealed in Kashmir, the government did not allow anyone from Jammu and Kashmir to travel outside of India. People belonging to J&K who wanted to travel abroad were detained at Delhi airport to contain the news of repeal within Kashmir.
One of the journalists, who did not wish to be identified, was detained on July 26, 2019, and was jailed for nine months for tweeting information about deploying additional troops in J&K.
Government Controlling not just Profession, but Life:
The restrictions in Kashmir do not stop at newspapers and print media outlets. Some journalists reported that there are restrictions on what you can post on your social media accounts.
There are sophisticated algorithms deployed by social media giants that restrict the reach of posts with specific keywords. The availability of high-speed internet is also an issue, with BSNL being the only high-speed internet provider in the valley.
The J&K administration launched a new media policy on June 2, 2020, which further supported it in going after the reporters and publications that do not toe the state’s line.
The answer to “Why does one need a separate media policy for J&K?” could be because the government officers can now decide for themselves what comes under the fake news category and thereby taking actions against the reporters. As a matter of fact, it is not a professional team of experts handling the decision. The information department officers exercise these implementations.
Imagine how there would never be any honest and raw story published against the administration since it is in the hands of the government to decide what finds its way to the public and what doesn’t.
This move is essential to gag the Media – The Fourth Pillar of The Democracy. The fact that the administration thought it is necessary to have a different media policy for Kashmir is astonishing and demotivating.
As per the policy,
- Any news item can be termed as fake or influenced by external propaganda by the administration comprising civil servants.
The new committee with the decision-making authority on fake or Anti-national news has no civilian representation or journalism expertise.
One of the heads under which a news item can be squashed from being published is cross border infiltration. The grey area with this classification is that there is no formal way to decide whether a news item has any cross-border filtration links.
It is at the discretion of a few selected individuals who act as the puppets of the state authorities. Another clause of the policy is that every journalist has to share their data with the investigative agency compulsorily, which is a breach of an individual’s privacy.
In the kind of environment that prevails in Jammu & Kashmir, this is just another nail in the coffin to silence any dissent from journalists.
|| A note from the authors
“Having heard many hoax stories from journalists who scream on television, it was a remarkably satisfying experience to listen to sincere journalists from Jammu & Kashmir during our work on this project. We take pride in playing a small role in spreading awareness about Media Censorship in India, particularly in Kashmir. This article highlights the key excerpts from our interaction with Mrs. Anuradha Bhasin and Mr. Pramod Jamwal, the Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of Kashmir Times.
Shubham B & Abhishek S. are student of IIM Ahmedabad