The Kashmir valley was always a difficult terrain for journalists to operate in. However, following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on August 5, 2019, the police crackdowns on mediapersons have become more frequent, while the emergence of a new culture of informal summoning of journalists by the police—which the former are mostly unwilling to talk about owing to fear of reprisal—has worsened the situation.
In April 2020, the police over-reach in Kashmir hit the headlines worldwide after they filed first information reports (FIRs) and slapped anti-terror laws against a number of reporters and photojournalists. Around the same time, the Jammu and Kashmir Cyber Police invoked the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against two Kashmiri journalists, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra.
When the police stated the charges against them, it was apparent that the law enforcement agencies were only too enraged over the journalists’ articulation of their views on social media. In a statement, the Jammu & Kashmir Police said that Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone, Srinagar, had received information through reliable sources that “an individual namely Gowhar Geelani is indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platform which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India”. Earlier, the Jammu & Kashmir Police had booked a Kashmiri photojournalist named Masrat Zahra under the same Act for “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention”. Although no arrests were made in these cases, this punitive action of the police attracted condemnation from all quarters, with former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeting: “No ifs, no buts, no whataboutery—this campaign of FIRs against journalists & commentators in Kashmir IS WRONG & must stop. If your version of events is so weak that you have to charge these people it says more about what is happening in Kashmir than anything they have written.”
Several reporters working on the field have also complained about harsh treatment, and in some cases, manhandling, by the police. In December 2019, two reporters working for national news portals, Azaan Javaid and Anees Zargar, were reportedly beaten up in Srinagar while covering a protest at the Islamia College of Science and Commerce at Hawal in the capital city. The protest was organised as a show of solidarity with students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who had earlier been roughed up by the police for participating in demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The reporters alleged that even though they had shown their identity cards, the police snatched their mobile phones and assaulted them in full public glare. After news about this incident quickly spread and the Kashmir Press Club protested against it and demanded accountability. Haseeb Mughal, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), promised to take action against the erring personnel and claimed that a departmental inquiry had been initiated in this regard. However, journalists based in the Vally said that nothing really had changed on the ground.
New Media Policy
In June 2020, in a move that many averred was aimed at lawfully stifling independent and upright journalism, the Jammu & Kashmir administration came up with the new Media Policy-2020, a 53-page document that had a detailed list of do’s and don’ts for mediapersons. The new policy accorded unbridled power to the government to control the flow of news by empowering it to decide what constituted “fake, anti-national or unethical” news. Under this policy, the Department of Information and Public Relations can monitor the media and initiate action against an individual or an organisation for violation of its guidelines. The policy said: “Any individual or group indulging in fake news, unethical or anti-national activities or even plagiarism shall be de-empanelled, besides being proceeded against under law.”
The official bid to control media content was even more apparent when the authorities released a set of new stipulations banning the release of advertisements to publications that did not toe the official line. The stipulations said: “There will be no release of advertisements to such newspapers, publications, and journals which incite or tend to incite communal passions, preach violence, violate broad norms of public decency or carry out any acts or propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
Crackdown on The Kashmir Times
A series of events in September and October 2020 further brought to light the impunity with which the state was acting against journalists who were not willing to bow down to its diktats. On October 19, the Jammu and Kashmir administration sealed the office of The Kashmir Times, the oldest English daily in the erstwhile State. According to newspaper reports, officials from the Estates Department forced the newspaper’s employees out of the premises and sealed it without any prior intimation of the move.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the daily and daughter of Ved Bhasin, founder-editor of the newspaper and legendary Kashmiri journalist, had herself been evicted from her government-allotted quarters two weeks earlier, much in the same fashion.
Following the crackdown on her office, she tweeted: “Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation & eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu, where my belongings including valuables were handed over to ‘new allottee’. Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed. How peevish!”
Anuradha Bhasin had been critical of the government action in Kashmir on August 5, 2019, and had also petitioned the Supreme Court at the time to lift the communication blockade in Jammu & Kashmir. The state vindictiveness against her was evident. In a conversation with Frontline, she said that she had heard rumours that her quarters were being allotted to someone else but had received no official orders to vacate it, and that one Imran Ganai, the brother of Shehnaz Ganai, a former Member of the Legislative Council, had “illegally” occupied it. She alleged that her valuables were stolen even as the police watched but she was reluctant to lodge a complaint, adding that at the time, she was not even allowed to collect her belongings.
The Kashmir Times office is located in the press enclave of Srinagar. It was allotted to the newspaper by the government in 1993. Anuradha Bhasin said that the newspaper office in Srinagar and the living quarters in Jammu were allotted to her newspaper under the Jammu and Kashmir Estate Department rules for media personnel. What surprised many was that even on October 21, when Anuradha Bhasin got a stay order from the court, the Estates department still refused to unlock The Kashmir Times office until at least October 22.
In October last year, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided the office of the Greater Kashmir newspaper, the largest selling newspaper in Jammu & Kashmir, and the house of the senior journalist Parvaiz Bukhari. Bukhari had been a vocal critic of the government, and following the abrogation of Article 370, as Kashmir remained in a virtual cage of concertina wires, he had authored stories of torture of locals by the forces for international press.
A month earlier, Auqib Javeed, a reporter with a local English daily, was manhandled inside a police station in Srinagar after being summoned. As per his account, a masked man slapped him while he was inside the police station.
He had been called by the police after he published a report how the Cyber Police had been intimidating Twitter users who voiced their opinion against them. Around the same time, three Kashmiri reporters named Fayaz Ahmad, Mudasir Qadri and Junaid Rafiq were beaten up in south Kashmir while they were on the field. As per media reports, the police took away their phones and cameras.
State vs The Kashmir Walla
Fahad Shah, an independent journalist and owner-editor of The Kashmir Walla, said that August 5, 2019, had changed the entire media landscape of the Valley, with top editors succumbing to “invisible State coercion” and opting to “publish about nutritional value of some fruits and vegetables”, even as the tyrannised populace looked to them with hope for intervention. Fahad Shah started The Kashmir Walla as a blog in 2010 and later developed it into a weekly magazine. It is now counted by some as the lone native publication calling out the State’s excesses. “But there is a price to pay,” he said.
Fahad Shah’s experiences in the aftermath of August 5, 2019, capture the magnitude of the price he has had to pay for questioning the authorities. From an evidently motivated FIR carrying attempt-to-murder charges to a spate of formal and informal summons, and in one case, an ‘abduction’ by the police, Shah alleged that the people in power have tried everything to throttle the defiant tone of his magazine.
According to Shah, the authorities were alarmed soon after The Kashmir Walla interviewed a native journalist who had been detained in 2019, and after it published, in early 2020, a revealing account of a police raid in Budgam. Speaking to Frontline over phone, he said: “They were more in disbelief than in fury. They were in disbelief that we could do journalism as usual, at a time when top editors along with the political and bureaucratic elite had been silenced. From that point, their harassment and intimidation started.”
The authorities were riled when The Kashmir Walla ran a video story of an encounter site in Nawakadal in Srinagar in May 2020, showing the elimination of Junaid Sehrai, an elusive, wanted Hizbul Mujahideen militant even as houses crumbled and fire raged and the wailing of women and children reverberated in the air. (Junaid was the son of the separatist leader Ashraf Sehrai.) The Kashmir Walla’s depiction of the singular ruthlessness with which the forces were acting in Kashmir triggered a range of emotions and social media outburst, much to the discomfort of the forces.
The summons started. Fahad Shah was twice called by the authorities for what he described as “intense lecturing on how journalism ought to be”. He recounted: “There would be four-five senior officials present in a room; while one did all the talking, the others stared, as though to inject a sense of foreboding in me. The accusations were routine, that we focused only on violence and excluded coverage of their ‘development work’.”
Shah said there would be nothing left of journalism if reporters rehashed the police version of events and did not include eyewitness accounts; in the case of the Nawakadal encounter, the local accused the forces of looting their valuables after the gunfight was over.
The second time Shah was summoned was after his magazine published the story of a civilian’s killing in Sopore in July 2020. While the authorities maintained that the victim, a 64-year-old man _ who was seen with his four-year-old grandson atop his motionless body at the site of the incident—was shot during cross-fire during a clash with militants, The Kashmir Walla carried the statement of the victim’s daughter who alleged that the forces killed her father in a targeted firing. When Shah was summoned by the police, he thought he would be questioned for the Sopore story, but to his surprise the officials grilled him again over the Nawakadal encounter and said that they had registered an FIR against him, which included Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with attempt to murder.
In October, while Shah was returning from Punjab to Srinagar by road, the police stopped his car outside the Jawahar tunnel, searched the car, interrogated him and a photographer who was accompanying him, and pressured the two men to sit in a police van. Shah did not budge despite a volley of abuses from low-ranking officials. Ultimately, the police allowed him to travel in his car, but drove it themselves instead and took him to the Qazigund Police Station.
Shah said: “It was an abduction. They took away my cell-phone, they did not allow me to contact my lawyer or my family, and I was so scared that they might kill me without leaving a trace.”
However, to Shah’s good luck, an acquaintance had seen him entering the police station and he then raised an alarm. The police let go Shah after four hours of intense questioning on reporting done by him and his colleagues in The Kashmir Walla. The police denied that they had abducted him. While the police’s version cannot be definitively refuted and Shah’s first-person account cannot be definitively corroborated, several journalists in the valley told Frontline under the condition of anonymity that given the scale of police impunity in Kashmir, they fully believed Shah’s account. As recently as January 30, the police had registered another FIR against Shah for a report in The Kashmir Walla on how the Army pressured a local school to hold the Republic Day function.
Fahad Shah said that every day he had been hearing that he would be booked under the Public Safety Act, but he is determined to be the voice of the tyrannised come what may. A look at Srinagar’s local dailies and their subdued tone, however, underlines there are not many who share his indomitable will.