Press Freedom under attack in occupied Kashmir

April 23, 2021
Author: Dr. Ghulam N. Mir
Freedom of the press is essential for any democracy. It is the only tool for exposing the criminal actions of those in power and to make their actions known, not only to a country’s citizens but the world at large. Autocrats know this. It is why any power grab is always accompanied by severe curtailing of press freedoms. When the truth cannot be broadcast atrocities are easier to hide and the voices of dissent can be silenced, often forever.

While India is lauded as the world’s largest democracy; in recent years, there has been significant democratic backsliding led and promoted by the Modi Administration. Beginning in 2019, India launched the largest and longest media blackout in any democracy in the world. This censorship and retaliation against reporters in Kashmir is incompatible with the concept of democracy.

How to destroy a modern economy

There is no press freedom for Kashmir. The Indian government uses internet blackouts, police raids, and traumatic intimidation tactics on activists, journalists, and civilians to crush dissent and shield its brutal military occupation and demographic engineering.

On August 5, 2019, India revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which guaranteed autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. The night before, it shut off all mobile and landline signals, mobile data, and broadband data and a curfew was announced. Additional Indian troops were brought in and people were confined to their homes.

The communication blackout was wielded to cripple the Kashmiri economy. 50,000 jobs were lost in the handcraft sector after the internet shut down. More than 30,000 hotel and restaurant workers were displaced, and eCommerce ceased to exist.

The United Nations has declared that access to the internet is a fundamental human right. Yet the media blackout was allowed to last for 213 days. On March 4, 2020, Kashmiri citizens were allowed to access slower 2G mobile internet – just as the COVID-19 crisis was beginning.

India has also enabled a targeted system of online harassment against the Kashmiri diaspora around the world. This level of harassment is designed to silence those speaking out against the hardship their family members are experiencing. Additionally, it is an obfuscating tactic to draw focus away from the government’s actions.

The blackout hides Indian atrocities

As the media blackout gripped Jammu and Kashmir, flagrant human rights abuses began to take shape. Hundreds of Kashmiri leaders were imprisoned, even those who expressed support for remaining a part of the Hindu government of New Delhi, under the repressive Public Safety Act.

The sweep was broad in its scope – in addition to political leaders, journalists, human rights defenders, protestors, and innocent bystanders were also arrested as part of the crackdown.

They were imprisoned unlawfully, without formal charges, without a right to a trial. Families who were not isolated in their homes suddenly found themselves unable to reach loved ones without any idea of when it would end. All the while, Indian media proclaimed a new Kashmir was born.

What Indian authorities and their loyalists are attempting to silence is nothing short of a human rights disaster. The extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, displacement, and sexual violence that Kashmiris endure must be brought to light and accounted for. Access to widespread, reliable information is a matter of life or death for more than 13 million Kashmiris and is essential in the struggle for a just solution.

While exact figures remain elusive, as of 2020 the incursion by Indian military forces have killed over 300 Kashmiris, injured 750, destroyed nearly 1,000 dwellings, and have detained close to 3,000 political prisoners.

Expose the truth and end the occupation

Journalism can be a dangerous profession. Worldwide, 50 journalists were killed in 2020 alone. And while this number has fallen from earlier in the decade, the number of journalists killed in countries not at war has risen dramatically. Four of the 50 killed in 2020 lost their lives in India, and were likely deliberately targeted because of their profession.

One notable example is the story of Rakesh ‘Nirbhik’ Singh who was a reporter for Rashtriya Swaroop in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He was deliberately targeted by men who were sent by a corrupt official that Singh had criticized. Singh was doused with a highly flammable hand sanitizer and set on fire.

UNESCO has marked May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The World Kashmir Awareness Forum wishes to raise awareness for this day, not only for the brave journalists who put their lives at risk exposing the truth, but also so that the atrocities committed during the internet blackout be known and their perpetrators brought to justice.

The situation in Kashmir has demonstrated how people can be abused and their fundamental rights stripped from them. But it also shows how the media can be manipulated by those in power and used to silence criticism. Defending journalists and their ability to uncover a story, and question those in power without the threat of prison or death is the only way to safeguard democracy.