Targeting NewsClick: Lessons from the Kashmir Template
The resemblance is uncanny. The early morning knocks, the sudden swooping down on unsuspecting individuals, illegitimate confiscation of electronic devices, forced detentions, long gruelling hours of interrogation, arrests, weaponising work done by journalists years ago against them, framing of atrocious, ambiguous and untenable charges, the denial of FIR copies to the accused and arrest of two journalists including NewsClick’s founding editor, Prabir Purkayastha, under several criminal offences including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – everything seems like an extension of Kashmir.
Last week’s attacks are not in isolation. They are a part of coordinated targeting of journalists across India that has been happening for a while. But the egregious scale of the operation, which continues and whose exact magnitude we are still not aware of, shows that the government is trying to put into top gear its systemic mechanism of muzzling the press, human rights defenders and other dissenters.
Press freedom in India has been under severe strain under the Narendra Modi regime with journalists being criminalised and surveilled, and news outlets being crushed into silence or being taken over by government friendly powerful business houses, besides the co-option of news outlets to turn them into vehicles of government propaganda, fake news, disinformation, hate speech and vilification campaign of dissenters. This year, India slipped to the 161st rank among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. According to Free Speech Collective, 16 Indian journalists have been charged under UAPA, and seven are currently behind the bars. Reporters San Frontier, last year, declared India as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.
The present phase is both a continuation of what free press across India has faced in the last few years and an indication of its alarming acceleration. Though horrifying, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The Modi government, wallowing in its arrogance of brute power, and in its sheer desperation in the run up to next year’s elections, is out to sledgehammer every murmur of protest and criticism. It had prepared a successful test case in Kashmir, which is already being extended and replicated in small doses on a pan-Indian level.
Press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir was always differently threatened than rest of India, owing to Kashmir’s troubled history, New Delhi’s insecurity and a violent conflict. An already burnt out, exhausted and wearied press fell like a pack of cards when the BJP began its final assault on the media in the region post 2019. The government’s actions were driven by BJP’s pathological contempt for Kashmir’s Muslimness, but they were facilitated because journalists and intelligentsia who care about media’s independence and democracy in rest of the country failed to stand up.
In 2021, in the face of exacerbation of the crackdown on the media in Kashmir after a quick succession of arrests, criminal cases slapped on journalists and the forcible closure of the Kashmir Press Club, the only resistance came in the form of a few statements from different press bodies or comment articles by a few journalists. The moment required a countrywide sustained campaign. For whatever reason, it did not happen. I had warned several journalist friends in Delhi that if they didn’t speak vociferously against the horrifying clampdown in Kashmir, the Kashmir template would be extended. Many were already apprehensive of that but disagreed that the scale could be just as brazen as Kashmir. They were wrong.
In March 2023, in the wake of the new digital rules, banning of the BBC documentary and raids on BBC offices, I wrote an article warning about how the Kashmir experiment was being extended. I may have been wrong too.
The NewsClick operation surpasses some of the brazen and high-handed methods adopted in Kashmir. The charges in the FIR are not only vague. They are also aimed at casting a wider net with an intent to rope in many other journalists, activists, academics, and lawyers – anybody who is seen as a dissenter by a paranoid state. Between the fine lines of the FIR is the intent to establish guilt by association and guilt by fabricated association. This is something Kashmir is familiar with. But the NewsClick canvas is much bigger. And it’s only just begun.
It is now crystal clear that as the ruling BJP becomes more and more desperate ahead of the elections, the state’s attempts to crush the media on a pan-Indian scale are likely to be more audacious and accelerated than Kashmir which was already battered by years of repression and militarisation. But Kashmir’s trajectory of declining press freedom in a systemically created ecosystem of perpetuating fear, sense of impotence and powerlessness through repetitive and coordinated assaults offers useful lessons.
Among other things, it shows us that those who stood up were definitely crushed. But many of those who surrendered, partly or fully, were not spared either.
Even as journalists in Kashmir now rarely report, or cautiously evade more critical subjects, the crackdown on them still continues in an endless cycle. We don’t get to hear about it because Kashmir has moved far out of the news and information orbit.
To be fair, the particularities of Kashmir’s politics and history do not apply to mainland India. But there is enough similarity to help us connect the dots. Whether the Indian government can bulldoze free press on a pan-Indian scale as ably and as easily as it has done in Kashmir will depend not only on the accelerated and expansive clampdown but also on the quality and quantum of resistance to such actions.
This resistance must come from not just journalists but from all those who firmly believe that free press is crucial to democracy and the democratic rights of all citizens.
Therefore, speak we must. If it’s not now, it’s never.
Anuradha Bashin is Executive Editor of Kashmir Times