The War on Journalism in Kashmir

Nov 2, 2023 | Blog, Monthly Blogs

Contemporary journalism is a difficult, thankless, and often dangerous job. Globally, the number of journalists unlawfully killed has increased. In 2022, 67 reporters were killed – most in Russia, Ukraine, and Haiti as a result of war and unrest. The number of unlawful detention of journalists is also at a record high. By the end of 2021, a total of 488 reporters were detained by government authorities, according to a report by Journalists Without Borders.

Since the illegal annexation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, India has plummeted to 161 out of 180 countries for Press Freedoms.

In this blog, we will examine how India has declared war on journalism in Kashmir to silence its critics and prevent its crimes from being seen by the world.

Any story could be your last

Any story that reports on  insurgency in Kashmir—interviewing militants, or criticizing the Indian government, can and will get a journalist arrested. It doesn’t even need to be a recent story. Fahad Shah, chief editor of the digital publication the Kashmir Walla was charged with terrorism for publishing “The Shackles of Slavery Will Break” by scholar Abdul Aala Fazili in 2011. He was also charged with four counts of sedition under India’s draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and has remained detained by the government since 2022.

In 2023, Irfan Mehraj was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on a “terror funding case”. It was a charge so brazen that it was condemned by Amnesty International.

Asif Sultan is another journalist whose detention precedes the 2019 annexation. He was arrested in 2018 after writing an article about an anti-Indian militant. In 2022, he was finally granted bail, only for new charges to be levied at the last moment before his scheduled release.

A similar story occurred with Sajad Gul, a journalism student who was arrested for tweeting a video protest that was carried out on the Kashmir Walla. Before his scheduled release he was charged under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) and remains in prison.

Throughout the J&K region, at least 35 journalists are known to be detained and often languishing in prison for years only to be charged with new crimes under the various draconian anti-terrorism and public safety acts.

A targeted campaign of intimidation and harassment

India’s goals are not subtle and it happens in plain sight. The goal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP is to make Jammu and Kashmir a Hindu-majority state through ethnic cleansing and displacement of   the existing Muslim populations.

This level of social engineering and settler-colonialism is a recipe for human rights abuses and rampant authoritarianism. To keep the atrocities hidden from both India and the world, it wages unceasing war on the one group of people that will report its crimes – journalists.

To achieve that goal the occupying authorities created the State Investigation Agency, which has ruthlessly targeted journalists. Not only are journalists arrested and subjected to indefinite detention, but they are subjected to high levels of harassment and intimidation.

The BBC launched an in-depth investigation into the assault on press freedoms in Kashmir. Many journalists would not give their names for fear of reprisals, but over 90 percent of journalists report being summoned by the police and interrogated about something they had written—Sometimes multiple times over the same story.

One reporter summed up his experiences, “I started getting calls from the police about a story I did. They kept asking why I’d done it. Then I was questioned in person. They said they knew everything about me and my family which was very scary. I kept thinking about whether I would be arrested or harmed physically.”

The detentions and intimidation have a compounding effect, not only do they silence existing journalists, but it also prevents journalists from entering the field.

In a report to NBC News, photojournalist Muneeb-ul-Islam reported on the clashes between Indian security forces and protesters. He stopped during the communications blackout in the aftermath of the occupation of 2019 and began to work as a construction worker. He hoped to return to journalism, but the intense repression kept him from returning to a profession he considered his calling.

“I cannot think of getting arrested or summoned to the police station by way of my reporting now, as I have a family responsibility to shoulder including a young child,” Islam said.

Independent journalists have been prevented from meeting in public such as when The Kashmir Press Club  in Srinagar was invaded by police and pro-Indian journalists. It remains forcibly shut down since January 2022. Another award winning photojournalist, Masrat Zahra has been advised that her passport has been impounded.

Journalists are also forbidden from leaving India. At least four journalists have had their visas canceled, including the case of Sanna Irshad Mattoo who was to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India.

State-sponsored digital terrorism

If journalists cannot be silenced by the heavy hand of government repression, the state will deprive journalists of a medium to publish their stories.

In 2021, the Indian government published the Information Technology Rules, which gives the state the final say over which content is allowed to be published online.

In a report to The Nation, A Srinagar-based lawyer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisal told a reporter, “The IT Act is one of many authoritarian tools at the disposal of the Indian state.… There is no process or procedure, no law or legality. They are not required to provide any reasons or justifications for their decisions. They can do whatever they want.”

They can remove content from social media, block news sites online, and ensure that content that is politically correct to the Modi government can be seen in India.

Using these rules, The Kashmir Walla has been blocked and cannot be viewed from Kashmir.

The closure of the Kashmir Walla is the first time the government has shut down a publication, but it won’t be the last. A Kashmiri journalist who left the valley after Shah’s arrest last year told The Nation, “For over four decades, thousands of Kashmiris have been forcibly disappeared; now we see fact, reality, and words disappearing. We also have mass graves for memory now.”

Final thoughts: Orwellian and out of control

Often the Indian government remains silent when criticized for its anti-journalistic practices. They hope that the short attention spans of the world’s readers will move on to other outrages happening around the globe.

When confronted with its abuses by the BBC, Manoj Sinha, the region’s top administrator, lied and said the press “enjoys absolute freedom” and provided the Orwellian justification that the journalists who were “detained and arrested on terror charges and for attempts to disrupt social harmony, not for journalism or for writing stories.”

India maintains a very combative attitude toward independent journalism from around the globe. Earlier this year, Indian authorities raided the offices of the BBC in response to the documentary ‘The Modi Question’ to silence foreign media. India has since loudly condemned the coverage it received in the BBC Article ‘Any story could be your last’ – India’s crackdown on Kashmir press is an affront to Law and Order in the region.

Journalism is a dangerous profession, but it is necessary to hold those in power accountable for their actions. The bravery and sacrifices of every journalist we have detailed in this blog have shown the world the crimes India commits against the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Any journalist unlawfully detained is a crime against humanity. The campaign of terror and intimidation should end. All journalists unlawfully detained should be released immediately.

It is time for them to come home and to the jobs they are passionate about.