How Free is the Media in the Kashmir Valley?

Over the years, the government, through its various agencies, has made several attempts to muzzle the press.

New Delhi: India’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index, assessed and compiled by Reporters Without Borders has slipped again, from an already low 136 in 2017 to an even worse 138 in 2018, in a pool of 180 nations. Press freedom in the country has been categorised as being in a ‘difficult situation’. Nations with chequered records with respect to press freedom, such as Afghanistan, Palestine and Myanmar, find themselves ranked higher than India.

An important contributor to this dismal position is the level of press freedom in the conflict-ravaged state of Jammu and Kashmir. “The situation in the Kashmir Valley, a news black hole, contributed to the poor ranking of a country whose long tradition of vibrant media could nonetheless enable it to rise again in the Index,” the report says.

For journalists operating in the state, this is no surprise given that they are working in the toughest of conditions, coping with, among others, the J&K government and the central government, through its investigative agencies and paramilitary forces, all of whom have been accused of attempting to muzzle the press in the state, particularly in the Kashmir valley. In recent times, particularly during the unrest following Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s death in July 2016, the relationship of the Kashmiri media and the government has become even more unsteady.

On the other side of the spectrum, militant organisations and the Hurriyat, too, attempt to exert pressure on the media.

“There is pressure from all sides. The Hurriyat, the militants, government agencies, all exert their own pressures. They all want favourable reporting,” said Khurshid Wani, senior journalist based in Srinagar.

Direct government action

On July 18, 2016, Amitabh Mattoo, then advisor to J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, issued a clarification on her behalf, “she (Mufti) firmly believes in the freedom of expression for the press.”

The clarification, in this instance, was needed as a couple of days prior, the J&K police had raided the printing presses of all major English and Urdu dailies printed from the Kashmir valley in a coordinated operation at 2.30 a.m. They seized all printed copies of the newspapers for the day and also took away the printing plates to ensure that no further copies could be printed.

At the time, Naeem Akhtar, spokesperson for the government, had justified the action. “The undesirable step was taken to ensure peace. Pakistan has given a black day call. There is an attempt to subvert peace, it is an unusual situation so we were forced to take such an undesirable step,” he said.

However, after editors of all newspapers in the valley united to protest vociferously against the ban, the government backtracked, and Mufti, through Mattoo, had to issue a clarification. Mattoo went on to say that the ‘action’ came as a result of a decision taken at a local level without the knowledge of the chief minister and those who were responsible for this would be held responsible. “Heads will roll”, Mattoo had declared. Almost two years later, no one has been held responsible and no heads have rolled.

During the unrest in October 2016, the government decided to ban an English daily, the Kashmir Reader, in the valley. The newspaper had reported extensively on the killings of civilians at the hands of security forces during the unrest and profiled several victims at a time when several other newspapers in the valley stayed away from such reportage.

An order of the district magistrate of Srinagar, directed the Kashmir Reader to ‘abstain from printing and publishing the newspaper till further orders so that disturbance of public tranquillity is prevented’. The order went on to note that contents in the newspaper have been found to be of a nature than can ‘easily cause incitement of acts of violence’. It, however, stayed clear of mentioning any specific content. The ban remained in operation and the newspaper out of print for almost three months till December 28, when the embargo was lifted.

Indirect government action

The vulnerability of newspapers in Kashmir is higher because they rely almost entirely on government advertisements to generate revenue, as there are very few corporations and private businesses in the valley. “The private sector is non-existent, so we are dependent on government advertisements for sustenance. In a sense, the government is our client,” said Bashir Manzar, senior journalist and editor-in-chief of Kashmir Images.

And it is the government that the newspapers in the valley are supposed to hold accountable. Does this impact freedom of the press? “Not directly,” says Manzar. “Papers in the valley are still doing some quality work despite this pressure. But, indirectly, yes there can be some impact,” he said.

Manzar’s newspaper is a 16-page daily which has often been required to be cut down to eight,10 or 12 pages due to shortage of government advertisements. “It does happen from time to time – sometimes when the government is not happy with someone’s reporting, the advertisements will be reduced,” he said.

The ban on the Kashmir Reader was lifted after three months. Credit: Cresent Law/Facebook

For the Free Press Kashmir, which is not eligible for government advertisements being a new publication, the situation is even worse. According to Qazi Zaid, its editor, it is a struggle to survive as the publication relies entirely on private advertisements, a model doomed to fail in the Kashmir valley.

“It is extremely difficult to survive on private advertisements alone as the economic situation in Kashmir is not very prosperous, as of now. Therefore, the flow of advertisements from private players cannot be entirely relied upon,” said Zaid.

For now, Free Press Kashmir is surviving on funding provided by its founding editors, but eventually that will run out. “I don’t know what the future holds for us. We are looking to move away from the advertisement model and are trying to raise funds from different sources. Whether we will succeed or not is a different matter,” he added.

Role of security forces, investigative agencies

The arrest of a 24-year-old freelance photo-journalist, Kamran Yusuf in September 2017 by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) captured headlines for its arbitrariness and was condemned by several national and international journalist networks. When the NIA made the arrest, it claimed that Yusuf was involved in ‘stone-pelting’ and ‘mobilising support against security personnel through social media’. Through the course of the hearing, Yusuf’s lawyers argued that he was present at stone-pelting incidents to cover them as part of his job being a photo-journalist.

The NIA filed a chargesheet in February and ‘charged’ Yusuf with not being a ‘real journalist’ as according to the NIA, Yusuf failed in his ‘moral duties as a journalist’. “Had he been a real journalist/stringer by profession, he may have performed one of the moral duty of a journalist which is to cover the activities and happening (good or bad) in his jurisdiction. He had never covered any developmental activity of any Government Department/Agency, any inauguration of Hospital, School Building, Road, Bridge, statement of political party in power or any other social/developmental activity by state government or Govt of India,” the chargesheet read.

In March, Yusuf was granted bail by a Delhi court, which noted in its order that the NIA had failed to provide a ‘single photo/video’ to show that Yusuf was ‘indulging in stone pelting activities at any site’. The court also observed that mere ‘presence’ of a person at the site of incident is ‘not sufficient to implicate’.

Kamran Yusuf. Credit: Twitter

The arrest of a 24-year-old freelance photo-journalist, Kamran Yusuf, in September 2017 by the National Investigative Agency captured headlines for its arbitrariness. Credit: Twitter

Reporters and photo-journalists in the valley have been roughed up on several occasions by the security forces. Veteran photo-journalist Meraj-ud-din, has been beaten ‘too many times to recall’. “I have forgotten how many times. It was very frequent in my early days when I used to go to the site of every incident. The police or paramilitary forces would catch hold of us and beat us badly,” he said.

In late 2016, Fahad Shah, founding editor of the valley-based magazine, The Kashmir Walla, was assaulted by security personnel while reporting in South Kashmir. “I was going to cover a rally and was assaulted by security personnel when I told them I am a reporter,” Shah said. He suffered injuries to his arms, hands and legs.

In addition to physical injuries, journalists in the valley also suffer the emotional pain of reporting a conflict in which people they know may be involved. “Sometimes, when we reach a funeral, we discover that it was a friend or a relative who had died,” said a reporter.

Since the armed conflict began in J&K in the 1990s, as many as 14 journalists have been killed in the state either by militants or ‘unknown persons’. In addition, several journalists have been attacked by militants and have narrowly survived. During the 1990s, journalists were also kidnapped by militants and the Ikhwan (a government-backed counter-insurgent group that operated in the 90s).

Lingering Threat From Militants 

Although things have improved now as militant organisations have weakened in the valley post the early 2000s, a lingering threat remains. “Sometimes we do receive calls from militants when they are unhappy about our reporting. But it’s not like the 1990s, when they would enter our offices and dictate stories at gunpoint,” a senior journalist based in Srinagar said, seeking anonymity.

However, recently, Zakir Rashid Bhat, better known as Zakir Musa, who heads al-Qaida’s Kashmir cell, expressed displeasure at the way funerals of slain militants were being reported by photojournalists. “We see that most of the times they (photojournalists) take pictures of our sisters and mothers just so their photos can fetch them a good price,” a statement said.

Commenting on the permissibility in Islam of men and women mingling, the statement said, “our tehreek (movement) is Islam and anything which is not permitted in Islam will only bring us misery and no good.”

The Musa-led group has threatened photojournalists that their ‘cameras will be broken’ if they continued to take pictures of women participants at funerals.

According to Khurshid Wani, reporting from Kashmir is like ‘walking a tight-rope’. “There are so many stakeholders in this conflict and each of them has conflicting viewpoints. They all want their viewpoints represented. So, our reporting is bound to infuriate one side or the other,” Wani said.

Journalists in the valley are often branded as ‘pro-India’, ‘anti-India’, ‘Indian agent’, ‘ISI agent’. The branding is not always mutually exclusive. “A test for a neutral journalist in the valley is whether or not he/she has been called all these names,” Manzar said.