Srinagar: Further tightening its grip on independent media coverage in Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has begun issuing orders under which journalists can be stopped from reporting if their work threatens “peace” and “public tranquility”.
The order, issued last month by the district magistrate of Kupwara, Imam Din, directs “unauthorised/unregistered” journalists to “complete their registration or obtain approval” (of administration) in this north Kashmir district before they can be allowed to perform their professional duties.
Legal experts and free speech activists have noted that the requirement of “registration” or government “authorisation” for journalists to perform their duties lacks statutory backing — the constitution guarantees freedom of the press and does not envisage any regulation of the sort being enforced — and the order seems to be an “attempt to muzzle independent media” in Kashmir.
Anjana Prakash, senior advocate and a former judge of the Patna high court, said that magistrates can only act in accordance with powers assigned by law to them and “cannot arrogate powers upon themselves”.
“Here the magistrate appears to be suffering from a misconception that he could do so,” the former judge told The Wire.
Titled ‘Registration of Media Person in the District’ (sic), the order issued by the “Government of Jammu and Kupwara (sic)” on August 24 asks the J&K Police that journalists should be “refrained from any media coverage until they complete their registration”.
“There are a number of unauthorised/unregistered media persons who are involved in the misuse of the social media by way of circulating fake and baseless news items for their own interest which has become nuisance for general public and District to be curbed and regulated (sic),” the order says.
Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective, a non-profit organisation defending the freedom of speech and expression in India, said there are enough provisions in the law to tackle the issue of fake news and a separate order “is not the solution”. She said access to information is a fundamental right of journalists.
“There is no such thing as ‘registration’ for journalists. It is an attempt to bring in a completely new and illegal procedure to regulate the media. There are no guidelines under any law, no clearly laid out norms as to defining journalists, the process of registration, proof of identity and definitely no consultative process in registering journalists,” she said.
Once a year, a government-appointed committee issues accreditation cards for staffers of media houses and some freelancers. The accreditation allows journalists to cover official functions from which non-accredited journalists may be barred.
“The process (of accreditation) is carried out on the basis of a quota system. However flawed and selective, accreditation is a process done in consultation with journalists and their representative bodies,” Seshu said.
In any case, official accreditation only covers the process of granting reporters access to official events and premises and does not mean the government can decide whether someone can work as a journalist or not.
Continued repression on media
Although activists say there are no legal provisions to stop journalists from reporting, the media has come under increasing pressure in Jammu and Kashmir following the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 when the erstwhile state was also downgraded into two union territories.
A series of new rules and laws have been invoked and adopted by the administration at present led by lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha which has hindered information gathering for media persons working out of Kashmir.
At least four journalists have been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) since Article 370 was read down while many more have complained of harassment, intimidation and assault by security forces for their reporting.
Journalists, who spoke with The Wire on condition of anonymity, said these tactics have had a cascading effect on their work as they resort to self-censorship or completely avoid reporting on “sensitive” issues.
Recently, four journalists were raided and their gadgets, including the phones of their parents, spouses and children, were seized by J&K Police for their alleged involvement in an anti-terror case in which some arrests have already been made. The journalists have not been intimated about the charges against them.
DM Kupwara, Imam Din, could not be reached for comment on the latest order, despite repeated attempts. His superior and divisional commissioner (Kashmir), P.K . Pole, defended the order, saying that the district magistrate is “fully empowered” under the Code of Criminal Procedures (CrPC) to take such action.
The CrPC itself was enacted in 1861 by the British in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny to curb political activism and dissent against the colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent.
“Sections 107 and 109 of the CrPC empower a district magistrate to take corrective measures if there is a threat to peace and public tranquility,” Pole told The Wire, adding that the use of “Government of Jammu and Kupwara” in the letterhead in which the order is typed “could be a typographical error.”
However, the Free Speech Collective said the constitution of India has provided freedom of speech and expression for ‘all’ citizens. The group termed the use of CrPC to regulate journalists as “patently unconstitutional.”
“The right of the media and of journalists to access and disseminate information devolves from Article 19 (1) (a). The latest order seems to be an attempt to ensure that only those stories come out of Kashmir which have official sanction,” Seshu said.
Under Section 107, CrPC, any person has to explain his conduct to an executive magistrate or execute a bond “for keeping peace” while Section 109 makes it mandatory for such person to show “good behaviour” if the magistrate “receives information” that the person was posing threat to “peace”.
“The order is clearly illegal and unsustainable in law. Such an order could not have been passed in purported exercise of powers (under Sections 107 and 109 CrPC). The scope and ambit of the sections are limited and does not contemplate of executive directions curbing free speech,” Anjana Prakash, the former high court judge said.