As the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day today, there’s little to celebrate about the state of press freedom in Kashmir.
The day is a reminder of the challenges facing its journalism and journalists, both under consistent pressure from the state agencies. In a stifling media environment, where the state makes it impossible and financially unviable to practice honest public-service reporting, survival becomes a priority, not speaking truth to the power.
The local print media has been particularly crippled of late, severely diminishing its capacity.
In an unprecedented move in February this year, all government ads were banned from two prominent dailies, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. This deprived the dailies of a major source of revenue, which has affected the livelihood of staff and dozens of other people working with the organisations. No formal orders were issued to the newspapers, but they were reportedly told that the ban was imposed following instructions from the “higher officials”.
This is not the first instance of such arm-twisting by the state. Since September 2016, the two dailies have also been banned from getting DAVP advertisement.
After Burhan Wani’s killing in the summer of 2016, Kashmir Reader was also banned by the government for three months. Its publication could “easily incite acts of violence and disturb peace and tranquility”, the Srinagar district magistrate wrote.
According to the UN, the World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty”.
However, in Kashmir, the day is a reminder of how fundamental principles of press freedom are easily trampled upon.
Attacks on freedom of the press have become an acceptable routine. The independence of media, or whatever remains of it in Kashmir, is sought to be further undermined, and instead made dependent on the state and forced to toe its line.
Today is also an occasion to remember journalists who have been killed, blinded by pellets, hit by bullets, beaten, and harassed by state agencies in the line of duty. It is a day to amplify the call for the release of Kashmiri journalists currently in jail.
Take the case of Asif Sultan, who will complete a year of imprisonment in August 2019. Asif also recently featured in a list of the 10 ‘Most Urgent’ threats to press freedom across the globe, released every month by the One Free Press Coalition.
“Imprisoned on anti-state charges for covering the conflict, Aasif Sultan, a reporter with Kashmir Narrator, was arrested on anti-state charges in August 2018. He has been repeatedly interrogated and asked to reveal sources by police, and has experienced health issues as he remains behind bars,” the Coalition noted.
While Manipuri journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem recently walked out of prison in Sajiwa, following widespread outrage over his detention. Aasif Sultan remains in jail. There hasn’t been much condemnation in Delhi or elsewhere over his continued detention.
A few days ago, Kashmir’s popular cartoonist Suhail Naqashbandi in a moving Facebook post announced his departure from the leading daily Greater Kashmir, where he had worked as an editorial cartoonist for four years. He cited pressures and censorship enforced by the state among reasons for quitting.
“The establishment’s pressure tactics were always there and the newspaper stood up against it most of the times and let me have the freedom of creating the cartoons,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “But of late, the chinks started forming in that defense and the pressure trickled down to everyone including me.”
The cartoonist pointed out that the “levels of censorship became stringent especially after February 2019 when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry asked the J&K administration to identify what they termed as ‘resistance art’ coming out from Kashmir. Basically, any artistic or literary voice that protests against the oppression.”
State agencies are now afraid of the imagination of cartoonists in Kashmir.
When artists, cartoonists, and journalists are forced to quit their positions, curbs put on their work unless they draw and report what the state likes, the only outcome is the death of freedom of expression. But in the end, artists and journalists also find their ways, and different mediums, to subvert the suppressive tactics to freely reach out to their people without fear. They’ll continue to do what they’re supposed to do – ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’.
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and writer based in Srinagar.