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Srinagar: Several Kashmir-based journalists have been subjected to probes by the Jammu and Kashmir police over the past couple of months; and while most have not been charged, the process has cast a chilling effect on the working of the media in the former state.
Activists and legal experts believe that these probes, in absence of any prima facie wrongdoing, are meant to curb press freedom, illustrating the growing constraints that journalists face in Kashmir since Article 370 was diluted by the Union government in August 2019.
Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti recently flagged the issue in her letter to the Editors Guild of India, pointing to the “continued harassment” of journalists in Kashmir “who work under tremendous pressure & speak truth to power.”
“We have witnessed the manner in which fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution have increasingly come under attack, especially in the last two years by a hostile and insecure dispensation,” she said in her letter.
“In addition to this harassment, [the] J&K [administration] also shot off a questionnaire to journalists here seeking personal & bizarre information such as their religious/ political affiliations & ties/ links with Pakistan,” the PDP chief said in a tweet.
The Wire tried reaching out to the director general of J&K Police Dilbag Singh and inspector general of police (Kashmir) Vijay Kumar, but they did not respond. This story will be updated if and when they respond.
The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) tweeted three images to substantiate the party chief’s allegations of shrinking press freedom in Kashmir. It included Mufti’s letter to the Editors Guild of India and the purported questionnaire, which she claimed was being served on journalists in Kashmir.
— J&K PDP (@jkpdp) September 27, 2021
Apart from basic details like ‘name’ and ‘place of residence’, the questionnaire asks the recipients to disclose details of their property, political allegiances along with proof of allegiance, affiliation with religious groups as well as the details of their relations or acquaintances, if any, in Pakistan.
The Wire spoke with several journalists, some of whom revealed they were being questioned by the J&K Police’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) for their work. They were asked to share in-depth details about their parents, spouses and even children who are minors.
Mohammad Raafi, a freelance writer, said the questioning has triggered a “sense of perpetual anxiety and fear” among Kashmiri journalists, “Earlier it (questioning journalists) was a routine, annual affair in which police would ask us for basic details about our organisation, etc. Now they are personalising it.”
Raafi, whose work on Kashmir appears on national and international news platforms, has been questioned twice in recent weeks by sleuths of the J&K police.
“For about two to three hours, they asked me some 30-35 questions. I did not want to answer some of their questions, but the situation was not favourable. I had no option but to respond,” he said.
“By personalising it and involving our families, they want to send a message that if they can come after me, they can come after my family as well. In absence of support structures, journalists have stopped chasing sensitive stories,” he added.
Some journalists who spoke with The Wire said they were also questioned about their religion and the Islamic sect they believe in.
“This is a diabolical method to perpetuate the communal mindset throughout the country in order to gain political mileage and relevance by demeaning and marginalising an entire community,” the PDP chief said in her letter, asking the guild to send a fact-finding team to Kashmir.
“I get calls (from police) very often, and that too at odd times of the day. I am worried about my mother now because she lives alone,” said a woman journalist based in Srinagar who got married recently.
Shrinking press freedom
Mufti’s letter comes days after four journalists – Showkat Motta, Shah Abbas, Hilal Mir and Azhar Qadri – were picked up from their Srinagar residences in early morning raids by the J&K police and questioned for their alleged role in the ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog case.
The police have seized the mobile phones of these journalists as well as those of their parents, spouses and even children, along with other digital devices like laptops and hard drives and some documents.
The J&K administration recently asked journalists in north Kashmir’s Kupwara and Bandipora districts to get themselves registered with it before they can be allowed to discharge their professional duties, a move which legal experts and free speech activists argue lacks statutory backing.
The administration has also threatened to stop journalists from reporting on Kashmir if their work is seen as a threat to “peace” and “public tranquility.” A Srinagar-based journalist was last month denied permission to visit a foreign country, citing security reasons.
“In addition to this, a sizeable number of journalists are either threatened or charged with sections under UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] or sedition law, simply because their reportage on J&K does not cater to the PR stunts of the ruling dispensation,” Mehbooba alleged.
Aakash Hassan, another independent journalist who lives in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, said he has begun to self-censor to avoid getting into the crosshairs of security agencies.
“They (cops) had visited my home while I was in Turkey. After returning, I was asked intimate questions about myself and my family. These are intimidatory tactics to silence the free press in Kashmir,” he said
Taming the local press
A senior journalist, who didn’t want to be named, said the J&K administration, which is run directly by New Delhi since Article 370 was read down, has “succeeded in taming the local newspapers.” He alleged that the newspapers, which depend on government ads for revenue, have stopped carrying news stories and opinions which might be critical of the administration.
“The government’s information department arbitrarily chokes the revenue of newspapers that are seen to be carrying critical content, undermining the fourth pillar of democracy. In recent weeks, they have been verbally ordered to refrain from using the word ‘militant’ in their content and replace it with terrorist,” he said.
The police questioning has triggered a wave of anxiety among journalists in Kashmir, two of whom – Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra, were booked by the J&K police under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) allegedly for their professional work in 2020.
“It is because of the ads distributed by the government that I am able to meet the monthly expenses which include salaries of staff and printing costs, otherwise I would have shut shop a long time ago,” said the owner of a local newspaper, who didn’t want to be named.
The questionnaire comes at a time when a Kashmir diaspora group in its latest report has accused social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram of silencing Kashmiri voices by frequently suspending accounts of artists, academics, and journalists based in and outside J&K.
“Corporations are siding with India’s suppression of Kashmiri digital rights, including the government’s blockade of internet and telecommunications access in the region, as well as its weaponisation of the law and policy to curb the expression of Kashmiri political aspirations in the digital space,” Stand With Kashmir said in its report.
Lack of accountability
Earlier this year, India was placed by the global media watchdog Reporters Without Border (RSF) at the 142nd rank out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom which stated that press freedom has significantly shrunk in the country following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019.
“India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials,” the RSF said in its latest report.
For the past two years, the UN special rapporteur for protection of the right to freedom of expression has written on at least three occasions to the Government of India over the reports of “arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists” in Kashmir.
In its latest communication to the Indian government on June 3 which was made public on August 25, the UN Rapporteur flagged the alleged incidents of harassment of Kashmir-based journalists Fahad Shah, Qazi Shibli, Sajad Gul and Auqib Javeed.
Geeta Seshu, a free speech activist, said the Union government led by the BJP has resorted to “several arbitrary moves” to curtail the freedom of speech and press in Kashmir after the dilution of Article 370.
“Intimidating journalists is a dark reminder of the abuse of official power. It is a move to choke the freedom of speech in Kashmir,” Geeta, who works with Free Speech Collective, a non-profit organisation defending the freedom of speech and expression in India, said.
“Journalists are meant to hold the system accountable but when the system turns against them and resorts to overt and covert means to threaten them, it will erode the system of accountability as well,” she added.