Protestor wearing "Journalism is not a crime" shirt.
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India Gags-up Media in Kashmir

News items and opinion pieces that are critical of the Indian government have been erased from the local newspaper archives. Kashmir Press Club was shut down recently after a coup staged by a group of pro-government journalists. Several journalists had to go through a pattern- arrest followed by bail and finally getting re-arrested under Public Safety Act (PSA) for writing and reporting things that are considered “anti-national” by the government. Any criticism of the government or reporting only on the conflict without highlighting the supposed development that the government is doing in the region is being rewarded with punishment. The punishment ranges from blacklisting the newspapers for government advertisements to arrest of journalists and reporters and even a ban on the newspapers themselves. By disincentivising dissent, the Indian administration wants to reduce the media fraternity in Kashmir to a coterie of stenographers who would highlight its propaganda through print media. Any dissenting journalist or reporter posing a threat to the government’s project of creating stenographers is being put in jail.

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A few days ago, a Ph.D. scholar from Kashmir University, Aala Fazili, was arrested for an article he wrote back in 2011 in The Kashmir Walla magazine. Fazili’s article titled “The Shackles of Slavery will Break” has been termed “highly provocative, seditious, and intended to create unrest in Jammu and Kashmir” by Jammu and Kashmir’s State Investigation Agency. Even though it has been 10 years since the article was published, there is no evidence that the article provoked unrest in Kashmir. If the article could not do anything in the last 10 years, that should be proof of its harmlessness. However, it is not Fazili who is the target, it is The Kashmir Walla and its editor Fahad Shah who is already in jail since February this year. He was arrested after his website reported on a gunfight where it provided space for the family members of the alleged militant where they claimed that their son killed in the gunfight was not a militant. While Shah was bailed by the court, he was soon re-arrested in connection with an FIR that was registered against him for another report in his magazine. Later, Shah was again bailed by the court. However, without being released he was booked under Public Safety Act (PSA). The PSA in Jammu and Kashmir is a preventive detention law under which a person is taken into custody to prevent them from acting harmfully against “the security of the state or the maintenance of the public order”. Under the PSA, a person can be detained for a period of three to six months without trial.

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Before Shah, Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter with The Kashmir Walla, was booked in January this year on charges of criminal conspiracy. He too had to go through this forbidding pattern of arrest, bail and rearrest. Gul was arrested for allegedly provoking people to “resort to violence and disturb public peace.” According to a police statement, Gul had “uploaded the objectionable videos with anti-national slogans raised by some women folk on the day when most wanted terrorist Saleem Parray was eliminated in Shalimar Srinagar.” The statement further read, “…the said person under the garb of a journalist is habitual of spreading disinformation/false narratives through different social media platforms in order to create ill will against the government by provoking general masses to resort to violence and disturb public peace and tranquillity.” After Gul was granted bail in the case, he was booked under PSA by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Another journalist, Asif Sultan, incarcerated since August 2018 was granted bail by a court in Srinagar early this month but he was later re-arrested under PSA. Asif was arrested in 2018 during a nocturnal raid and booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for allegedly “harnessing known militants”. He was working with a Srinagar-based weekly magazine Kashmir Narrator. One month before his arrest he had written a long profile of the slain militant commander Burhan Wani titled “Rise of Burhan”.

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What the Indian government actually wants from the journalists is to ignore the political news about the Kashmir conflict. This includes the news about the oppression of the Kashmiri people- killings, enforced disappearances, torture and illegal detentions. The government wants them to highlight the so-called positive aspect of Kashmir which it claims is development in the conflict-ridden area. This process had started way before the abrogation of Article 370. When Kamran Yousuf, a photojournalist based in Kashmir was arrested in 2017, even though he was accused of “pelting stones” at Indian security forces, the charge sheet filed by National Investigation Agency (NIA) against him also stated that he had “neglected his moral duty of covering the government’s developmental programs, such as skill-building workshops and blood donation drives.” It is clear from this that the Indian government only wants its own propaganda to come out of Kashmir and has made it crystal clear to the local journalists in Kashmir that it will not tolerate any kind of negative news on Kashmir. As a result, Kashmir-based local newspapers have been browbeaten into self-censorship. There have been reports of the disappearing work of Kashmiri journalists from the archives of local newspapers. News reports written before October 2019 that are critical of the government or contain any negative information about the government have disappeared from the websites of the local newspapers. Journalists believe that it is because of the mounting pressure by the government that the local newspapers had to do this. One of the journalists whose work disappeared argues that it is a “clear attempt to control narratives inside Kashmir” and “the idea is to write-off facts and truth about the situation in Kashmir”.

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Ever since the Narendra Modi-led Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and degraded the status of Jammu and Kashmir state to that of a Union Territory, journalists have been consistently harassed by the administration. It is not that there was complete freedom of press before but there was at least some semblance of freedom of the press. What is more worrying is that the government has taken legal steps to rein in journalists. On June 2, 2020, the UT administration of Jammu and Kashmir unveiled a new policy to examine the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national content”. The policy has reduced the role of journalists to that of stenographers. The aim of the policy, a 53-page document, is to kill the local media and build only the government narrative. As one journalist says, “this policy will simply convert journalism into public relations, which is not just sad but dangerous for democracy.”