Press freedom chilled in Kashmir as reporting is ‘criminalized’

·6 min read

SRINAGAR, India — Working as a journalist in Kashmir, a disputed mountainous region split mainly between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, has never been easy.

As a photojournalist, Muneeb-ul-Islam says, he has been beaten by demonstrators and security forces alike while covering protests in Indian-administered Kashmir, the site of a decadeslong insurgency against New Delhi’s rule. But he was not deterred from the work that he considered his calling.

That changed in 2019, when India’s Hindu nationalist government revoked the limited autonomy that Kashmir had enjoyed for 70 years and began a harsh crackdown. Since then, Islam and others say, journalists in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, have faced an atmosphere of intimidation that is driving many of them out of the profession and keeping others from freely reporting what’s happening there to the world.

“You cannot think of doing journalism here, it appears all criminalized now,” said Islam, 31, who now runs a tailor shop in a village about 40 miles south of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.

Muneeb-ul-Islam (Nusrat Sidiq/NBC News)
Muneeb-ul-Islam (Nusrat Sidiq/NBC News)

When they changed Kashmir’s status, Indian officials argued it could bring an end to the insurgency. But the highly militarized region of 12.5 million people has continued to experience waves of violence, with hundreds of suspected militants, Indian security forces and civilians killed in recent years.

The government’s move in August 2019 was followed by more than six months of a communications blackout during which Kashmir had no internet access, hampering journalistic work as well as education and businesses.

“It was very hard during that time period to pursue a story and submit it because you didn’t have any lines of communication or internet — it was really hard to pursue any other job as well,” Islam said.

In the meantime, he found work at a construction site in his hometown, hoping to go back to his former job once the situation improved. But instead it has only worsened, he said, leading him to conclude he can no longer work as a journalist at all.

“I cannot think of getting arrested or summoned to the police station by way of my reporting now, as I have a family responsibility to shoulder including a young child,” Islam said.

The building of a closed Kashmir Press Club after takeover (Saqib Majeed / SOPA via Getty Images)
The building of a closed Kashmir Press Club after takeover (Saqib Majeed / SOPA via Getty Images)

According to Human Rights Watch, since 2019 at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases” in relation to their work.

Among the highest-profile cases is that of Fahad Shah, founder and editor in chief of the weekly magazine Kashmir Walla, who was arrested in February under anti-terror and sedition laws.

The case related to the magazine’s coverage of a gunfight the previous month between separatist rebels and Indian troops in which a teenage boy was killed; the magazine quoted family members challenging police claims that the boy was a militant.

Shah, 32, was released on bail and then rearrested over other reporting several times before being charged in March under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years. He was the second Kashmir Walla journalist to be charged under the law after Sajad Gul, 26, a trainee reporter who was detained over a social media post about the same gunfight.

In April, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, 35, was also rearrested under the Public Safety Act after a court released him on bail in a 2018 case, saying the government had failed to provide evidence to support its claim that he had harbored militants. Police dossiers accuse the three men of threatening national security under the pretext of journalism.

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, which promotes press freedom in India, said authorities in Kashmir were using such legal maneuvers to prevent journalists from doing their work.

“It is a blatant abuse of law,” she said.

Her concerns were echoed by Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, who said court orders were not being respected.

“They are flaunting the orders of the judiciary at their own will, challenging the integrity of the courts, which is disturbing,” he said.

Kashmir’s director general of police and inspector general of police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Indian Court Sentence Separatist Leader Yasin Malik To Life In Prison (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)
Indian Court Sentence Separatist Leader Yasin Malik To Life In Prison (Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

Since coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have been accused of escalating attacks on independent media not just in Kashmir but also throughout India, which is ranked 150 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog.

Journalists in Kashmir say they have been actively targeted by authorities. A 53-page media policy released in 2020 leaves it to local officials to decide whether news reports are “fake,” “unethical” or “anti-national.” The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar was raided and shut down by local authorities at the beginning of this year.

But media experts say local journalism has also suffered simply because there are fewer local reporters.

Since 2019, many local news outlets in Kashmir have lost about half of their staff, because of the crackdown on dissent as well as economic reasons.

Two paramilitary soldiers (Nusrat Sidiq/NBC News)
Two paramilitary soldiers (Nusrat Sidiq/NBC News)

Noor-ul-Haq, a reporter for the English-language daily Rising Kashmir, said he and others were told to stop coming to work in late 2019 because of the communications blackout, a leave they thought would be short-term.

He was only called back to the paper this month. Though he had found work as a public relations officer at a school, “this is something which my heart always wants to do,” Haq said.

While Haq was able to find his way back, other journalists have become teachers and shopkeepers or joined family businesses.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of The Kashmir Times, an English-language daily that is one of the region’s oldest newspapers, said it was unfortunate to see how local journalists had been sidelined by state intimidation and self-censorship.

“You’ve got to feel bad for people who were passionate journalists but didn’t find any support from the organizations they were working in,” she said.

Kashmir Reader, an English-language daily whose coverage has long been criticized by the government, laid off almost 90 percent of its 40 employees in February.

Mohammad Hayat Bhat, the newspaper’s owner and editor in chief, said he was “helpless” to pay staff without the income provided by government advertisements, which have not appeared in the paper for more than three years.

“I don’t know how long this newspaper will survive,” he said, “but it is getting more difficult with each passing day.”