Besieged by threats and arrests, Kashmir's newspapers try to survive under Delhi’s rule
In an upscale coffee shop on the banks of River Jhelum, five Kashmiri journalists ponderously sip their tea. It is an overcast April evening and the warm cups feel comforting, but none of them is at ease. “One has to be careful about who is sitting at other tables,” said the most experienced journalist. “Eavesdropping on conversations is very common these days.”
It is not unusual for Kashmiri journalists to look over their shoulders in public spaces or be cautious about what they say. But the clouds of conflict and oppression have further thickened in the last few years, making them more suspicious than before.
“The ability of the State to make people suspect one another was a hallmark of Nazi Germany”, said Geeta Seshu, a journalist and co-founder of Free Speech Collective, a website that tracks violations of free speech in India.
Only four of the 24 journalists interviewed for this story agreed to be quoted. Others requested anonymity for fear of reproach from the State. “We had to change our policy of accepting stories with anonymous by-lines in order to accommodate pieces from Kashmir” said Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of Newslaundry, an Indian website focused on media critique.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration does not limit itself to censorship of stories anymore. It has brazenly attempted to define who is a journalist and what ‘acceptable’ journalism is. Those who don’t conform are harassed by the police or charged in crippling legal cases that drag on for decades.
In addition, people who voice their discontent to journalists are persecuted, which rob journalists of their sources. By targeting analysts and experts, the administration ensured the news media doesn’t include their perspectives in the stories they publish. The crackdown has had a chilling effect on journalists and on anyone who speaks to them.
What was once a vibrant media environment is now reduced to a sprinkling of driven journalists who are finding newer ways of doing their jobs by freelancing for Indian or international publications or launching membership models. “There is no substitute for honest journalism, no matter how bad the conditions are,” said a young editor of a Kashmiri news publication.
Matters became progressively worse in the past three years, when the decades-long Kashmir conflict was given a severe jolt.
Under New Delhi’s rule
On 5 August 2019, the Indian government abruptly brought the territories of Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir under its direct control, terminating the partial autonomy granted to the region 75 years before. In doing so, the BJP, the ruling Hindu nationalist party, kept its election promise of dissolving the ‘special status’ given to these territories, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Since then, a New Delhi-appointed Lieutenant Governor holds the highest seat of power, overshadowing local politicians and elected representatives.
The Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir is nestled between three adversaries with nuclear weapons: India to the south, Pakistan to the west and China to the east. For over 70 years, each of these countries has staked a claim to a portion of the region. However, the most bloody contests have been between India and Pakistan, which administer some parts of the region and have fought three wars since 1947.
Indian-administered Kashmir has seen a secessionist movement for the past three decades. Some sections of this movement were violent, a few favoured a merger with Pakistan, and some others preferred self-rule. In order to keep Kashmir under control, India sent troops to the territories and made the Kashmir valley the most militarised region in the world. According to some accounts, there are 30 security personnel for every civilian in the region.
The impact on the press
As soon as autonomy was reversed, the Kashmiri press reacted by protesting the shrinking space for dissent and protests. An independent Kashmiri news outlet, Free Press Kashmir, published an editorial with most of the words blacked out as a mark of protest against censorship.
However, measures were taken to ensure people in the region did not voice such frustrations repeatedly. The internet was shut down for 150 days, before India’s highest court ordered its restoration, making it the world’s longest internet shutdown in any democracy.
As the internet was being restored, the Indian administration imposed a ‘new media policy’, which essentially gave the administration powers to determine ‘fake news’ and penalise any reporting against ‘India’s integrity’ and ‘public decency’. Since the region has come under New Delhi’s direct rule, more than 35 journalists have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases for their reporting, according to Human Rights Watch.
What Kashmiri journalists do now
For the 14 million people living in Indian-administered Kashmir, there are more than a dozen daily newspapers and many more weekly newspapers in English and Urdu. Millions access Kashmiri news publications online. Local television channels were banned a decade or two ago, but social media and messaging apps continue to thrive.
Most Indian and Pakistani media worked from their respective lenses. Therefore, the people of Kashmir looked for their own perspectives to be reflected in Kashmiri newspapers and television channels. While Urdu newspapers caved to repression long ago, English newspapers had held out. “We needed to tell the world about Kashmiri issues,” said Raashid Maqbool, a media educator in Srinagar. As a result, Kashmiri English media has always been a potpourri of ideas, especially about peoples’ identities and religion.
This has changed in the last few years. Despite the diversity of news sources, there is no diversity in content. The most widely circulated newspapers in Kashmir carry similar stories and sometimes even use the same language. “That is because we print statements handed out to us by the administration,” said a senior editor from a widely-read newspaper. “That’s all. There is no scope for any other kind of journalism.”
Kashmiri news media that used to reflect local perspectives now mirror New Delhi’s point of view. The Indian government wants to convey that there is a sense of normalcy in the region, suggested Seshu. “They want to divert attention to big infrastructure projects in Jammu and hope that overshadows deeper economic, political and cultural issues in Kashmir,” she said.
Arrested for doing his job
On 13 April, Yashraj Sharma, a journalist at the digital news publication Kashmir Walla fielded calls from lawyers throughout the afternoon. The publication’s editor-in-chief, Fahad Shah, had been arrested under the Public Safety Act on 4 February, which allows for detentions without any trial for two years.
By the evening, Shah’s prosecutors were given six more weeks to make their case. “It looks like Fahad will remain in jail for another six weeks,” Sharma told me.
“There are nine criminal cases on our small team of 12 journalists. Our editor-in-chief and our intern have both been charged with the Public Security Act,” said Sharma, who took a pause and added: “Just for doing their jobs.”
In Shah’s case, senior journalists say, he was arrested literally for doing his job: reporting both sides of the story.
On 30 January, there was a gun fight between security forces and alleged militants in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Four men were killed. While the police claimed that all four were militants, the family members of one of the men claimed that he was innocent.
Shah’s publication, Kashmir Walla, carried the police version along with a contrasting version of the family. Shah was arrested a day later. “Since when is quoting both sides of the story tantamount to breach of public safety?” asked Sekhri from Newslaundry.
The police in the region haven't responded to my queries yet. This piece will be updated if they do.
Srinagar-based journalist Junaid Kathju, who has reported for different publications for over a decade, said that Kashmir Walla has now begun to use quotes from the security authorities in the first few paragraphs of the stories. Kashmiri police tweeted recently that Shah was arrested for “glorifying terrorism”, “spreading fake news” and “inciting the public.”
In and out of jail
Kashmir is no stranger to the tactic of “revolving door of arrests”. Shah’s case was no different.
On 4 February, Shah was first charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Under this law, the onus is on the individual to prove that he is not a terrorist. After he was granted bail under that charge, he was re-arrested under the Public Safety Act. On 17 April, he was slapped with another charge under the UAPA.
In Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan’s case, this “revolving door” policy was used curiously. He was granted bail on 5 April after spending almost four years in prison. Despite that, he was rearrested on 10 April and booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows the arrest of someone with the argument that they would be likely to commit additional crimes if they were released. “He was in prison for the past four years. Why detain him again now?” said G N Shaheen, a senior lawyer of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. Shaheen thinks this is just a tactic to keep him behind bars for two years without presenting any charges against him. Under the PSA, detainees do not have the right to apply for bail.
As the assistant editor at news magazine Kashmir Narrator, Sultan published in 2017 an article titled ‘The Rise of Burhan’, profiling a charismatic militant leader who had captured the imagination of an entire generation of Kashmiris.
Kashmir Narrator stopped publication after Sultan’s arrest. Its editor-in-chief, Showkat Motta, lends a hand in his family business selling groceries in a wholesale market.
In the early 1990s, when militancy had just begun in Kashmir, journalists interviewed gun-wielding militants/terrorists on camera. “Everyone, the public, the State and media valued the freedom of press back then,” said Alpana Kishore, who interviewed the infamous militant Mast Gul for the India Today group. “No one asked me why I was interviewing those who disagreed with the State.”
Who are the young journalists?
Not only are experienced journalists choosing to stay silent, a media researcher in Kashmir University said. The main worry is that Kashmir might not see a new crop of journalists who want to question the State.
A 19-year-old student from Srinagar started her summer internship in April 2022. “I was thrilled to intern at one of the largest circulating newspapers in Kashmir,” she said. Every morning, she jumped into SUVs that double up as public transport by ferrying commuters to some of the busiest parts of the city for a small price, and reached her office.
On her third day, just as she sat down to work, she received a call from a near-by police station. “For half an hour, they asked everything about me: where I study, what my parents do for a living, why my siblings live in Delhi, how much my father earns and what my social media handles were,” she said.
The scrutiny was the result of her doing what she learnt to do in journalism school. “My teacher told me to check every fact twice,” she said. So before publishing a story on a gun fight between the police and militants on 10 April, the student made calls to the local police. She didn’t get any response. “At that time, they told me they would call me back,” she said. They only called the following day to check her background.
Her editor later told me that such questioning had been common in the past two years. “Many of our interns do not want to work as journalists anymore,” he said. “Why should they face scrutiny for doing their work?”
Many independent Kashmiri news publications such as Kashmir Walla, Kashmir Narrator, Kashmir Life and Kashmiriyat were launched after 2008, when the valley erupted in mass protests against the death of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a separatist leader killed when police shot into a crowd of Muslims trying to march to the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir. “Many young journalists today saw their political awakening in 2008,” said Maqbool, the media educator. Most of those newsrooms are packed with young journalists who have only seen conflict throughout their lives.
After 2019, many journalists have fled the country or stayed away from reporting on controversial stories. “I now concentrate only on environmental and climate change stories,” said one of the young journalists I spoke to.
Umer Asif has been a journalist in Kashmir for more than a decade. He roams the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir valley’s largest city, in search of stories for Kashmir Walla, his online news publication. “People have stories about regular things like food, shelter and clothing,” he said. “Not all stories are about conflict.”
More and more journalists are choosing to work on environmental, gender or health stories. But in a region that has witnessed strife for over four decades, it is tough to keep conflict out of any issue. “We write about culture, education or health. Although conflict lingers around in the background of all of our stories, we do not make it the central point,” said Qazi Zaid, owner and editor of Free Press Kashmir, a weekly news magazine.
An officer of the Central Investigation Department of Jammu and Kashmir Police told me on the condition of anonymity that his department monitors all sorts of stories published by the newspapers. “We are on the lookout for anything that might seem inappropriate,” he said. When probed further about what ‘inappropriate’ meant, he said news stories should not question “India’s integrity, unity or dignity”.
An old post resurfaces
Kashmir Walla’s existence is hanging by a thread. Its office in Srinagar is under constant scrutiny. On 18 April, the police arrested a PhD student for an article he had written for the website in 2011. “Abdul Aala Fazili’s article, ‘The shackles of slavery will break’, is intended to create unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, and is written with the purpose of abetting the youth to take the path of violence by glorifying terrorism,” the police statement said.
“India may have succeeded in killing our people,” Fazili wrote in his piece. “[It may have succeded] in arresting and torturing our people, in destroying our properties, in brutalizing our society, but they will never succeed in the death of our dreams: the dream of free Kashmir, the dream of justice, the dream of living a dignified and prosperous life, the dream of living a life without fear. Our resistance will ensure our existence, which is under threat from Indian control.”
Back in 2011, Kashmir Walla was merely a blog with a very small readership. It was started a couple of years before as the personal blog of editor-in-chief Fahad Shah just as the internet was being introduced in the valley. “They were such badly written posts,” laughed Sharma, who pointed out the wrong grammar and the lack of spell checks.
However, Fazili’s nine-year-old post caught the attention of the administration at a time when digital archives of Kashmiri newspapers vanished. News publications such as Rising Kashmir, with a much wider circulation than Kashmir Walla, have no copies of their archives before 2019.
Some editors said archives were lost because they did not pay the maintenance fees required to keep the website alive. Other editors were evasive about the reasons why older articles vanished. “The administration is trying to literally erase our history,” a media scholar and professor in Kashmir told me. “Kashmiris are expected to forget anything that happened before 2019. Both Indians and the international community are expected to forget anything that happened to Kashmiris before then.”
“All the bylines I started my career with have vanished now,” said Gafira Qadir, a 25-year-old journalist in Srinagar.
A new age of repression
In many ways, the clock was reset when the region’s autonomy was dissolved. With newspaper archives vanishing, it was time to ensure journalists did not stray in the future as well.
The administration began by reigning in all kinds of detractors. By filing a case against The Hindu’s Kashmir correspondent, Peerzada Ashiq, the government warned liberal sections of the Indian media to toe the line, said the editor-in-chief of a major Kashmiri newspaper. The Hindu is a pan-Indian newspaper. “Even if some newspapers in India were writing articles critical of the government, they refrained from doing so after this,” he said.
Around the same time, Gowhar Geelani, a regular commentator on Indian TV channels, was charged under a strict law, for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley” through social media posts. “Gowhar’s case was a warning to everyone who would be vocal about the Kashmir cause on TV channels or social media,” said the same editor-in-chief. As a result, many on social media now censor themselves and are not as vocal on TV as they used to be.
A few months before Geelani’s and Ashiq’s cases, photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under the same law, which carries a minimum of seven years of imprisonment. She was the recipient of the 2020 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation. “That was a message to all women journalists of Kashmir,” this editor-in-chief said.
Journalists can’t rely on the judiciary for reprieve. On 26 April, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir said statements impling that Kashmir is occupied by the military or that people of the region have been reduced to slaves would not be protected by the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Indian Constitution. The Court was hearing a case against an advocate for Facebook posts criticising army killings of alleged civilians.
The administration took out full page ads that warned news media that “supporting and promoting terror is as grave as the actual act of terror”. They also began pushing the media to use specific language. In July 2021, the administration sent a statement to newspapers announcing that they had fired 11 government officials over alleged “terror links”. One senior editor said that all the major newspapers in Kashmir were asked to carry the word “terror” in the headline while carrying this news.
Until then, the Kashmiri media used the word “militant” to describe armed fighters who opposed the Indian state and they edited the official statements before publishing. “This was one of the first times when we copied and pasted a government handout without many changes,” said one of the senior editors I spoke with.
On 11 July 2021, Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Images, Kashmir Monitor and Kashmir Observer carried similar headlines and used the word “terror” in the headline. “We became stenographers on that day,” said a reporter who has reported on the conflict for the last two decades.
Kathju said that such a mandate was personally dangerous for journalists like him. “I live in a place where militants will not look at me kindly if I continue to use the word ‘terrorist’. I need to consider the safety of my family,” he said. Another journalist who lives in Downtown Srinagar, the hotbed of resistance activities, said his name was featured on a militant group’s ‘hit list’ in 2020.
How ‘independent’ outlets survive
Even before the region came under New Delhi’s control, India’s Home Affairs Ministry had asked the Jammu and Kashmir government to stop advertising in local newspapers that publish what it called “anti-national articles”.
Government advertising is the backbone of Kashmiri publications, especially since private businesses can’t thrive in a conflict-ridden environment. When advertising was withheld, news publications began to toe the line in order to survive.
However, publications like Kashmiriyat, Kashmir Narrator and Kashmir Walla used donor funding, personal funds of their editors and some advertising to keep their newsrooms afloat.
After COVID-19 wrecked its finances, Kashmir Walla began a membership programme. “Most of our members are from India,” said Sharma. Three other publications that depend on donors said about 75% of their donations come from mainland India. “Some liberal Indians donate out of guilt,” an editor told me.
Given the increased scrutiny over the content they publish, independent news outlets have begun rigorous fact-checks. All independent journalists said they use documentation to back up their claims. “We do not say a 17-year-old was arrested unless we have his school certificate to prove his age,” said Sharma.
Despite all the precautions, they are uncertain about their future. “Every time we click the publish button, we are not sure if that will be the last article we will publish,” Sharma said.
Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist, with a specific focus on human rights. Since 2011, she has reported from 12 countries across the world for outlets such as 'The New York Times', BBC, the 'Guardian', 'TIME', 'South China Morning Post' and 'The Hindu'. Samples of her work can be found here.