Significantly, there is no official curfew, no official notification for the shutdown. One journalist, Qazi Shibli from Anantnag, was detained in early August even before the clampdown, reportedly for tweeting about additional troop deployment, and Irfan Malik from Traal was the first journalist to be detained after the 5 August blockade. There is no clarity as to why he was picked up in the first place.
Journalists have been questioned by police and by investigating authorities for certain sensitive stories and have been pressurised to reveal their sources. Editors of some leading newspapers have also been subtly warned that they will face questioning by investigating authorities.
The attempt to harass senior journalists Fayaz Bukhari, Aijaz Hussain and Nazir Masoodi working with the international and reputed independent national media by issuing verbal orders to vacate government-allotted accommodation is another example of the pressure tactics being deployed. Prohibiting columnist and author Gowhar Geelani from travelling overseas on 31 August, is yet another instance of preventing Kashmiri voices from being heard on international platforms.
Amidst a continued “people’s strike” that shows no signs of abating, despite all attempts by the authorities to portray normalcy, journalists are faced with the most severe challenge of their careers, as they are denied access to information.
They do not possess the means to gather news, verify or authenticate the information and, if they do manage to do so, face huge challenges in disseminating it. While the situation is grim in Srinagar, even less is known about the districts, rural areas, small towns and border areas where army is in control of the flow of information.
While online news sites, a hitherto vibrant and bold media space, have had to shut down, newspapers and other publications have not been able to update their websites since 4 August, when the Internet was shut down. Select government officials, police and security forces have access to mobiles and to landlines. But citizens, including members of the media, have none.
Government figures claim that 26,000 landlines (with 95 working exchanges) across J&K have been restored, the majority in Jammu and Ladakh. In both areas, the ban on the Internet has been lifted but communication remains erratic. In Kashmir Valley, landlines are working only in certain areas and significantly, not in the Press Enclave, which houses most of the newspaper offices. The administration said that the Press Enclave falls within Lal Chowk exchange which has only 8000 lines but that since it is a ‘sensitive’ area, it would not be possible to provide landlines only to the Press Enclave.
The control over the media operates in bizarre ways. For journalists in Srinagar, a Media Facilitation Centre was set up on 10 August in a starred private hotel, reportedly rented on a daily basis at a huge cost by the state government. It is equipped with five computers, a BSNL internet connection and one phone line controlled by government officers attached to Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR). Journalists queue up to access the Internet, file stories and upload pages for their newspapers. Often, they wait an entire day just to send one file. If, as often happens, the media house they file for has queries or clarifications on their stories, they have no way of responding and stories are often held back or not used as a result.
The top-down approach of the government is reflected in the irregularly held press briefings by the administration in the Media Facilitation Centre, lasting about 10-15 minutes, where questions are either not taken or not answered. Manoj Pandita, senior SP and spokesperson, asked about the shooting of a shopkeeper last week, told a member of this team that journalists who sought follow ups could obtain more details on Twitter. The administration was constantly updating information on Kashmir on so many Twitter handles, he said. The irony of expecting journalists who have little or no access to the Internet to check social media networks for official information was hard to ignore. Indeed, the Twitter handles of government spokespersons are overactive, putting out reactions to a myriad news reports and statements and criticizing reportage by the media.
Clearly, these are for the consumption of national and international readers and audiences, completely beyond the ken of a population that is unable to access the Internet even if it is the subject of social media chatter.
The news that does emanate from Kashmir is overwhelmingly based on government pronouncements and updates on its activities. A cursory glance at the plethora of press releases issued by the government only underscores this: a press release about attendance in re-opened schools neatly bypassed the fact that students continue to stay away due to fear for their safety, and no possibility of communication with their families in case of a crisis. Another press release gave data on surgeries performed in government hospitals but a simple question by a journalist on the number of pellet victim injuries to Principal Secretary Rohit Kansal at his press briefing on 2 September went unanswered.
Journalists also operate under the ever-real threat of retribution for any adverse reports. Those who file reports based on verified information are summoned by police for questioning about their sources. As a result, most journalists said they were forced to practice self-censorship. Editors expressed concern that their district correspondents and stringers who were the backbone of their information ecosystem, have not been contactable for the last one month.
The ongoing information blackout has had an overarching impact on freedom of expression for all Kashmiris and put media freedom into grave peril. The basic democratic right to information has been denied to citizens and the mandate of the media to disseminate the truth without fear or favour has been severely endangered.
Censorship and control of news: While no official censorship or ban is in force, the lack of communication channels and restrictions on mobility have affected journalists in the following steps of news-gathering:-
• Shutdown of Internet and phones impacts receiving information about incidents or information from contacts and sources.
• Lack of mobility, restrictions on entering certain areas prevents primary news gathering.
• Being blocked from first hand verification and verification from witnesses in the absence of confirmation from official sources, means that the credibility of stories could be compromised.
• The inability to respond to playbacks and queries from editors on email and phone, especially regarding fact-checks, has meant that stories cannot be carried. It is thus not a matter of simply uploading a story at the Media Centre, but being available to clarify queries.
• In times of tension and conflict, absence of access to playback can be dangerous, since the choice of words is a sensitive matter in local contexts and can also endanger the journalist concerned.
• There is a clear ‘unofficial’ directive regarding what is permissible content.
• High ranking police officers reportedly came to media offices to tell media-persons to keep off some topics: protests, stone pelting, restrictions.
• The team heard that BJP members are landing up at media offices with 7-8 stories, demanding they be published every day. The “offer” is obviously hard to resist, all the more because there is already a dearth of publishable content.
• There is a clear anti-Pakistan stand — for example don’t give coverage to Imran Khan on the front page; even on sports pages, a paper carrying a photo of Pakistani cricketer Misbah ul Haq received a visit from the police.
• The absence of the editorial voice in major newspapers in Kashmir is in itself a clear message about the state of the media. Editorials, Op-eds and leads are now on topics such as: 'Vitamin A foods: Uses, benefits and top 10 dietary sources'; 'Want to ditch junk food?'; 'Should you consume caffeine during summer? The answer will surprise you'; 'Fruit produce'; 'Planetary thinking'; 'Our oceans and us'.
• Urdu papers, while overall faring better in terms of news reportage, for the most part have avoided editorials on the current crisis, instead carrying editorials such as Ghar ki safai kaisey ho (How to keep the house clean) or Jodon ka dard (Joint pain).
• Detention and threat of arrest. Even as the portent of things to come, in the shape of visible troop deployment, was visible in late July, Qazi Shibli, editor of the online publication, The Kashmiriyat, was detained in Anantnag in South Kashmir for tweets regarding troop deployment and for allegedly publishing an official order regarding deployment of additional paramilitary forces across Jammu and Kashmir.
• Irfan Malik, reporter with Greater Kashmir, the highest circulating English daily in the Valley, was detained on 14 August. According to his family, the security forces barged into his home in Traal in South Kashmir and took him away, subsequently detaining him in police lock-up. His family rushed to the Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar, and also met government authorities. This publicity created a furore and he was released on 17 August. The reason for his detention remains unknown.
• Several journalists in Srinagar and in the districts have been detained for brief periods, summoned to police stations and/or received visits from various arms of the police or investigating agencies with pressures to reveal their sources. However, they prefer not to talk publicly about their experiences or escalate the issue lest it invite reprisals.
• Assistant editor of Kashmir Narrator, Aasif Sultan, detained in August 2018 and charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) following his cover story on Burhan Wani, continues to be incarcerated.
The overall atmosphere of intimidation has increased trauma and stress. There is palpable fear due to intimidation of various kinds. Journalists have been summoned to police stations and/or received visits from the CID over various stories, demanding that sources be revealed. There is a very real apprehension of being booked under the sweeping and draconian PSA, UAPA or other counter-terror provisions. This has contributed to a high level of self-censorship. The blockade of communication has added to this sense of insecurity.
"If we are picked up or disappeared, no one will even come to know. We are telling each other: Don't do that story, stay safe". Said one senior journalist, "When life is at stake, credibility takes a back seat".
The international media has not been allowed direct access to Kashmir, but has managed coverage through senior local journalists and thereby been able to maintain a flow of credible news. However, there are severe pressures on local journalists reporting for the international media.
Overall, the international media has been able to provide a more holistic picture of the situation post-5 August than has appeared in the local or national media. The fall out has been a targeting of reporters with access to international publications or relatively independent national publications and channels. A 'List' with the names of seven journalists has reportedly been compiled. These are: Fayaz Bukhari (Reuters), Riyaz Masroor (BBC), Parvez Bukhari (AFP), Aijaz Hussain (AP), Nazir Masoodi (NDTV), Basharat Peer (NYT) and Mirza Waheed, writer resident in the UK.
Undermining of local media: Journalists spoke with some bitterness of the administration’s preferential treatment to ‘national’ media from Delhi. The latter, who parachuted in during the first days after the abrogation of Art 370, obtained the red-coloured movement passes meant for government officials and security forces while local media had to contend with the white-coloured citizen passes.
The non-local media were also given Internet access to file stories. As a local journalist put it, this was “the biggest news story for us and I couldn’t file anything. “International reporters and those from the national media outside the Kashmir Valley are totally dependent on the local media. They can move around and do stories only because of local journalists. But the blackout has stifled the Kashmiri voice. Local journalists shared their frustration and sense of alienation at being asked by the media houses they worked for to step aside while bureaus based in Delhi or elsewhere sent reporters to file stories.
'Embedded' journalists, mostly from the national media, are creating a narrative convenient to the government, said local journalists. Due to this there is hostility to the media in general. International media has the wherewithal to take on accusations of inauthenticity. For example the BBC video on the protest in Soura on 9 August was challenged by the Government of India, and BBC provided the uncut footage to establish its authenticity and rebut allegations of fake news.
The difficulties of solidarity among the media community in Kashmir is characteristic of any conflict situation, with a number of players — the government, intelligence agencies, armed forces and armed militant groups — pulling in different directions, providing or withholding access, spreading disinformation, within an overarching atmosphere of surveillance and intimidation.
There is a high level of mistrust and suspicion, and caution is the operative mode. With not much hope of support from media houses in case of incarceration or fake cases, journalists are wary of speaking out in groups. In such a context, the small but spirited Kashmir Working Journalists Association, the Kashmir Young Journalists Association and the emergence of Kashmir Press Club with a newly elected governing body as a vocal body provide a ray of hope.
The inability to operate freely has also had a deep psychological impact on journalists, inducing a sense of failing their own people. "We are supposed to tell their stories, but we are unable to, and feel helpless. Kashmiris are cornered, because we cannot report the story of Kashmir,” said a local journalist, echoing the sentiments of several of her colleagues.