A month after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, on August 5, 2019, the continuing shutdown of communication in the Kashmir valley has resulted in the throttling of independent media. As journalists continue to face severe restrictions in all the processes of news-gathering, verification and dissemination, the free flow of information has been blocked, leaving in its wake a troubled silence that bodes ill for freedom of expression and media freedom.
A two-member team from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and the Free Speech Collective (FSC) spent five days in the Valley between August 30 and September 3, 2019 to determine the impact of the severe crackdown on communication on the media in Kashmir. The team spoke to more than 70 journalists, correspondents and editors of newspapers and news-sites in Srinagar and South Kashmir, members of the local administration and citizens.
In this, the latest and most intense phase in the ongoing conflict on Kashmir, the government of India has pulled out all the stops – political, legislative, militaristic and punitive. It has detained and arrested scores of people, including leaders of mainstream political parties. No other democratic government has imposed a communication blockade of this scale and proportion in Kashmir.
What are the implications of these measures for freedom of expression and for media freedom in Kashmir? Will this model be replicated elsewhere, when it puts in place harsh political policies and when it is faced with dissent?
Our examination revealed a grim and despairing picture of the media in Kashmir, fighting for survival against the most incredible of odds, as it works in the shadow of security forces in one of the most highly militarized zones of the world and a myriad government controls.
The team observed a high degree of surveillance, informal ‘investigations’ and even arrest of journalists who publish reports considered adverse to the government or security forces; controls on the facilities available for print publication; government advertising to select publications; restrictions on mobility in select areas including hospitals and the most crippling communications shutdown of all time. Significantly, there is no official curfew, no official notification for the shutdown.
In the absence of reportage from the ground, the government’s control of the narrative of normalcy is near total. Its official proclamations of the creation of ‘Naya Kashmir’ have become vociferous. In contrast, there is a deafening silence and invisibilisation of voices from Kashmir expressing alienation, anger and disillusionment at perceived breach of trust. This is intrinsically undemocratic and harmful, as it privileges the voices of authority and weakens those who speak truth to power.
In this report, the team has outlined certain concerns on the curbs on the media. These include the blockade of verifiable information on the ground, the lack of mobility, intensified surveillance and threats to journalists, the intimidation and pressure on media houses that do not toe the line and on individual journalists who file reports inimical to the administration, the lack of safety for women journalists, the throttling of independent media and the very real possibility of job losses for working journalists.
The current crisis for the media in Kashmir has been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict, the intense militarisation and overall erosion of fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms. The communication blockade and the ban on the Internet have caused unimaginable and inhuman problems for all citizens. But it has also sounded the death-knell for the media. It is imperative that the following measures be undertaken to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of expression. Anything less will only be hollow pronouncements and proclamations:
Immediately lift the internet shutdown and enable high speed internet connectivity
Restore all landlines and mobile telephones with priority to journalists and media houses.
Lift restriction on movement to journalists to enable on-the-ground reporting and verification of authentic news.
Desist from monitoring and surveillance of journalists and immediately cease intimidatory tactics such as summons to police stations, threat of arrest and detention, and the lodging of false cases etc.
Create a level playing field for all local, national and international media so as to ensure equal access to official sources and information.
Set up a transparent and accountable mechanism for disbursal of government advertising.
Ensure an enabling environment for the safety and dignity of working journalists, a robust and viable media that can guarantee just wages and other protections for working journalists, thus enabling the full exercise of the right to Freedom of Expression.
* Journalists Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu, members of Network of Women in Media and co-editors of Free Speech Collective visited Kashmir between Aug 30-Sept 3, 2019. The identities of all the people we spoke to have been kept anonymous on their express wishes and in the interests of their safety.
The full report can be found here.- Compressed_News behind the Barbed Wire – NWMI-FSC report