Srinagar: On 30 May, Sajid Raina, a 23-year-old reporter, changed his WhatsApp status to a photo of 22 children who died in a boat accident 15 years ago. He captioned it “Wular Martyred”. That evening, after a call from an intelligence official who appeared to object to the term “martyr”, Raina deleted the photo.
Raina, a reporter with Kashmir News Observer, a local news agency, thought that was the end of the matter.
Two days later, on 1 June, the police in Raina’s home town of Bandipora, 45 km northwest of here, filed an FIR against Raina. On 4 June, the Bandipora police tweeted: “FIR No 84/2021 lodged in police station Bandipora against one person namely Sajid Raina for his WhatsApp status on 30-05-2021 which attracts investigation into the contents and intention behind it.”
An additional tweet said: “It was not against anyone’s profession particularly journalists, as is being circulated on social media. Investigations are underway.”
Within six days, in unrelated events, two freelance journalists received police summons—one of them a woman from south Kashmir. Requesting anonymity, she told Article 14 police questioned her tweets on their intimidation of local shopkeepers.
“I had tweeted how Kashmir was handling Covid-19 pandemic as a law-and-order problem,” she said. “Next day I received a police summons and I was questioned in the police station.”
The summons caused “severe anxiety” to her family, who, she said, wanted her to be more cautious about her reporting.
Political Dialogue Restarts, But Pressure On Media Remains
The intimidation of journalists in June continues the unstated policy of cowing Kashmiri media, even as New Delhi attempts to restart the political process. The groundwork for the talks with Kashmiri political parties comes after backchannel talks between India and Pakistan, brokered by the United Arab Emirates.
There has, however, been no apparent move to ease up on the subduing of the media. If anything, the pressure on journalists to conform to the government’s point of view is increasing, said many we spoke to for this story.
A WhatsApp status, coverage of a demolition drive, a Twitter comment on the state’s handling of Covid-19—anything in a day at work or a personal opinion can attract police attention to journalists in Kashmir. That includes criminal cases, being summoned to police stations and physical attack.
Article 14 has previously reported the rise in intimidation and arrests of journalists by the government and police since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in 2019, a draconian new media policy in 2020 that invited widespread condemnation, and how journalists are being forced to self-censor themselves.
The first warning that 2021 would not bring relief came in January, when the government of India’s newest union territory “de-empanelled” 34 newspapers in Kashmir in January 2021, removing them from a list of newspapers approved to receive government advertisements, a major source of revenue.
In May 2021, as the second wave of Covid-19 raged, a government order banned doctors and health officials from talking to reporters, a move enforced nowhere else in India.
“All chief medical officers/ medical superintendents/ block medical officers of Kashmir division are enjoined upon to issue instructions to all staff… to desist from media interactions,” read the circular issued by the director of health. The notice claimed talking to the media resulted in “contradictory and confusing messages… which misinforms the public and creates unnecessary and avoidable panic”.
Calling it a “state tool” to keep news of its flailing health sector under wraps, Rising Kashmir health correspondent 30-year-old Mansoor Peer told Article 14 the order was to “hide faults and failures of the government”. Now, no doctor dares speak to any reporter, said Peer, hindering coverage of the pandemic and the government’s handling of it.
Warnings, Restrictions And A Pushback
The gag on health coverage came weeks after restrictions on journalists over covering firefights with militants.
In March 2021, two photojournalists alleged attacks by police while they filmed stones being hurled at police outside the Jamia Masjid, a 619-year-old mosque in the old quarter of Srinagar.
Freelancer Saqib Majeed and BBC Urdu multimedia journalist Shafat Farooq were hospitalised and later said that police apologised.
In April, security forces attacked journalists covering clashes near a firefight site in south Kashmir’s Pulwama. A constable was filmed kicking photojournalist Qisar Mir.
Syed Shahriyar, the photojournalist who recorded the video, tweeted: “One pointed a pellet gun and another kicked a local photographer @QisarMir after chasing us away while covering clashes near the gunfight site in Pulwama today. Everyday story of a journalist in #Kashmir.”
The police reaction was to ban live coverage of firefights and, as Kashmir inspector general of police (IGP) Vijay Kumar put it, “law-and-order situations”.
Kumar told journalists to not “interfere” in “encounter sites”. He said: “Freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions that should not violate other people’s right to life… or putting national security in jeopardy.”
The IGP warned the media against showing content that could “incite violence or contain anything against maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national sentiment”.
In response, 12 media bodies in Kashmir protested, calling the order part of police policy to coerce journalists into not reporting facts on the ground. The Editors Guild of India too issued a statement demanding the police withdraw its advisory.
“Journalists cover encounters for facts, information (vital in a democracy),” tweeted senior journalist and editor of Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin. “It is a call to duty.”
Young Reporters Get Special Attention
In February, Sajad Gul, 25, a freelance journalist reported a government demolition drive in Bandipora district. Three days later, he faced charges of rioting, trespassing and assault. “I could not get my FIR quashed in court,” he said but was granted anticipatory bail. On 23 June, Gul tweeted on his frequent visits to police stations and Bandipora district court over the last four months, tagging a report on parents dissuading young Kashmiris’ from pursuing journalism. He recently lost his maternal uncle to Covid-19, who was fighting his case.
A Master’s student in convergent journalism at the Central University Kashmir, the FIR against Gul lists sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 447 (punishment for criminal trespassing), and 353 (assaulting public servant) of Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, the allegations punishable with prison of upto years and fines.
Gul said he was dragged into a “false case” for simply carrying out his professional duties. “The demolition drive triggered stone pelting and protests in the area,” he said. “I was targeted merely for reporting this.”
“I have lost faith in justice,” he said. “Is journalism a crime? I keep thinking, how could I be booked for merely reporting on a demolition drive?”
Gul’s report was published in The Kashmir Walla on 9 February. Headlined, “Residents aghast with demolition drives in Hajin,” the report quoted officials saying the government would retrieve allegedly encroached land “at any cost”.
No sooner was the report released that a first-class magistrate threatened legal action, said Gul. The next day, the magistrate and a team of officials went to Gul’s home village, Shahgund Bandipora and demolished the fence of his maternal uncle’s house and Gul’s property.
The FIR against Gul, who was in Srinagar, he said, when this happened, also names other locals and four of his maternal uncles, one of whom recently died of Covid-19.
From Threats To Terror Charges
“Before July 2019, journalists would be swamped with summons and verbal intimidation,” a young media researcher who did not want to be named, told Article 14. “Now they are straight booked under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and IPC sections.”
The first signs of heightened surveillance after the abrogation of Article 370 were evident when reporters and editors had to work only from a media centre set up by the government, after the Valley was plunged into an internet blackout from August 2019 till early March 2020.
In April 2020, two Kashmiri journalists—Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani— faced charges under the UAPA, which allows jail without bail merely on allegations made by the police.
“The vague, almost boundless, scope of the offences of “Terrorist Act” and “Unlawful Activity” created under the UAPA allows for punishing thought crimes, where the act itself might matter far less compared to the intentions allegedly imputed to a person,” Supreme Court lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 on 16 July 2020.
“These allegations can only be refuted at trial, in all probability being fought by the accused from behind bars, as the chances for securing bail are exceedingly small,” wrote Sekhri.
Despite the clampdown, 2020 brought global recognition. Three Kashmiri journalists—Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand— won the Pulitzer Prize, US journalism’s highest honour, for their coverage of the 2019 crackdown.
“It was always cat-and-mouse,” Dar told Associated Press. “These things made us more determined than ever to never be silenced.”
Starving Newspapers Of Government Ads
Complaints from journalists of “harassment” increased manifold after the government introduced the vague and intimidatory New Media Policy in June 2020, authorising officers to decide what was “fake news” and act against journalists.
“Any individual or group indulging in fake news, unethical or anti-national activities or in plagiarism shall be de-empanelled besides being proceeded against under law,” said the new policy.
Global press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders criticised the “media policy” and urged India to immediately withdraw it.
Under the cover of the policy, the government increased surveillance of the media.
After a four-month-long exercise to “verify and examine” workings of dozens of newspapers in the new union territory, the government “de-empanelled” 34 newspapers and suspended advertisements to 13 publications for “violating norms of circulation and other publication guidelines”. Notices were issued to 17 other news publications for “alleged plagiarism” and “poor content”.
On 15 January 2021, government advertisements were pulled from Greater Kashmir, among the Valley’s largest circulated English language dailies, and its Urdu publication, Kashmir Uzma. On 28 October 2020, the National Investigation Agency had raided the newspaper’s office in Srinagar. Advertisements were also pulled from Kashmir Reader, an English daily that faced a three-month ban during a 2016 uprising triggered by the killing of Hizbul militant commander, Burhan Wani.
The advertisement ban has led to a cutback in staff salaries and job losses may follow, said journalists.
This was the second time that major newspapers were denied government advertisements. In February 2019, the J&K government, under presidential rule, stopped advertisements to Greater Kashmir. The newspaper was already blacklisted from getting ads from the Centre’s directorate of advertising and visual publicity since 2008. State government ads were also stopped to Kashmir Reader.
Army Complains, Journalists Charged
In January 2021, J&K police registered FIRs against two news portals of Kashmir on a complaint by the Army.
The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat had reported that a religious school in south Kashmir’s Shopian district had been “forced” by the Army to hold a Republic Day function on 26 January, which the Army complained was baseless and “fake”.
On 30 January 2021, police filed cases against both The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat. The FIRs named sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) IPC.
The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah stood by the report, but the district court of Srinagar denied anticipatory bail to Fahad Shah and reporter Yashraj Sharma, who have now moved the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.
“The district court did not quash the FIR and dismissed the petition,” said Sharma, 22. “For days I could not focus on work. I was scared and apprehensive that I may be arrested. I have now learned to live with this intimidation.”
New York-based press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its report on 22 February called upon the Indian government to drop investigations into the work of three Kashmir-based journalists and allow them to report without “harassment, intimidation, and criminal investigations”.
“Journalists Yashraj Sharma, Mir Junaid, and Sajad Gul should be allowed to do their jobs without harassment, intimidation, and criminal investigations from Kashmiri authorities,” Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ Asia researcher was quoted as saying in the FreePressKashmir. “Jammu and Kashmir Police must drop their investigations into all three journalists and stop targeting journalists because of their reporting.”
Making An Example Of Aasif Sultan
The most egregious example of a journalist facing State power has been Aasif Sultan, who has completed 1,000 days of incarceration in Srinagar’s central jail under UAPA since his arrest in August 2018.
The police allege that the 34-year-old assistant editor for Kashmir Narrator, “harboured known militants”. Police interest in Sultan piqued since his report on Burhan Wani. He has also been charged with murder, attempt to murder and other crimes.
In a statement on 23 May 2021 on 1,000 days of his imprisonment, CPJ demanded Sultan’s immediate release. Sultan won the US National Press Club’s annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. His imprisonment has also been featured in Time magazine’s “10 Most Urgent” cases around the world of threats to press freedom.