The raid at the residences of four Kashmiri journalists in the wee hours of September 9 might be seen as a jolt to the fourth pillar of democracy elsewhere in the world. In a conflict-torn Kashmir, however, it is the new normal that the journalistic fraternity is facing after the government of India took direct control of the former state, following the reading down of its special status on August 5, 2019.
In the past two years, more than 20 journalists in Kashmir have either been called for a background check, summoned or raided; they are being forced to present themselves to explain their stories, social media conduct and other societal behaviour.
According to sources, the police department has created various sections that are currently monitoring and profiling Kashmir-based journalists, most of whom work for either national or international media outlets.
Sources said that one such section, called “Dial 100”, works on the “background updation” of journalists, which includes verifying their entire professional career in the media, including their body of work, family relations, foreign travels and so on.
This section is mostly looked after by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), to whose branches in their respective police stations journalists are called for verification.
“In the background updation [process], a phone call goes out to journalists where they are either asked to visit the CID branch in the police station of their area or the investigative officer asks them to meet at a neutral place to collect their details,” a source familiar with the process said.
Sources said the other wing of the investigation is called the “Ecosystem of Narrative Terrorism” in which, apart from journalists, the profiling of human rights activists, civil society, lawyers, academics and other associated people, is being carried out.
Sources said that, in this investigation, officials largely focus on the body of work of the people related to their respective field.
“Here the officials minutely check the body of work of the particular individual. Like in [case of] lawyers, the investigative officer checks the kind of cases they take up. Similarly, in journalists’ [cases], an officer checks the stories they are doing,” the source said. “After the investigation is complete, the cases are then being sent to the higher authority to take a call on them.”
Some of the senior journalists who were summoned post-August 5, 2019, include Hindu correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, the Economic Times correspondent Hakeem Irfan, Basharat Masood of the Indian Express and Outlook correspondent Naseer Ganai, among others.
Most of these journalists were questioned about their stories and social media activities.
The authorities have also prepared a look out circular list on the basis of which journalists, human right activists and academicians are being barred from travelling outside India.
As per sources, there are more than 43 people on the look out circular list who are not allowed to travel abroad following their “adverse report” from the different agencies.
Sources said that, out of 43 people on the list, around 22 are from the journalistic fraternity.
“Most of these journalists are working for international organisations. And there is a fear that allowing them to travel abroad can dent the image of the Union government in international media,” sources said.
Post August, 2019, two senior journalists Gowhar Geelani and Zahid Rafiq were barred from travelling abroad.
In September, 2019, Geelani was supposed to travel to Germany to rejoin media organisation Deutsche Welle. However, Geelani was detained at the Indira Gandhi International Airport based on a request by the Intelligence Bureau (IB).
Similarly, earlier this month, Zahid Rafiq was on his way to the United States to join Cornell University as an academician when he, too, was detained at the airport and later deported back to the Valley.
Vice President of the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) Moazum Muhammad said that they have been consistently raising the issue pertaining to the journalistic fraternity with the concerned authorities.
“We have been raising issues as and when they come. Issues like summons, harassment or physical abuse to journalists were taken up with the concerned authorities by the press club,” Muhammad said.
“Apart from that we have also been in touch with the Press Club of India, which, on many occasions, has expressed solidarity with the journalist fraternity of Kashmir,” he said.
Muhammad said that, in many cases, authorities have taken cognisance of the matter and have tried to resolve the issues amicably.
“We [the KPC] also issued a joint statement about the recent raids on some of the journalists. But at the end of the day, as associations, we too have limited powers,” he said.
In April last year, Jammu and Kashmir police invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against photojournalist Masrat Zahra for “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention” while cyber police booked Gowhar Geelani for “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media”.
Though the latest raids by security forces on four journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Azhar Qadri and Showkat Motta – were condemned by journalist bodies in Kashmir, they have created an atmosphere of fear among the fraternity.
Just two hours after journalists issued the press release condemning the raids, inspector-general of police (IGP), Kashmir, Vijay Kumar Singh, in an official statement warned journalists and associations not to “interfere unnecessarily” or create “a false narrative” about the crackdown on some local journalists.
Kumar asserted that the security force was not “harassing” the scribes and was only doing its job while investigating a sensitive case.
A senior police official told The Wire that the scrutiny against the journalists is a clear message to the fraternity to “toe the line”.
“Post August 5, 2019, the authorities, by and large, have managed to control the local press. But the independent journalists and people working for the international media were turning [out] to be a problem. So, whatever is happening now is to send the message across that there is no room for dissent,” an official said, requesting anonymity.
Despite several attempts, the IGP Kumar didn’t respond to calls from this reporter for comments, as of when this report was published.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times, said that the situation is dismal for journalists in Kashmir.
“It is very difficult for journalists in Kashmir to operate. It is almost impossible. There is so much surveillance, so many different ways of harassment,” Bhasin said.
Bhasin noted that there is a complete, unannounced censorship on media in Kashmir, “where the government is intolerant to even one critical word.”
“It [the government] has completely silenced journalism. But there are some brave journalists who are writing and are struggling to write and, as long as their struggle continues, journalism in Kashmir is not completely dead,” she said.
Bhasin said the suppressive attitude of the government has created an atmosphere of mistrust, even among journalists in the valley.
“To some extent, we [journalists] have not been united as there is an atmosphere where even journalists are not sure who is on whose side and that makes it difficult for the fraternity to come together as a cohesive unit. I can’t totally blame them because there is so much regression and suppression at the moment. There are various ways of arm-twisting,” she said.
A senior editor in one of the leading local newspapers, requesting anonymity, said that the new media policy has reduced the local newspapers to an unofficial “media wing” of the government.
“If you analyse all the newspapers post August 5, 2019, you won’t even find a single story against the performance of the administration,” the senior editor said. “The moment you write anything critical against the government, either your advertisements are suspended or you are being summoned.”
In June last year, the Union government introduced a new media policy that gives the administration unabated power to censure independent reporting.
One of the points mentioned in the policy reads, “There shall be no release of advertisements to any media which incite or intend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of India or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour.” Courtesy The Wire
Junaid Kathju is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He tweets @JunaidKathjoo.