‘Press freedom chilled in Kashmir as reporting is criminalized’, says NBC News

Washington, June 27 (KMS): Journalists in Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir are facing an atmosphere of intimidation that is driving them out of the profession and keeping the rest from freely reporting what’s happening in the territory to the world, so writes NBC News, the news division of the American broadcast television network NBC in its latest report.

The NBC News report said that a harsh crackdown began after 2019, when India’s Hindu nationalist government revoked the limited autonomy that Kashmir had enjoyed for 70 years.

It quotes a photojournalist, Muneeb-ul-Islam, as having said, “You cannot think of doing journalism here, it appears all criminalized now”. Islam, 31 now runs a tailor shop in a village about 40 miles south of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.

When they changed Kashmir’s status, Indian officials argued it could bring an end to the uprising. But the highly militarized region of 12.5 million people has continued to experience waves of violence, the report added.

The NBC referred to Human Rights Watch and said, since 2019 at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases” in relation to their work.

Among the highest-profile cases is that of Fahad Shah, founder and editor in chief of the weekly magazine Kashmir Walla, who was arrested in February under anti-terror and sedition.

Shah, 32, was released on bail and then rearrested over other reporting several times before being charged in March under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years. He was the second Kashmir Walla journalist to be charged under the law after Sajad Gul, 26, who was detained over a social media post.

In April, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, 35, was also rearrested under the Public Safety Act after a court released him on bail in a 2018 case, saying the government had failed to provide evidence to support its claim that he had harbored militants. Police dossiers accuse the three men of threatening national security under the pretext of journalism.

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, which promotes press freedom in India, said authorities in Kashmir were using such legal maneuvers to prevent journalists from doing their work. “It is a blatant abuse of law,” she said.

Her concerns were echoed by Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, who said court orders were not being respected.

“They are flaunting the orders of the judiciary at their own will, challenging the integrity of the courts, which is disturbing,” he said.

Kashmir’s director general of police and inspector general of police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Journalists in Kashmir say they have been actively targeted by authorities. A 53-page media policy released in 2020 leaves it to local officials to decide whether news reports are “fake,” “unethical” or “anti-national.” The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar was raided and shut down by local authorities at the beginning of this year.

Since 2019, many local news outlets in Kashmir have lost about half of their staff, because of the crackdown on dissent as well as economic reasons.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of The Kashmir Times, an English-language daily that is one of the region’s oldest newspapers, said it was unfortunate to see how local journalists had been sidelined by state intimidation and self-censorship.

“You’ve got to feel bad for people who were passionate journalists but didn’t find any support from the organizations they were working in,” she said.

Kashmir Reader, an English-language daily whose coverage has long been criticized by the government, laid off almost 90 percent of its 40 employees in February.

Mohammad Hayat Butt, the newspaper’s owner and editor in chief, said he was “helpless” to pay staff without the income provided by government advertisements, which have not appeared in the paper for more than three years.

“I don’t know how long this newspaper will survive,” he said, “but it is getting more difficult with each passing day.”