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Tea Leaves

Dodging India's media curbs in Kashmir

Under government pressure, self-censorship is growing in troubled region

Kashmiri journalists display laptops and placards during a protest demanding restoration of internet service in Srinagar, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, on Nov. 12, 2019.   © Reuters

When several young Muslims taking part in a religious procession were blinded by lead pellets fired by security forces in Kashmir in late August India's national newspapers and the international media caught the horror with pictures of teenagers with ruptured eyeballs and mutilated eye sockets.

In Kashmir, however, readers were hard-pressed to find even a mention of the event in the next day's regional press.

There is no ban on reporting such news -- but the government does not need one. Frightened by police intimidation and cowed by threats to withdraw vital advertising, Kashmir's mainstream media have retreated into self-censorship since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, ending its status as India's only Muslim-majority state and imposing central rule.

As a journalist in Kashmir, you work under tremendous strain.  If you make a simple error in your story, the authorities can come down hard. So while writing, the fear always plays in your mind that even a small technical glitch could land you in prison.

Despite these risks, the Kashmir story needs to be told to the world. As space for dissent shrinks in local and national media, more and more journalists like me are taking to international media to report what is happening.

The great fear for reporters here is the Public Safety Act, a notorious law that allows for indefinite detention without charge. Qazi Shibli, editor of the online portal The Kashmiriyat, was released recently after more than nine months in detention, while Aasif Sultan, assistant editor of the Kashmir Narrator, remains in jail after more than two years, in his case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

This year, a dozen journalists -- including some working for India's national media -- have been grilled by the police for talking to anti-government militants. Many were forced to hand over their mobile phones for scanning. My own editor at The Kashmir Walla was summoned in July for our coverage of a gunfight in May, which the authorities said had "defamed the police."

Social media, one of the few remaining platforms for dissenting views, is also in the government's crosshairs. In August, several popular Twitter handles suddenly disappeared. Local media have published accounts by several users who say they were intimidated for posting "anti-national" content.

Earlier, an investigation by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists  found that hundreds of thousands of tweets shared by accounts that focus on Kashmir had been blocked since August 2017 under Twitter's "country withheld content policy," which bars tweets that do not comply with local laws or are subject to court orders.

All this seems part of a deliberate policy by the Modi government to cow the Kashmiri media, which had defiantly confronted the government's narrative until the constitutional changes took effect. To forestall local criticism of central government rule, New Delhi imposed a months-long curfew and suspended all modes of communication, including mobile and internet services. (Some of these restrictions remain in force.)

As a result, local media activity in Kashmir came to an abrupt halt, with many newspapers reappearing later as shadows of their former selves. Suddenly, editorials and opinion pieces challenging government policies were no longer to be seen. The papers were reporting anything but politics. Amid palpable fear of intimidation, most editors toed an invisible line.

Those who refused to conform were jailed, fired by their employers or booked under the anti-terror law. Not surprisingly, India slipped to 142 of 180 countries listed in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by the journalists' organization Reporters Without Borders.

Media problems in Kashmir did not begin with Modi. In the 30 years since a popular insurgency erupted against Indian rule 19 journalists have been killed in the region -- the last in 2018, when Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, was shot dead along with his security guards. Many more have been attacked but survived. Non-lethal punishments for dissenters also have a long history. In 2016, when a mass uprising erupted after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, the government banned the Kashmir Reader for three months for allegedly "inciting violence."

Modi's actions in Kashmir have not gone unnoticed. Many countries criticized the imposition of central rule and the subsequent communication blackout. In the U.S., Senator Kamala Harris called for international intervention in Kashmir. Harris is now the Democratic Party's candidate for vice president in November's U.S. elections.

The Indian government shows no sign of backing down, however. In May, New Delhi formalized its regressive media policy in Kashmir in a 53-page document providing for legal action against journalists who propagate information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India -- a term left undefined to intensify its chilling effect.

Despite this, journalists in Kashmir are finding new ways of speaking truth to power. After much of the Indian media overlooked the military crackdown in Kashmir last year, three local Associated Press photographers documented the events in a photo essay, for which they received a Pulitzer Prize, America's top annual journalism award.

Minaam Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist

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