Mumbai: On 7 July, Muhammad Raafi, 34, was driving from his home in Srinagar to the Lal Chowk area in the city centre when his cellphone rang. It was a friend, asking him to read a piece published in that morning’s edition of Rising Kashmir, one of Kashmir’s most circulated dailies with an aggregate social media subscriber base of over 1 million. He planned to read it later, but the friend persisted—Raafi had been named in the article. “He was shivering,” Raafi recounted.
The journalist who has reported for Vice, TRT World, Al Jazeera, The Wire and Article 14, among others, parked and began to read. His first reaction was shock. The opinion piece named 11 Kashmiri journalists as being terrorist sympathisers. Raafi’s name was among them.
With the headline ‘Vultures of single narrative feasting on misery’, the article called these journalists “anti-Constitution, pro-Pakistan single-narrative peddlers” and “anti-state narrative builders”, supported by international and Indian media organisations.
The primary target of the article was Sana Irshad Mattoo, a Reuters photojournalist who was stopped by immigration officials at Delhi airport on 2 July and refused permission to travel to France, with no reason given. Mattoo, 28, won the 2022 Pulitzer prize in feature photography with three other Reuters photographers, for their coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.
The other journalists named in the piece were mostly independent journalists, writing for digital publications in India and foreign publications and websites. They viewed the publication of the piece as Kashmir’s beleaguered local media organisations, subdued by the administration’s carrot and stick approach and its new ‘media policy’, throwing independent fellow-journalists to the wolves.
The article, carrying the author byline ‘Majeed Ahmad,’ said these 11 journalists denied the existence of terrorists, and covered up terrorist violence by “spreading misinformation” through their writing.
Raafi told Article 14 that the piece had put the journalists’ lives in danger, “particularly those who are independent journalists and don't have a support system of an organisation.”
Quratulain Rehbar, 27, also named in the article, said the image of all those named had been affected by a piece authored by a person they do not recognise. “How can I make a local understand that what is in this paper is not true?” she asked. “Naming us propagandists, in any newspaper, especially in a local newspaper, which is read by thousands, is incredibly dangerous.”
In a statement calling for media organisations in Kashmir to pause and “take a critical look at what they have done”, the DIGIPUB News India Foundation, an association of digital-only media organisations, media commentators and independent journalists, said the journalists, by being named, were in greater danger than ever.
“Quite apart from the fact that these are defamatory accusations, they essentially paint targets on the backs of these journalists, a dangerous new front in the ceaseless war against what is left of the free press in Kashmir,” said DIGIPUB, of which Article 14 is a founding member.
Over telephone, Article 14 asked Rising Kashmir editor Hafiz Ayaz Gani about the concerns of the journalists named, and how the piece was selected for publication. “I don’t want to comment,” he said.
Choking Their Access And Work Opportunities
Since the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) special status on 5 August 2019, several Kashmiri journalists have been summoned, questioned, placed under detention and booked, including under the grave sedition and anti-terror laws, as Article 14 has frequently reported (here, here, here, here and here).
Simultaneously, local media organisations have faced the prospect of government advertising drying up, leaving independent journalists as the final vestige of the free media in the conflict-torn region.
The Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), a watchdog based in New York, has issued multiple statements on its concerns over the freedom of the press in Kashmir; as have the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other media organisations.
“Post 2019, there has been a message from the government, that they want all press bodies in Kashmir, especially independent journalists, to toe their line,” said a 27-year-old freelancer, who has reported from Kashmir for four years, writing for Al Jazeera, Nikkei Asia, Foreign Policy, The Wire, Article 14 and others. He was named in the Rising Kashmir article too.
He and his colleagues report what is happening on the ground, he said. “...and they don't want that reality to go out. That is the problem, the base point.”
The journalists named in the piece who Article 14 spoke to were emphatic that they covered all kinds of news events, from multiple angles. A recent report she did was on the floods in Assam. She has not limited her Kashmir reportage to any one subject either, writing on gender, the climate crisis and culture.
“What kind of propaganda (are they accusing us of)?” asked the 27-year-old freelancer. “Our work is out in the public.” He cited a news report he wrote on the killing of a policeman. “All of the people that they have named, we have reported every kind of story from Kashmir.”
One immediate impact of the Rising Kashmir article would be shrinking of access and opportunity, they said. While officials and others who they approach in the course of their reporting would now be wary of meeting them, fewer editors may commission them or give them opportunities.
“The Rising Kashmir piece itself speaks,” said the freelancer who wanted to stay anonymous. He said none of them knew the author of the piece, he did not appear to belong to the journalist fraternity in Kashmir. “From the tone and language of the article, it seems they are telling the state and security agencies, ‘what are you waiting for?’ It says these are the troublemakers.”
Raafi said things have come to such a head for journalists in Kashmir that he felt compelled to tweet about the article, calling it part of a disinformation campaign against journalists “at a time when many of them are already facing a witch hunt”. In a thread of tweets, he said it was a slanderous article published under a pseudonym.
First Social Media Trolling, Then Slander By Other News Groups
The smear campaigns against journalists began on social media, as responses to tweets and Facebook posts.
Rehbar, who has written mostly for foreign publications over the past year, said whenever she tweeted out a published piece, “especially when it was Kashmir-related”, the trolls became active. “My tweets go viral, and I get comments, retweets, quote-tweets. I often saw a pattern where people would write in quote tweets that this is a propaganda representative. Sometimes it would seem that these are not real accounts.”
A tweeted link to a piece she wrote recently on ‘Hindutva pop’, the anti-Muslim songs heard at rallies and public meetings organised by Hindu right-wing groups, published by Al Jazeera, was retweeted more than 1,100 times. Among the responses were comments that she was a bigot for not writing about Hindus being killed, offering to take her to Afghanistan and that she was playing the ‘victim card’. One referred to her as a ‘Momina’ (the usage here meant to be a derogatory term for Muslim women), and asked what was promised to her in the afterlife for assisting in jihad.
Belonging to a small village in Pulwama, a region that has been a hotbed of militancy, she is one of the very few women journalists in the district. This was not her first experience of being intimidated. She was also among the women journalists targeted by the Bullibai app. “But this is something which is very, very serious. It could cause physical harm,” she said.
According to Raafi, a small group of journalists has posted material against independent journalists on their social media pages. Casting aspersions on independent journalists in Kashmir has continued for a while, he said, though the Rising Kashmir article was the first time that a bylined article named independent journalists, without any substantiation or verification.
Raafi too has had trolls leaving abusive comments on his social media accounts, accusing him without evidence of being connected to Pakistan, the ISI, etc. “We also get direct messages in our inboxes, with abusive language,” he said.
Already subjected to the Internet trolls, select Kashmiri journalists have also been targeted by OpIndia—a website aligned with the government and called out previously for fake news—and other similarly aligned news organisations. OpIndia has said Mattoo toed Pakistan’s line. In one instance, OpIndia reported that a Kashmiri journalist ‘plays victim’ about getting a call from the police.
OpIndia has also said the world press freedom ranking annual exercise by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) generated “horrific indices” and used “hilarious methodology”. In 2014, India’s rank on the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index was already 18 places lower than its ranking in 2010, mainly on account of the curbs on media in Kashmir. It continued to slip after 2014, going from 142 in 2021 to 150 in 2022, among 180 nations.
For journalists already wary of reporting freely on account of run-ins with the police or security forces, the Rising Kashmir piece was ominous.
In 2020, after one of them reported a story for The Wire, his friends received calls asking for his number and other details. Later, he too received calls from strangers who asked him about his family details, what story he was working on, etc. “That was a kind of indication for me that they are keeping an eye on me, I was on their radar,” he said.
In May, when he tweeted an Al Jazeera report on what rebel leader Yasin Malik told a court upon being convicted for terror, trolls attacked him for posting it. One tweet asked police to act against him for tweeting the report.
Within Kashmir’s journalist fraternity, some have appeared to view the emergence of the persistent freelancers, not discouraged by visits and phone calls from policemen, with suspicion. “It has become a fashion in Kashmir now that whoever is taking a camera along, he becomes a journalist … and starts bashing security forces because this is again a fashion in Kashmir,” said senior Kashmir journalist Saleem Pandit, speaking at an official function earlier in 2022. “To be pro-Pakistan and anti-India, he becomes a hero overnight.”
Narrative Terrorism: Labelling The Journalists
The idea of cracking down on those who present a certain ‘narrative’ of Kashmir dates back several years. In 2017, a Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) paper said “poisonous” and “partisan” narratives had taken root in Kashmir, and “extraordinary measures” were necessary to correct these.
The founder of the VIF is national security advisor Ajit Doval, who in November 2021 said at an official government function that the “new frontiers of war, which is called the fourth generation of warfare, is civil society”, adding that civil society may be subverted, divided and manipulated.
In 2021, The Wire reported that the Crime Investigation Department of the Kashmir police had launched a unit called the ‘Ecosystem Of Narrative Terrorism’, or ENT. This cell reportedly worked with another team called ‘Dial 100’ that is tasked with obtaining and maintaining records of journalists’ background and their body of work. The ENT works similarly, but conducts the exercise for non-journalists too (civil society activists, environmentalists, gender activists and others.)
On 10 June, another article by the author of the Rising Kashmir piece, Majeed Ahmad, was published by Greater Kashmir. Referring to a 16-page report published by The Caravan magazine, Ahmad called the reporter, Shahid Tantray, a “wannabe keyboard warrior” who had carefully sent out a “hit-list to terrorist groups on the prowl of people advocating peace in the valley”. He called Tantray a “self-acclaimed scribe, a stone pelter-turned-journalist”.
In another article in Greater Kashmir on 22 April, the same author argued that a New York Times report on Kashmiri journalists facing a pattern of arrest and re-arrest was part of an international misinformation campaign on the erosion of free speech and journalism in India, especially in Kashmir. If the New York Times and others dug deeper and wrote “without any bias”, the “reality” of the arrested journalists would be exposed, he claimed.
In a statement about the 7 July article, the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) said three of its members had been named—Mattoo, Rehbar and Nusrat Sidiq. Calling them thorough and widely published professionals, it said the Rising Kashmir article was slanderous and put the lives of all journalists in danger. “It is an attempt to create a false narrative against journalists who have always worked hard to report from the ground,” it said.
Rising Kashmir And The Legacy Of Shujaat Bukhari
Ironically, a similar campaign of vilification is believed to have led to the killing of Shujaat Bukhari, the founder and editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir.
Then 50, Bukhari was shot dead outside his office by unidentified gunmen on 14 June 2018. It was believed that the choice of the location, the busy and usually well-guarded Press Enclave of Lal Chowk, where the office of Rising Kashmir is located inside a high-security complex that also houses other press offices, was a statement by militant groups.
Bukhari had been the subject of anonymously written posts by a blogger who had called him an “Indian tout” and had warned that his days were numbered. The blog posts and WhatsApp messages about Bukhari began after his participation in a Dubai conference along with the Hurriyat, mainstream leaders, and retired officers of the armed forces of India and Pakistan. Investigation found that a “well-organised” campaign had been run to vilify Bukhari on social media.
Rising Kashmir, one of the most widely read newspapers in Kashmir, was known to have published balanced, well-researched reports. Writing for the BBC in 2016, Bukhari said Rising Kashmir had just been shut, along with other newspapers in the Valley, following protests in the aftermath of the killing of separatist leader Burhan Wani.
“If a local journalist reports an atrocity by the security forces, he risks being dubbed ‘anti-national’, Bukhari wrote, about a dilemma journalists in Kashmir faced. “Highlighting any wrongdoing by the militants or separatists could easily mean that he is ‘anti-tehreek’ (anti-movement) or a ‘collaborator’.”
‘Before 2019, There Was A Buffer Of Sorts’
By the evening of 7 July, the 11 journalists named had all touched base with one another, including some currently in Delhi, and held consultations with a lawyer and senior journalists.
The journalists Article 14 spoke to said they wanted to file a defamation suit against the newspaper and its top editorial management, but were still finalising their course of action.
The Kashmir Press Club used to issue statements of support when individual journalists were targeted, said Rehbar. “Today even that recourse is not available.” On 15 January, a few journalists along with armed police and security personnel seized control of the Kashmir Press Club and locked the building, to prevent journalists from entering. Two days later, the administration declared that the press club, established in 2018, “ceased to exist” on account of having failed to register itself under the law.
“I think this has become a norm now,” said Rehbar, about persistent attacks on the free press in Kashmir. “We have been silent all the time. And I think this is a time to speak up.”
Raafi recounted an incident in 2016 when a senior police official who threatened him while he was working on a report apologised a couple of hours later, after several editors intervened. “Before 2019, there was a buffer of sorts,” said Raafi. “There were institutions you could fall back on.”
The editors who had intervened in his case in 2016 are now themselves hounded, summoned by agencies and not in a position to help, Raafi said. Senior journalists who had 30-year careers were now running scared too, he said. “The level of fear after 2019, I don't have words to explain how blatant this harassment is, this intimidation is,” he said.
Rehbar said she was unable to focus on work. She had not informed her family about the article. Raafi said his wife was very concerned.
A few days ago, Raafi’s car was stopped for a routine check. As he showed his papers to the security personnel, one asked what he did for a living. Raafi said he was a journalist. "The look of disgust they had was intimidating to me," he said. "Everybody looks at you as if you’re a criminal.”
(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)