Srinagar: “J&K divided, disempowered and downgraded,” said Greater Kashmir (GK), the most influential, 33-year-old English language daily of the conflict-torn Kashmir Valley, to describe in its headline the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special constitutional status and statehood, in its edition dated 6 August 2019.
Three years later, the paper chose not to commemorate the event, even though Greater Kashmir would once annually remind readers of the anniversaries of various events in the region.
Instead, the spotlight on the third anniversary of J&K’s demotion to union territory was on lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha, who reports directly to New Delhi. The lead story on 5 August 2022 quoted Sinha as saying that the protection of health was the government’s foremost responsibility.
Two other news items on the governor appeared on the front page that day. One reported that he inaugurated the upgraded Bakshi stadium in Srinagar’s Wazir Bagh area; the other that he flagged off a marathon from Lal Chowk in Srinagar.
In recent months, new writers have been published by the newspaper, including politicians belonging to or close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Not just Greater Kashmir, most Kashmir-based newspapers have begun to publish mostly government-issued news. Many have reset online archives to date back only to 2019, with barely any older archives available.
GK’s main competitor, Rising Kashmir, and once-prominent publications such as Kashmir Monitor and Urdu dailies such as Aftaab also restrict themselves to releases issued by the administration, with mainly one newsmaker: lieutenant governor Sinha and his administration.
Meanwhile, since the revocation of J&K’s special status on 5 August 2019, Kashmiri journalists have been summoned, questioned, placed under detention and booked, including under the sedition and anti-terror laws, as Article 14 has frequently reported (here, here, here and here).
The brunt of hostility against the media is borne by freelancers who are subjected to frequent background verification, while veteran Kashmiri journalists rue being sidelined by national media groups in favour of fresh graduates or journalists from elsewhere in the country. At least four journalists have been banned from travel since 2019.
Issued ostensibly for “creating a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government in media”, the J&K administration issued a new media policy in 2020 announcing that government advertisements would be denied to publications that, among other things, “propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India”.
Citing J&K’s “significant law and order and security considerations”, the policy called for the involvement of security agencies in establishing who is and isn’t a journalist.
On 23 November and 30 November, Article 14 sought comment for this story over Whatsapp from Yatish Yadav, media advisor to J&K’s lieutenant governor Sinha, and to Kanchan Gupta, senior advisor to the union ministry of information & broadcasting. There was no response from Yadav. Gupta said he would respond, but did not. We will update this story if they do.
A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to the media, told Article 14 that the government was screening and identifying stories that conflicted with “peace narratives” and “development narratives”.
A Divided Media, A Single Narrative
Since his appointment in August 2020, an editor of a daily recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity fearing reprisal from the J&K administration, Sinha has held only one press conference, on 11 September 2020, in which attendance wasn’t tightly controlled by the directorate of information and public relations (DIPR).
“A colleague asked the lieutenant governor, ‘Aap ke Naye Kashmir mein hum jaise purane logon ki jagah hai?’ (Do veterans like us have a place in your Naya Kashmir?)’ The question was loaded,” the editor said. Sinha laughed it off and moved on. “... we knew the answer,” the editor said. “There was no press conference after that.”
Since then, the DIPR has periodically withheld advertisements to certain newspapers, in some case for months, for reasons such as failure to carry a press note, for providing coverage to regional unionist parties, for publishing editorials critical of the administration, or taking offence at the semantics used, editors of dailies, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Article 14.
The current administration has kept the media at a distance but used them for image management through DIPR handouts, said journalists. The publication of these is mandatory if a paper intends to continue receiving advertisement revenue.
Among the core elements of the media policy is its emphasis on uncritical reportage of government initiatives, achieved by prominent publication of DIPR-issued handouts. The result is that several local papers have nearly similar content, and little independent news coverage.
The veteran editor drew a parallel between the silence of local newspapers with the police’s counterinsurgency Special Operations Group (SOG), which quickly became known for overshadowing the high-handedness of the Army in public perception.
“When the SOG was created, Kashmiris began saying the Army was better… You get my point?” he said. “Now Kashmiris will say they don’t want local papers, and (they will say) it is better to read a national newspaper.”
In January 2022, the Sinha administration shut down the Kashmir Press Club after a group of journalists and editors of lesser-known newspapers forcibly ousted the club’s elected management, whom they accused of being “pro-Pakistan.” It was seen as a symbolic blow to press freedom.
The move coincided with new media associations cropping up in Kashmir, their members including editors of newspapers that publish large numbers of government advertisements on a daily basis.
These associations, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Press Corps, have attacked voices critical of the state policies while asserting official statements as the only truth. The media community in Kashmir stands more divided today than ever, said a senior journalist.
‘More Businessmen Than Journalists’: An Editor Speaks
In Srinagar’s press enclave, many have found themselves in the administration’s crosshairs.
In the office of a decades-old daily newspaper, the editor rued his struggle to keep the paper afloat. In the absence of a strong private sector economy, their revenue has fallen drastically—by over 80%. He was not sure why, saying the authorities only hinted at what could have gone wrong.
“The government expects a lot from us but without telling us what or taking us into confidence,” the editor told Article 14. “There was a written media policy launched in 2020 and an unwritten one which nobody shared with us. The unwritten policy being to stop thinking like a Kashmiri journalist, that newspapers shouldn’t look like they are published in Kashmir, but in any other city of India.”
The editor said it was conveyed to them that the narrative in the newspapers could only be that of the government of India. “Even Kashmir-centric narratives are unacceptable,” he said.
In Kashmir and in Jammu, papers avoid covering the main regional unionist parties, particularly on the front page. Reporting statements by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a key opposition party, is also a taboo for many. “The journalist in us has taken a backseat, and the businessman has slowly come to the forefront,” said the editor.
The editor cited the example of the assassination attempt on former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, a major headline globally, when Kashmiri newspapers covered the reaction of the ministry of external affairs instead of the shooting. “If the NC and PDP are not being covered, how can Pakistan?” he said.
The average payment for publishing government advertisements is Rs 75 per cm for a black and white advertisement. Some newspapers in Kashmir, the editor said, were receiving more than a 1,000 cm on many days while his paper was being starved of government advertising.
The editor said it was frustrating that non-Kashmiris could write about Kashmir, but he could no longer write about his people and homeland. “Whatever is being imposed, I have to accept that it is good,” he said, “be it the domicile policy or opening up lands for outsiders.”
With the papers largely left to guess where their red lines stood, there was intense self-censorship, said the editor.
“I think of how my newspaper will run. If a news item causes a problem, I won’t run it even if the people expect it in the morning,” he said. “I won’t think I am writing for the people but for the government; if they like it and the people don’t, I can no longer care.”
For Journalists, Summons, Interrogations, Arrests
In July 2016, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned Greater Kashmir’s editor Fayaz Kaloo, once one of the most influential persons in Kashmir, and Kashmir Reader’s editor Haji Hayat, in an apparent cautionary example for others.
The central investigative agency has since then summoned journalists, among others, in connection with an ongoing investigation into Hurriyat members and their alleged roles in financing terrorism, instigating street protests and causing damage to public infrastructure.
In April 2020, the J&K police registered cases under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967 against two journalists, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra, while a third, Peerzada Ashiq of The Hindu, was summoned for questioning by the police in Anantnag and Srinagar districts in two separate cases.
A major turning point was the September 2021 raids on the homes of four journalists. The police said they were investigating a case of threats to journalists and other prominent citizens on a now-blacklisted blog called Kashmir Fight.
Eventually, none of the four was arrested.
Another editor of a daily, speaking anonymously, recounted receiving a call in 2022 from an official questioning him over what he described as pushing a “Pakistani narrative”. When the perplexed editor, who had been awakened by the early morning call, inquired further, the official pointed to stories the newspaper had published on the lack of infrastructure development.
In January 2022, 26-year-old journalism student and trainee journalist at The Kashmir Walla, Sajad Gul, was arrested under the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978 a day after a court granted him bail. The PSA allows for detention without charges or bail for up to two years.
Gul’s PSA dossier said the police feared his release on bail “will prove fatal for peaceful atmosphere, tranquillity, law and order of the nation”, and that his release at that stage would be a threat for the Bandipora district as well as for the whole valley.
In February 2022, editor of The Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, was arrested in a case pertaining to a news report about a gunfight. Despite securing bail, he was rearrested in two other cases before being booked under the PSA.
Shah’s PSA dossier contained a similar accusation. “Your modus operandi is to carry one to two stories per month which are based entirely on the victimhood narrative that portrays anti-India sentiment, glorifies stone-pelters, terrorists, and justifies separatism and violence,” said the dossier.
The dossier added that Shah’s website carried only “one-sided” reports and a “singular anti-State narrative”, while leaving out reports related to “good governance, or positive intervention by GOI”.
Shah was eventually booked under sections 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) and 18 (punishment for conspiracy) of the UAPA; 121 (waging or abetting war against the government of India) and 153B (imputations or assertions prejudicial to national integration) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860; and 35 (unlawfully accepting currency from a foreign source) and 39 (offences made by a company) of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010, by the State Investigation Agency (SIA) on 12 October.
The agency’s chargesheet against Shah on 12 October also accused Reporters Sans Frontiers, which reportedly awarded a grant of Rs 10.59 lakh to Shah’s publication, of being “involved in subverting the democratic freedoms all over the world”.
The SIA chargesheet said Shah possessed two other bank accounts with Rs 12 lakh and Rs 58 lakh, of which Rs 30 lakh were generated from subscriptions to his online magazine while Rs 15 lakh were in cash deposits flagged as suspicious.
Gul and Shah are currently jailed, in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, and Kot Balwal, Jammu, respectively.
On the day of publication, Gul and Shah have been incarcerated for 349 days and 331 days respectively.
Accusing Journalists Of Being Terror Sympathisers
In November 2017, the government of India claimed that some newspapers in J&K were publishing “highly radicalised content glamorising terrorists and anti-national elements”, the Hindustan Times reported, citing a letter by the ministry of home affairs to the then state government.
The letter said “anti-national articles in the newspapers” should result in suspension of state advertisements, which the media policy of 2020 implemented.
Since then, various government agencies, including the Indian Army, have referred to journalists as “overground workers” of militants or “white-collar terrorists” who were part of a “terror ecosystem.”
On 10 June, Greater Kashmir carried an opinion piece accusing Kashmiri journalist Shahid Tantray of giving a “hit-list to terrorist groups”, of people advocating peace in Kashmir.
A month later, Rising Kashmir carried another article with the same byline, in which the author named 11 Kashmiri journalists as being “terrorist sympathisers.” The paper had endangered the 11 journalists' lives, national media bodies said.
On 3 November 2022, Greater Kashmir carried a report on the J&K Police’s SIA on its first raising day. The report detailed high-profile cases taken up by the SIA and its categorisation of crimes.
The broadest category seemed to be Category ‘D’: “Creating false narrative by using half-truths or being selective with information to invent false justification in support of terrorism and secessionism and advocating and propagating such justifications amounting to provocation, instigation, radicalisation, indoctrination, propaganda resulting in (or) aimed at recruitment in terrorist and secessionist ranks, subversion, sabotage, street violence, and arson,” the paper reported.
Besides Muslim clerics and teachers, the report quoted unnamed sources to suggest that journalists and columnists too were being watched under this category.
The role of the media, the interlocutors appointed by the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in the wake of the 2010 unrest noted in their report published in 2012, “has been complex, combining positive peace support with mistruths that undermine peace initiatives.”
The report released by the ministry of home affairs noted that the national media tended to focus on violence while the local media gave more attention to peace, “but—as occurs routinely in conflict situations—there are some amongst them who are selective in what they report and are biased in favour of one or another political position”.
The interlocutors said some journalists “invent” events and quotes for stories. “To these few, journalism appears to be a political game rather than the pursuit of fact,” said the home ministry.
“There are so many journalists operating,” said J&K police chief Dilbag Singh to The Indian Express in August 2022. “Not everyone is picked up by the police,”
Singh said police were “generally friendly with the media fraternity” but “some journalists act more as activists or OGWs (overground workers) rather than journalists.”
Anonymous Threats Against Journalists
New fears have emerged after the names of more than a dozen journalists featured on a ‘hit list’ of purported terror targets in November 2022.
Police said the list was issued by a group called The Resistance Front (TRF) that it says is a shadow outfit of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). At least five staffers of Rising Kashmir and one of Asia News Network resigned from their jobs after the list became public.
In response, the J&K police registered an FIR in November in the Sherghari police station, Srinagar, against “terror handlers, active terrorists and terrorist associates of proscribed terror outfit LeT & its offshoot TRF for online publication and dissemination of direct threat letters to journalists and reporters based in Kashmir”.
However, on 19 November, police raided the homes of journalists Gowhar Geelani, Khalid Gul, Mohammad Raafi, Rashid Maqbool, Sajjad Kralyari and Wasim Khalid, among others. The police also raided the house of media entrepreneur Mukhtar Baba, who the police accused of issuing the threats.
Baba, thought to be based in Turkey and described as a “fugitive” by the police, travelled abroad on an Indian passport in 2019 and currently claims to be the media in-charge for incarcerated separatist leader Masarat Alam’s Muslim League party. Baba has neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, though he remains active on Twitter and other social media.
A second threat poster emerged soon after, which police again attributed to militants. This poster, which went viral on social media, said anyone associated with “Indian-sponsored” media houses, particularly “Delhi-backed Greater Kashmir, Army-sponsored Rising Kashmir and ANN (Asia News Network)”, would “not be spared”.
Five days later, on 24 November, police raided the homes of owner and editor-in-chief of Kashmir Reader Haji Hayat, the paper’s former editor Showkat Motta, and two journalists who briefly interned at the Kashmir Press, which Wasim Khalid and Baba launched together in 2018.
The police also raided the homes of two others. Khalid Gul, a former reporter with Greater Kashmir, was arrested—but in a separate case dating back to 2017 for stories published in GK.
Meanwhile, another poster appeared to have photoshopped the names of independent journalists, editors and those with national dailies on the first list of threatened journalists.
“We have no way of ascertaining who is issuing these threats, but it has enforced a silence,” said a veteran journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Real or fake, the threats have had an impact, said Tariq Bhat, editor-in-chief of Asia News Network, a Kashmir-based OTT news channel founded in 2016. “This list has gone viral so the threat perception is higher,” said Bhat. “Our families present our children in front of us in the evenings and ask us to leave this profession. Their fear is real.”
‘Blacking Out Coverage Of Militancy-Related Incidents’
Operating from a fortified building in a secure location in Srinagar, Asia News Network carries on its work more or less undeterred.
Seated on a corner sofa opposite his work desk adorned with a tricolour and a picture gallery showing him meeting central government ministers, police personnel and army officials, Bhat said, “When we started this, we decided that we will work for the nation and we will die for the nation.”
After the abrogation of J&K’s special status, Bhat said, he felt empowered to speak up.
“Today, the police call us ten times a day to check if we are doing well and to reassure us that the system is with us,” said Bhat. “They are not paying me but it boosts my morale because I know if militants touch one of us, they will be killed the next day.”
He said if similar threats had been issued prior to August 2019, journalists like him could have been killed without anybody asking a question.
Bhat said militants have long accused him of running an “anti-Kashmir narrative” but recent threats had made the situation more “tricky”.
Earlier statements from militants did not include names of organisations and were limited to individuals, but recent threats have clearly named employees of Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and ANN.
“Now it is a threat for entire organisations,” said Bhat. “Even my kitchen boy is afraid.”
Bhat founded the cable television channel along with his friend Mudasir Yaqub, who was then a correspondent with Greater Kashmir and who formally joined the organisation only in 2022.
He claimed that newspapers no longer carried photos of separatist leaders on the front-pages, a development that may have irked militants.
Newspapers also now use the word ‘terrorists’ instead of ‘militants’, a fact that endangered the lives of journalists, he said. “I have always instructed my reporters to never use the term ‘terrorist’,” he said.
He said just as news channels broadcast the agitations of 2010 and 2016, they could now show people walking on the streets with the Indian tricolour.
Bhat accused the local press of blacking out coverage of violence by militants. Citing the example of most local newspapers not reporting the killing of a migrant worker in Srinagar in November by TRF, Bhat said: “They don’t also get the coverage they used to and are bothered with why the media isn’t reporting on the attacks they claimed.”
Those in the government “who have a role to play are not doing it,” said Bhat, of the J&K administration’s lack of engagement with the press and handling of media queries.
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(Rayan Naqash is a Srinagar-based independent journalist.)