Srinagar: Picking up the pace on paring down press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir, the government in July began to censor news reporting and the manner in which events are interpreted, in another move to control how the world sees the heavily militarised and troubled region.
In July 2021, the government issued a verbal directive to major broadsheet newspapers to follow a pre-specified stylesheet, expressly forbidding the use of words and terminology that reflect Kashmir’s contested narratives.
Kashmiri newspapers must no longer, for example, use the word ‘militant’ to refer to armed resistance, according to the government. The acceptable term would be ‘terrorist’, newspaper editors were instructed.
No formal or detailed stylesheet was issued, but the verbal directions were categorical, editors and proprietors said.
A journalist who has reported from Kashmir for 11 years said the editor of the Urdu broadsheet daily Tameel-I-Irshad, where he is currently employed, received a call in the first week of July from the media cell of Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha. “During the telephonic communication and later via WhatsApp messages, we were directed to change the newspaper’s terminology,” one of the senior editors of the newspaper told Article 14.
Editors at local mainstream newspapers said the media cell further directed them to make no alterations to official press releases and instead, to carry these verbatim. “The official press releases are now being published without any editing in the newsroom,” said an editor who works with Rising Kashmir.
A senior official from the media cell of the LG’s office in Srinagar denied that any verbal directives were issued to newspapers on their language or choice of terminology. “We have not issued any style sheet to these newspapers and for further information you may call the media advisor,” he told Article 14.
The government’s spokesperson Rohit Kansal confirmed on 11 August that he received a request for comment from Article 14, but did not respond immediately, promising to speak on the subject soon. “I am busy right now but I have received your question through SMS and I will call you soon,” Kansal told Article 14.
Journalism in strife-torn Kashmir was always fraught with danger, but since the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, personal safety has been overtaken by other dangers. These include harassment of journalists through threats from the police and a ‘new media policy’ that gives police unbridled powers to conduct ‘background checks’ on publishers, editors and reporters; issue security clearances for accreditation and more.
The new directives, even issued informally, take the form of active newsroom censorship that is reminiscent of the Emergency-era pre-publication censorship of newspapers by the chief press advisor to the government and the latter’s instructions on self-censoring the news. Editors and reporters in the Valley told Article 14 the latest instructions attack their right to report facts, independently and as they witness them.
When editors at Tameel-I-Irshad and its sister publication Kashmir Age did not exhaustively follow the new directions, they found they were banned from government advertising for 15 days. Eventually, the union government intervened and the advertisements resumed. But not before the editors displayed that they would toe the new line.
“We were forced to write terms like ‘Prime Minister Modi’ in place of ‘Indian Prime Minister Modi’, and ‘government’ in place of ‘Indian government,” said the senior editor. “But we completely refused to use words such as ‘terror’ or ‘terrorists’,” he added. He said in his 11-year career, this is the first time that he has witnessed government interference and control at such a minute level.
“The government has reduced all the newspapers to government handouts,” said another senior editor working with Greater Kashmir, one of the largest circulated English dailies in the region.
What Is New In The Newsroom
Through July and August, newspapers and their websites have carried reports bearing the unmistakable stamp of being official releases.
This report on the killing of a Lashkar-e-Toiba commander among three men killed in Pulwama and this report on another three men killed in an encounter in Anantnag, both in the second week of July, covered only the police’s comments.
“During the past two years, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been marching on the path of development,” said this article published in early-August.
Words such as “terror outfits”, “terrorists” and “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” have been published on the front pages of newspapers in the valley, unprecedented in the history of the press in Kashmir. Most newspapers’ own stylesheets have been rendered irrelevant.
Major newspapers have typically eschewed use of these terms in the conflict-hit region, most commonly because these would make them more vulnerable to militancy.
Many reporters told Article 14 they were still trying to avoid these terms as much as possible in their reports. Some papers chose to publish such reports without a reporter’s byline. Some other reporters who failed to abide by the new directions have been threatened with suspension or termination by nervous publishers.
At Rising Kashmir, some editors and reporters rejected the newly issued terminology, causing the newspaper’s management to intervene and calm frayed tempers.
According to the verbal directives, the word ‘militant’ is to be replaced everywhere with ‘terrorist’; ‘Pakistan-Administered Kashmir’ with ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’ and ‘militant outfits’ to ‘proscribed terror groups’. But reporters said this endangers them further.
Reporters covering the security beat are considering writing on a different subject, or quitting their jobs entirely. “Things are getting so difficult for journalists here. No story is worth a life, therefore I am thinking of leaving journalism for any other field,” said a security issues correspondent for a local daily.
The word ‘militant’, he said, was seen as a neutral term. But as much as the word ‘terrorist’ is risky for a reporter, it is also seen by many Kashmiris as an inaccurate, or exaggerated, representation of the decades-long armed resistance in the Valley.
A senior editor who has previously worked with The Indian Express said he was “shocked” to see Kashmiri newspapers’ editions on 15 August wish their readers a ‘Happy Independence Day’ (here, here and here).
Another journalist who works with Urdu daily Aftaab said the government may harass and intimidate journalists, or derail their advertising revenue. “But militants can destroy us with impunity, and you can never tell who they are,” he said.
‘Journalism Is Missing In Kashmir’
Many journalists felt deeply embarrassed about the changes they are forced to adopt, and said they felt they lost readers’ respect as a result of what the newspapers are publishing more commonly now.
“Everyday, my friends mock me for not covering important events and instead using my byline on government press releases,” said a health correspondent working with an English daily. He said most of his colleagues continue to work only on account of needing a salary. “Stories against the government are shelved, and journalism is missing.”
He claimed that during the second wave of Covid-19 this year, he received instructions from his seniors not to report on the health crisis and the government’s failures. Instead, he filed reports on the frontline healthcare workers, “positive stories to downplay the Covid crisis”.
His reports on the conditions in the valley’s hospitals were not published, he said, adding that his friends ridicule his reportage. “We feel we are not working in a newspaper but a public relations firm,” he said about the newsroom.
A senior professor at the Media Education Research Centre (MERC) of Kashmir University said a government directive to make alterations in a newspaper’s stylesheet can hardly be seen as a journalistic decision. She called the forced changes in reporters’ preferred terms to describe people and incidents “an assault on the style sheet”.
Reporting Is Risky Business, More Than Ever
Kashmir-based author and journalist Gowhar Geelani who was himself booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, told Article 14 that journalists in a conflict zone use neutral terms and also follow their organisation’s style sheet.
“When the powers that be dictate to you what to write and decide your style sheet and terminology, it is anything but journalism,” he said. These “administration diktats” expose journalists to “unimaginable risks”.
In order to find a middle ground, many newspapers have worked out a few tricks. “To avoid any risk to our staff, we are using the word ‘militant’ in the headline and ‘terrorist’ in the body of a report,” said an editor at an English daily. He called it a balancing act to save face at one end and make the government happy on the other.
In this report, for example, the headline refers to two slain Lashkar-e-Taiba men as militants, while the rest of the report calls them terrorists. Most readers only scan the headlines, editors said, making this a wise move—the terminology on contentious matters appears unchanged, and the readership and social media reach remains unchanged too.
Some newspapers, to avoid a social media backlash, are preferring not to upload these reports on their websites. Some are avoiding both terms, ‘militants’ and ‘terrorists’, and instead calling them ‘ultras’ and ‘operatives’.
Veteran journalist Yusuf Jameel who works with The Asian Age told Article 14 that forcing journalists to give up neutral terminology is a slippery slope. “Someone’s terrorist can be another’s martyr,” he said, and terming a certain territory as ‘occupied’ or ‘free’ should not be a journalist’s prerogative.
Jameel, 63, winner of the International Press Freedom Award in 1996, recalled that during his reporting career he was questioned a number of times by security agencies for allegedly glorifying militancy in his writing. “For using neutral language or taking a middle path I faced the heat from different quarters,” he said.
Independent Media Houses Wary Too
Unlike mainstream newspapers, news portals in Kashmir that do not depend on government advertisements have not received the call to modify their language and interpretation of the news.
Qazi Zaid, 32, editor of Free Press Kashmir, a weekly print magazine and website, told Article 14 that cutting off government advertising was not the only method of threatening the media in Kashmir. State control is such that journalists are forced to self censors, he said.
“Kashmir is a place that is controlled by police and there is hardly any scope for independent or critical journalism,” he said. Despite the new media policy, he said, “taking risks and being bold is also important” for journalists.
Though the independent media organisations did not receive the call from the office of the lieutenant governor, those Article 14 spoke to were well aware of the diktats.
The Long Slide Of Kashmir’s Free Press
At the Kashmir Press Club, journalists said the abrogation of Article 370 ushered in the greatest pressure on mainstream media in the region.
The Media Policy 2020, a 53-page document released on 2 June 2020, threatened to stop release of advertisements to any newspaper that may “incite or intend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of India”. Among the unbridled powers it gave the establishment was the right to decide what is fake news.
The policy is ‘Orwellian’, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global journalist advocacy group and watchdog. The new policy instituted a “background check” on newspaper publishers, editors and key staff before clearing them for government advertisements, and “security clearance” before granting accreditation.
As journalism became an increasingly dangerous profession in Kashmir, harassment was no longer limited to officials calling up editors with threats or warnings, nor was a paper merely banned for a few days.
Instead, journalists were booked under the UAPA, India’s severe anti-terror law. Some were summoned, slapped and bullied.
The assault on the press was underway before August 2019. In February that year, government advertisements to Greater Kashmir were abruptly halted, choking the newspaper’s main source of revenue. This action continued a tradition of subjecting Kashmir’s newspapers that did not toe the government line to penalties including suspension of advertisement support.
As far back as 1970, the Srinagar Times, another Urdu daily, was banned for two months for critical writings against the government. Editors Ghulam Nabi Shaida (Wadi Ki Awaz), Mohammad Shaban Vakil (Al Safa) and Ghulam Jeelani Qadri (Afaq) faced criminal cases in the 1990s for what the government felt was seditious writing.
A little more recently, after the July 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani, English daily Kashmir Reader was banned from receiving government advertising for about three months. The ban was lifted but Kashmir Reader is yet to receive advertisements from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP).
Greater Kashmir was also slapped with two brief bans from receiving DAVP ads, in 2008 and in 2011. These followed the 2008 Amarnath land row and the 2010 summer unrest. The bans were imposed reportedly over allegations of fanning “anti-India propaganda” in the Valley.
The February 2019 suspension of advertising to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader came two days after the Pulwama attack, in which 40 men of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a suicide bomb attack.
A day after the tragedy, this reporter, who was then working with Greater Kashmir, was asked by a top police officer to refer to the attack as a ‘terrorist attack’ rather than a ‘militant attack’. “Why do you not write ‘Pulwama terrorist attack’? You don’t think Pulwama was a terrorist attack?” the officer demanded to know.
Deep-Rooted Problems For Kashmir’s Press
Hilal Mir, a former executive editor at Greater Kashmir, told Article 14 that newspaper owners must bear some responsibility for the current situation.
Mir, who authored the newspaper’s style sheet, said newspapers receive government advertisements on the basis of their readership and reach. He claimed that newspaper editors are “unnecessarily” spreading the notion that there is editorial interference from the government. “It is a business model in which newspapers give space to the government for the advertisements, and in return the newspapers get revenue,” he said.
Editors and publishers agree that the absence of local industry as a source of advertising revenue has led newspapers in Kashmir to depend too heavily on government advertising.
But the precise distribution of these advertisements is left to the government’s discretion, leading government agencies to use advertising as a powerful tool. Media outlets that parrot the state’s narrative are given an abundance of advertisements while the remaining is divested of them, according to a senior editor who worked earlier with Kashmir Reader.
Geelani said much of the mainstream local press has lost independence on account of this revenue model. “... for some, this situation has become a symbiotic relationship to earn unprecedented revenue through government advertisements,” he said.
The former Indian Express journalist said newspapers in Kashmir have become “government mouthpieces”. He said front page government advertisements are a reflection of the status of the press in the valley.
“Newspaper owners and editors are both responsible for creating a state-controlled press,” said Geelani. “History will never forgive these newspaper editors who, during the information blackout in August 2019, published newspapers and created a false narrative that everything was hunky dory in Kashmir.”
(Irfan Amin Malik is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)