After five months of lockdown, journalists in Kashmir fear for the survival of their profession

Journalists have been detained, questioned and beaten up by the police; most are no longer paid by their employers; and many have been laid off.

WrittenBy:Rayan Naqash
Date:
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It was almost midnight on August 14. At his home in South Kashmir’s Tral in Pulwama, Irfan Amin Malik, a journalist with Greater Kashmir, was getting ready to sleep when soldiers scaled the walls and banged on his door. 

Malik’s mother said the security forces had “gatecrashed” the house without explanation. Malik was taken away to the local police station, where he was detained overnight. He was released perhaps only because of mounting pressure from an outraged journalist community, or to avoid further bad press.

Nearly five months later, neither Malik nor the journalists who questioned his detention have been given any answers.

At the time of his detention, Malik was a reporter with Greater Kashmir, arguably the valley’s largest and most influential daily newspaper. Given the volatile situation in Pulwama, Malik reported extensively on politics and human rights. He is now a freelance journalist but his reports steer clear of both politics and human rights. The father of an infant daughter, he is wary of the government and refuses to speak about his ordeal.

Malik’s detention was the first instance of a journalist being specifically targeted and detained by authorities in Kashmir after the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s so-called special status in August 2019. Since then, journalists have been struggling to cope with the internet ban and an increasingly aggressive administration.

No work, no pay

Journalists based outside the capital Srinagar — called “district reporters” by newspapers — have been in limbo since August. They are not laid off by their employers, but they are not being paid either. 

Most newspapers in Kashmir currently operate with nominal staff, without a reporter on duty, and rely on publishing wire stories, or reproducing articles published elsewhere. Their staffers either work with reduced salaries, or aren’t paid at all.

Did salaries stop first or the reporting? That depends on whom you ask. Most editors cite two main issues: the internet blackout and the district reporters’ inability to file stories. Reporters themselves are cautious: they don’t want to fall out of favour with papers based in Srinagar.

A district reporter with Greater Kashmir said he believed he was still part of the newspaper, as there was no official communication about the termination of his services. “We are not fired but we are also not receiving any salaries so far,” he said, requesting anonymity. 

Greater Kashmir has been the most affected. The paper began laying off its staff early last year when the government stopped advertising in the newspaper. After August 2019, the daily laid off its online desk and reporting staff, except a few experienced reporters, and “disengaged” its district reporters, without official communication. 

According to a former employee, at least 29 staffers, including reporters, have been laid off from Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Uzma. It is a surprising turn of events since the media house was presumed to be back in the government’s good books given the number of ads Greater Kashmir has been publishing lately after a dry spell of around six months.

Senior editors and staff members at Greater Kashmir refused to comment, saying they weren’t authorised to speak to the press. One pleaded to be left alone as he was “fed up of this job” and wanted to quit.

When Newslaundry asked the newspaper’s head of human resources, Muhammad Siddique, about the layoffs, he said he would check his records and hung up. He didn’t respond to further calls. 

The going gets tough

Besides the downscaling of Greater Kashmir, the questioning of its editor and owner, Fayaz Kaloo, by the National Investigation Agency is being seen by the journalist community as a message that even the most influential of Kashmiris would not be spared. This became clearer when Kashmir’s entire pro-India political leadership was detained in August.

“The government is using fear as a tool,” a journalist said.

The fear is more palpable in towns and villages where, away from the comparatively higher scrutiny in Srinagar city, armed forces are more aggressive. In a highly militarised environment, reporting that is critical of the government, or its organs, can be tricky for district reporters. They are also the most vulnerable.

The Greater Kashmir reporter said the only way to avoid trouble is by killing a story. “There is always fear in the districts,” the reporter said. “You can be summoned by the forces anytime, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Malik was a district reporter as well. Since his detention, there have been a string of incidents where journalists were targeted, or their work interfered with by the authorities, particularly the Jammu and Kashmir police.

Two days after Kashmir was put on lockdown, a group of photojournalists covering protests in downtown Srinagar’s Habbakadal had their memory cards forcibly erased by the police. They were also prevented from taking further pictures.

On August 11, Brut India reporter Haziq Qadri was detained near Eidgah in downtown Srinagar. Qadri said a superintendent of police detained him and confiscated his phone. “I was told that journalists are not allowed to shoot in Srinagar,” he said.

Having largely contained the flow of critical news in the national and local press after August 5, authorities shifted focus to journalists working with international platforms which, at the time, were reporting extensively and often contradicting the government’s claims.

A journalist with an international news organisation said government forces on patrol in his village outside Srinagar had asked after his whereabouts soon after August 5. “Every day, we were hearing rumours from journalists and the police that the government was not happy with journalists,” he said. “There is also the fear of being mobbed by an angry public. Indian media jeopardised us with their reports of everything being good in Kashmir.”

Bashaarat Masood of the Indian Express was summoned by the police after he reported on the number of internet connections active in Kashmir. He said the report was based on documents submitted by the government in the Supreme Court but the police, though cordial, were still perplexed as to how he had access to the information.

Another time, Bashaarat and two fellow journalists were stopped by the police outside a village and directed to follow them to the local police authorities. The police vehicle, however, stopped midway and informed Masood something urgent had come up and they could go back to Srinagar.

Another journalist working with a national newspaper who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the police threatened to go through his call records to find the source for a story that had upset the authorities. They also threatened to “block his access” to government officials. 

Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter with The Hindu, was summoned by the police after he reported on detentions, using police data. “They wanted me to reveal the source of my stories, how I had access to police headquarters’ data,” Ashiq said. “This was the first time I felt what you write might be immediately taken note of and you might have to face an arm of the state to explain the reportage.”

By summoning journalists, Ashiq said, the authorities were attempting to “deter” them from doing investigative stories. Since then, he said a lot of his government contacts have avoided answering his calls, fearing he was being monitored. “That summoning was part of putting the pressure on journalists, that you cannot enter certain areas when it comes to reporting Kashmir,” he said.

On December 17, Anees Zargar, who works for the news website NewsClick, and Azaan Javaid, a reporter with The Print, were beaten up by the police, allegedly because of Zargar’s reporting on the police’s excesses. The police sought 10 days to complete an enquiry into the matter when the issue was taken up with senior officials by the Kashmir Press Club. The enquiry, though, is still on. The statements of the two journalists were recorded on January 1.

Azaan had also reported on a goof-up by the police. A copy presumably of one of the police’s daily social media monitoring reports was attached to a press release emailed to journalists. Soon after, he and another journalist were removed from a WhatsApp group run by the police to disseminate information to the press.

On January 2, journalists were barred from entering the fortified Gupkar area in Srinagar. They were trying to reach former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s house after her daughter alleged that she had been detained and prevented from visiting her grandfather’s mausoleum in South Kashmir.

Controlling the narrative?

The situation was bad for the press in India but it was grave in Kashmir, a journalist said. “After Modi won [the second term], more [media houses] have fallen in line,” he said, adding the fall was sudden and difficult to set right. “But it’s still possible in India when a lenient government comes to power someday, but even they would not let the Kashmiri press stand up again.”

The government went to the extent of disallowing a Kashmiri journalist from leaving the country. On August 31, Gowhar Geelani was detained at the Delhi airport before he could fly to Germany to attend a workshop for journalists.

Geelani said the immigration authorities offered him no explanation. He believed it had to do with the government’s fears of a Kashmiri voice appearing on an international platform at a time when India was under global scrutiny for its actions in Kashmir. 

The repression in Kashmir by India’s Hindu nationalist government, Geelani said, has intimidated the Kashmiri intelligentsia. The BJP has an ideological obsession with the predominently Muslim Kashmir, he added.

An articulate Kashmiri who did not fit their stereotype of a radical Muslim, said Geelani, “disturbed” New Delhi. “They want to control the narrative of the natives,” he said. “They don’t want Kashmiris to be the scriptwriters of the Kashmir story.”

This is the second part of a two-part series on the state of Kashmir’s media six months after the abrogation of Article 370. Read the first part.

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