Panopticon of fear and rumours: Inside Kashmir’s media centre during lockdown
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Panopticon of fear and rumours: Inside Kashmir’s media centre during lockdown

The only place to go online during the valley’s communications blackout, the government’s media centre was where journalists and their journalism were cut down to size.

By Rayan Naqash

Published on :

It was July 2019. Kashmir was seemingly inching towards an unknown but, in all likelihood, enormous event. Every Kashmiri is familiar with the drill: the first step would be the suspension of mobile phones and the internet. I hurried to pay the bill for my broadband connection. I wanted to be prepared.

The event, when it came, occurred on August 5. It turned out to be the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status, statehood, and territorial integrity. It involved placing millions of people on lockdown, imposing a total communications blockade.

Six months later, my broadband connection is still dead.

Last week, slow-speed censored internet was restored on mobile phones. But it allows very little, forcing me and several other journalists to still depend on the internet centre for the media set up in a government office. The administration calls it the “media facilitation centre”. Journalists call it a “media concentration camp”.

The “facilitation” began with four computers and a single mobile phone. Journalists shared the centre with the the government’s public relations team, and one computer was reserved for them. Sometime later, four more computers were added, and then two more. When the centre was shifted from a private hotel to a government office, six more terminals became available, where journalists could connect their own laptops.

Yet, this has little impact on the time it took for you to get your turn. Those who wished to avoid the excruciating wait arrived at the centre — some of them riding on two-wheelers in freezing sub-zero morning temperatures — only to be able to access the internet for slightly longer. On one such morning, an editor of a local periodical described the centre as the “internet’s shrine”. The room resonated with feeble chuckles.

The internet centre has, in large part, disoriented the practice of journalism in Kashmir. On average, more than 200 journalists — 400 on peak days — waited for hours to briefly access the internet in full glare of fellow journalists, government employees, and basically anyone else, from pharmaceutical representatives to BJP workers who managed to gain access inside.

The authorities have taken their own sweet time to, as they call it, “facilitate” journalists. The internet centre, now housed in the government’s public relations office, has become a defining feature of journalism in the past six months: one roof under which journalists and their journalism were cut to size. Journalists were humiliated in their struggle for connectivity, working in paranoia over surveillance.

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The internet centre was first established in a private hotel where journalists from out of state were put up. These journalists started arriving in Kashmir days before the abrogation of Article 370, and still more arrived in its aftermath. For them, it was a few flights of stairs down to the internet centre set up in a hall beneath the parking lot. For local journalists, however, reaching the centre involved navigating a maze of razor wire spools and unrelenting armed soldiers.

At that time, the internet centre was not just a journalist’s only link with the outside world, it was the only place where they could interact with government officials on the sidelines of press conferences — a frequent occurrence in the initial days.

Even as the press conferences stopped, it didn’t really impact the quality of news. The press conferences were largely monologues on “normalcy”. Only a fraction of time was given to questions and answers: answers sought by journalists and questions dodged by government officials. When the government felt like it, it gave numbers on how many Kashmiris attended Eid prayers and how many children attended schools. But it had no answers on how many Kashmiris were being held in detention, or when exactly the communication blockade would end — refusing to clear the air on the two important contributors to the humanitarian crisis faced by Kashmiris on the ground.

It was a colossal waste of time. Nearly the entire journalist community gathered in the same hall to access the internet. They also had to deal with dozens of individuals — not recognised by many — who occupied computers all day long. Some journalists designed multiple newspapers while others downloaded content for four to eight page newspapers that are barely found in the markets, or even read. Journalists were held hostage by a whole industry established to milk the government for advertisement revenue.

Notices printed on plain paper were pinned on the hall’s soft walls, announcing the allowed time limit to use a computer to be 15 minutes. It would take 50 hours to allot 15 minutes to 200 individuals. Consequently, journalists often just gave up waiting for their turn. At the new internet centre at the government office, the time limit was increased to 30 minutes and, after a point, the notices just disappeared.

In a working day of about eight or nine hours, a journalist remarked, four were spent in the centre, trying to file whatever could be gathered in the first half of the day.

The idea of journalists having to work out of the internet centre was “a very seriously limiting thing”, said the journalist Parvaiz Bukhari, especially in the internet age where one can keep up with events on their phone. Like many other journalists, Bukhari has not been able to talk freely to his sources since the communications blockade — an impediment to the basics of journalism.

“Not that as a professional I have anything to hide, but how do I protect my source talking over communication lines that are not secure?” he asked. “It’s a question of how journalists in Kashmir can uphold ethics in this communication blockade.”

The internet ban blocked journalists from getting leads on social media, and also obstructed citizens from reaching out to the press, pushing Kashmir into a “black hole” of information, Bukhari said. “Even in warzones, you go with communication facilities but there was nothing here; they stymied our basic capabilities of reporting,” he said. “In actual terms, this does amount to censorship.”

The Indian state through the internet centre, Bukhari explained, was not only “regulating” journalists’ time but also their practice. It wasn’t that reporting was not being done but what took two minutes was taking two days, slowing down the pace of reporting and also limiting the area covered by the press.

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The panopticon was designed as a prison whose inmates are aware of constant surveillance but aren’t able to see who’s watching them. It’s a concept that has lived on through contemporary security measures — CCTV surveillance, for example — the principle being the visible but unverifiable nature of power.

I wonder if it isn't a stretch to compare the internet centre, a visible embodiment of the state’s surveillance on journalists, to a panopticon of sorts.

Amid the tense situation in August last year, various security agencies operating in Kashmir kept in constant touch with the internet centre at the private hotel. Visits by sleuths of different agencies was not uncommon, and a pervasive sense of surveillance swept journalists.

There were discussions about a man, often wearing a baseball cap, kurta, and Nehru jacket, who identified himself as a freelance journalist with Hindi newspapers. He was once spotted in the vehicle of a security agency, leaving its office on the fortified Gupkar road. Then there was the jolly hotel employee, notorious for peeking at computer screens while journalists worked, or listening in on smoke break conversations. He was suspected to be the local police’s eyes and ears.

The suspicions were reflective of the paranoia that has crept in the Kashmiri society, many outsiders were suspected at the centre.

It was also a time when rumours targeting journalists were spreading like wildfire. Rumour had it that a list of journalists perceived to be anti-establishment was being compiled, and punitive actions would be taken against them soon. The number of journalists on that list varied, and so did the nature of the punitive actions; some believed they would be temporarily detained, some were told the Public Safety Act warrants were kept ready.

A few weeks later, it occurred to some journalists that the rumours had a pattern: they began circulating after visits by security sleuths. One busy evening at the internet centre, days after the government’s botched attempt at discrediting reports in the international media of police firing on a protest rally in Srinagar, a more targeted rumour began after a senior sleuth arrived to briefly chat with a reporter working with a loud national television network.

“Did you hear about any list of international journalists being prepared?” the reporter asked me, as he headed down to the internet centre moments after parting ways with the sleuth. By “international journalists”, he meant Kashmiris working for foreign publications; non-Indians are still barred from visiting Jammu and Kashmir.

“A list is being prepared. All of them will be picked up and their shops shut,” the reporter added. He winked and went on his way.

The circumstances leading to the reporter volunteering the information made me suspicious. It also left me with a dilemma: should I convey the information to a friend who is an “international journalist” and risk being a conduit for rumours, or regret my silence should something happen later? Should I casually pass on the information, or should I emphasise concern? Nothing happened in the end.

Months later, at the new internet centre, a journalist who works with an international news organisation, helped me put this into perspective. “Fear has to be institutionalised in a way that it isn’t visible, they won’t hold you by the collar,” he explained. “This is where rumours come in. It gives the state the benefit of plausible deniability.”

I had heard the rumour from a fellow journalist and relayed it to another. “They exploit people’s fears and insecurities and what helps is how it adds on layers with each person relaying it further,” he said. “A person either genuinely trying to verify the information or just gossiping, inadvertently spreads the rumour.”

After the 2009 alleged rape and murder of two Kashmiri women by paramilitary men, there was a storm of rumours and misinformation. In its aftermath, Parvaiz Bukhari wrote: “Kashmir has historically been amenable to the grapevine which has often been used by the officialdom to its advantage. There even is a rumour making rounds for years now that the state police have a Dy SP rank official designated inside its Special Branch to generate and spread rumors for dealing with difficult public order situations.”

One of the ways the local police spread rumours, the journalist added, was through courtesy calls to journalists. During these calls, disinformation disguised as questions, or leads, or both, is planted. Generations of Kashmiri whispers later, the questions turn into statements of facts — as intended.

“We know in Kashmir every scoop is a leak,” the journalist said. My mind immediately recalled the series of government orders leaked online and news reports planted days ahead of the airstrikes in Pakistan in February last year, and ahead of the abrogation. There was an uncanny similarity in how events unfolded each time.

“It was one big psy-op,” said another journalist with an international publication that had riled the government with its ground reports on the lockdown in Kashmir. “They were all playing with us. People talking about lists that the police are making and that your name is on it. Slowly, fear takes root and you become afraid and restrain yourself.”

Was the internet centre a “thought experiment” for the government, an exercise to better profile the journalist community? These are the wonderings of a journalist who has been associated with local newspapers for the better part of his 20-year career. The local press, primarily comprising traditional newspapers, had “organic links” with the administration and hence, he said, “they did not need to be pressurised”.

He continued: “The local newspapers voluntarily did not ask uncomfortable questions. The problem is how to keep a check on journalists working for publications outside, primarily the online media.”

Instead of putting up a united front against the government clampdown on the press, this journalist said, the media community was busy fighting amongst itself. The differences and lack of unity became clear the day two Kashmiri journalists were beaten up by the police. No journalist vacated his seat to join a symbolic protest in solidarity with them. But then again, the journalists also did not evacuate the internet centre when strong earthquake tremors were felt in Srinagar.

At times, it felt as though the government wanted to test how far journalists could endure the pressure before it arrived at the conclusion that it wielded enough power to push journalists right off the cliff, with little resistance.

Building on the framework of the panopticon, Michel Foucault explains how the external reality of surveillance is internalised and becomes habitual: the prison inmates’ behaviour is regulated even though they don’t see a guard spying on them. Perhaps this is what journalists will continue to feel long after the media centre has gone. They will never know if they were actually being profiled but they will continue to believe so till self-restraint gradually seeps in.

***

Weeks before Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy was abrogated, a troop build-up coincided with government orders and advisories being leaked on social media. It was a strange phenomenon to occur in a state governed by, perhaps, one of the most opaque governments in India. It was a month of calculated rumours and strategic disinformation.

Amid the chaos and confusion, Kashmiris did what they know best to survive: to stock up on essentials before all hell breaks loose. And then they turned to those expected to know the answers, but who were actually the most clueless lot — journalists.

The rumours came to an abrupt end on August 5 when, in the blink of an eye, more than seven million people fell off the communication grid. Millions disconnected not only from the outside world but also each other. The internet, mobile phones and landlines, and cable network shut. Driving through Srinagar, on the few stretches that one could on the morning of August 5, the only word that came to mind was “siege”.

Containing panic is probably a part of good governance but here, the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre had turned governance into an elaborate intelligence operation against its own citizens.

Kashmir has since returned to that brief period of calm before the storm that has come to be known as “normalcy”. In addition to arbitrary detentions to crush dissent, its new normal is a communication blockade, now morphing into internet censorship, as slow-speed internet is officially censored to allow access to just a few hundred websites and no encrypted communications.

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