‘Trauma and torture’: Kashmir lockdown is taking a heavy toll on its journalists

Many are struggling with depression.

BySaqib Mugloo
‘Trauma and torture’: Kashmir lockdown is taking a heavy toll on its journalists
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On August 4, Adil, 28, a photojournalist in Srinagar’s downtown area, was at his office in Lal Chowk. Unaffected by the social media rumours and political drama unfolding around him, Adil was researching photo-editing and new camera equipment in the market.

By midnight, the government snapped all forms of communication, including internet and mobile services. When Adil woke up on August 5, he found his phone signals jammed and his family members glued to the television, watching Home Minister Amit Shah introduce the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill. This Bill, now Act, paved the way to scrap the erstwhile state’s special status and bifurcate it into two union territories. 

Almost overnight, thousands found themselves cut off — no internet and mobile services, offices closed, restrictions placed on their movement. Most newsrooms closed too, leaving journalists like Adil with no place to go, and nothing to do. Scores suffer from mental health issues as a result.

Adil is one of them.

On the morning of August 5, at about 11 am, he left home. “I went about on my routine work, taking pictures and videos of the curfew and restrictions that were in place, in the hope that they might be uploaded,” he remembers. “However, when I reached office I found it locked and with phones not working, it became impossible for me to contact my editors.”

For one month, Adil says, he visited the office regularly, hoping to meet his editors and get his work published. Every day, the office was locked. Meanwhile, his cache of photos and videos grew. “I was just hoping that the internet would resume and we would be able to resume our work as we were solely reliant on the internet,” he explains.

He finally met his editors at the Press Club. “They told me we would start working only once things get better and the internet service is resumed,” Adil said. Until then, his news publication had “temporarily suspended” operations.

That’s when Adil decided not to leave his house anymore. His editors’ update was like “an arrow that pierced my heart”, he says. “Because then I knew that the internet was not going to resume anytime soon, which meant work was not going to resume either.”

Adil confined himself to his room, which triggered his anxiety and depression. “Work was my therapy,” he says. “When I was out of it, I returned to the old days of my mental health issues.” 

He hadn’t taken medication for his mental health for three years, but now he’s forced to. “I take two pills before sleep to feel better and get rid of my anger and suicidal thoughts.” 

***

Arif Maghribhi Khan, a doctor at a community psychiatry clinic, says since August 5, he’s treated a number of patients who have relapsed in the communication blackout and restrictions that followed.  

“Many of my patients who had recovered complained of mental health issues following the revocation of Article 370 as there were restrictions and snapping of all forms of communication,” Khan says. “When they could not roam out of their houses, or contact friends and relatives, or even access the internet — it led to mental health issues among not only first-time patients but even those who had recovered.”

A psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Srinagar, says a number of patients are deeply affected by their loss of work and business, and the communication blackout. “Around 5-10 patients a day complain about mental health issues due to these factors,” the psychiatrist says.

In September, IndiaSpend reported that it’s become difficult for Kashmiris to access healthcare since the abrogation of Article 370. But, “more patients have been visiting general out-patient departments with symptoms of anxiety and reporting palpitations since August 5,” The Wire quoted a doctor as saying. 

The psychiatrist says there are three ways a person might react to a situation like this. “One is that they use it as a positive and turn resilient — like Nelson Mandela,” she says. “Another one is a person who does not get affected by anything. The third type of person is one who is affected and needs professional help.” 

She adds, “It isn’t necessary that only those who suffered losses or lost jobs will be affected. Only today, two housewives came to me and said they were not feeling well due to the shutdown.” 

According to estimates by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the losses suffered by the Valley’s business community since August 5 is about $1 billion. Monetary losses, compounded by the internet shutdown for months on end, has mentally and emotionally devastated Kashmiris.

Adil says his medication has helped, but he’s still worried about when he can resume work and see his photos and videos published. “I hope the internet is resumed soon so that we can start working again,” he says.

***

Before August 5, the four offices of Kashmir Crown, a weekly newspaper and news website, buzzed with editorial meetings and newsroom discussions. For the last five months, they’ve stayed silent.

Shahid Imran, 31, the editor of Kashmir Crown, says he and his staff haven’t been to the office for “even 10 seconds” since the Centre scrapped the erstwhile state’s special status.

Kashmir Crown, started in 2016, has offices in Baramulla, Srinagar, Bandipora and Kupwara. “All of them are shut,” Imran says. “There has been absolutely no activity in the offices…We are in trauma, it is a punishment.” 

Running into losses, all 20 of Imran’s employees lost their jobs. “Our online editor, a mass communication graduate, now works as a daily labourer,” Imran says. “We are ourselves in trauma. That’s what I can tell you about how the internet blackout has affected us.”

He adds: “We had a good income from Facebook and Youtube and business advertisements.” When advertisers told him they’d no longer pay him, he told his employees to look for other means to survive. “Some of them went to Rajasthan to work as labourers.”

Before the communication blackout, Imran was a household name in the valley, known for his appealing voice and highlighting social issues in Kashmir on Facebook. His balanced coverage on the alleged Bandipora rape case was widely praised. 

“We have over a million followers on Facebook and have huge reach on other social media platforms as well,” he says. 

He also used his voice to help the poor and destitute, including orphans and widows. “We were able to raise Rs 3 crore in two months for the poor and constructed five houses for the needy through Kashmir Crown’s online work,” he says. “Look what the government is stopping in Kashmir. This was how the internet was used in Kashmir; people were being helped.”

Today, both Kashmir Crown’s website and its Facebook page are silent. Imran says he goes to Delhi “once in a while” to update the website with a story. He says everyone in Kashmir is in “survival mode”. 

“Right now, my parents are asking me why I pursued a masters in journalism,” he says. “Right now, after doing my masters in journalism, if the prime minister and home minister of this country gave me the gift of internet blockade in return — what can I reply? It is trauma, indeed it is a trauma! It’s torture and punishment for us.”

Like Kashmir Crown, many online publications were forced to suspend operations. Their employees are either jobless, or receive very low salaries or, in some cases, have been unpaid for months.

Gowhar Geelani, an author and journalist, says the internet shutdown is a “direct attack” on the freedom of the press. “The result is many editors, reporters and other staff members have lost their jobs, while budding and young media entrepreneurs have lost their investments,” he says. “So besides the political uncertainty and vacuum, this is also a big jolt to the local media industry in the Kashmir valley.” 

Senior journalist Shabbir Hussain says the blackout belies the Centre’s claim that it’s doing anything for the development of Kashmiris, especially the youth. “On the one hand, they make lofty claims. On the other, apart from various kinds of physical human rights violations, they continue to ensure that Kashmiri youths are frustrated and they don’t get jobs.”

Hussain says the internet clampdown is one way to cut the media down to size. “They not only bully the media but use draconian laws against them, not reporting exactly what is happening on the ground,” he says. “These are tactics by India so the minimum amount of news goes beyond Kashmir…it should allow the local media to do its job.” 

He adds that the internet shutdown is a “gross human rights violation”.

Some names have been changed to protect identities. 

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