What the last month has looked like for the media in Kashmir

In their heart of hearts, every journalist fears that this process of silencing Kashmiri voices may be irreversible

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

Finally, after a month-long siege on communication, the landline phones in our Srinagar office have begun to ring. In a digital age, this is not a relief it’s a privilege. If that sounds ironic, check again. We’re dealing with Kashmir, where even the basic phone connectivity has become a luxury. Since September 5, thus, it is a privilege to speak to my bureau chief and other staffers for longer than just the minute-long call that they could occasionally manage to make from the media centre set up by the government at a hotel, a few kilometres from the office.

A few stories, with little information, have been hurriedly filed from there since August 18 that is, if they were lucky enough to get a space at the computer to be able to do so, and the internet connectivity was good enough for them to send an email. All this was done under complete surveillance; names and details of callers and the called were duly noted, names of senders and receivers registered.

From the complete silence between August 5 and August 18 to September 5, the 18 days were reduced to the daily grind of uncertainty about whether staffers would be able to file their stories by the end of the day, keeping the Jammu head office hands full throughout the day. Apart from managing the region’s regular beats, the Jammu newsroom has had to fill in the gaps of silence by scavenging for Valley related news published in different publications across the country and the world, sifting information and compiling reports based on stories already in the public domain, just in case we didn’t hear from our Srinagar-based reporters. There was no way to call back and get clarifications or verify anything.

One step forward, a month on. Now, I can finally dial the Srinagar bureau’s landline numbers and if I’m lucky to get through, before I’ve wearied-out my fingers while trying each number several times, I can now hear a voice at the other end and make some meaningful conversation, even if there is the dread that the phone lines may be tapped.

The tribulations at the Jammu office are enhanced by weak internet connectivity and the trickle of information from five districts (Poonch, Rajouri, Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban), after month-long silence, where phone communication is now restored but internet is not. Some reporters and stringers have managed to send e-mails from government officials’ connections, but these stories are restricted to official statements.

Other than that, things remain where they are. On September 5, when landline phone lines opened up, the working at the media centre came to a grinding halt as the internet connectivity went kaput for the day. No stories were filed. On September 8, in view of protests over the ban on Muharram processions in parts of Srinagar, the security restrictions were re-imposed, making it difficult for staffers to reach the media centre.

It, thus, remains business as usual as we continue to struggle with how voices from Kashmir can be heard and how the printing of the Srinagar edition of Kashmir Times can be resumed. In striking contrast to this reality, the government refrain remains: All is well. A more realistic response is that “things are improving bit by bit”. As far as media industry is concerned, “nobody is stopping them from publishing” or “some newspapers are being published”.

And yet, as basic concerns of journalists remain unheard, despite these minor “improvements in situation”, the Kashmir media seems to be not just caught in a static situation but is also standing on the precipice of a disaster, virtually being strangulated.

Kashmir’s media has operated under severe stress and strain in the last three decades of conflict, negotiating the challenges and threats of novel methods of gags, censorship and physical intimidation from state and non-state actors. Newspapers have been banned from time to time by both the state and militant groups. Media persons have been jailed, physically attacked and killed.

But today, the challenges exist at multiple levels of logistical impediments and the lack of freedom to operate, bringing all voices to an unprecedented freeze and pushing information into some kind of black hole from where its recovery is becoming an irreversible journey. Poor resources and limited budgets, in view of the various advertisement bans that have hit media houses badly in the last decade, further limit their power of negotiating with the present challenges.

The Media Centre, under constant surveillance, remains the sole method of sending and receiving stories, though some may have been lucky in managing to steal some more moments in the cyber skies by borrowing connectivity from other privileged places where internet connectivity has not been disrupted. Journalists reporting for publications outside the Valley are also finding innovative ways to send their stories on pen-drives sent through passengers traveling out of the Valley. The reliability and regularity of any of these mediums remains inconsistent.

In this situation, the efforts of those managing to print newspapers with regularity are brave, especially considering that in the first few weeks, the mobility of staffers and the to-and-fro travel from newspaper offices in the Lal Chowk area to printing presses in the Rangreth industrial area, 11 km away, often without ‘movement passes’, was almost an impossible task to accomplish. With restrictions on mobility decreasing, more papers have been added to the list of those being printed.

In a land-locked region like Kashmir, the newsprint and most printing material supplies are well stocked for over a month. With the situation prolonging and movement on the national highway still disrupted, how will these be replenished in a few days or weeks from now? If they can’t, will the newspapers being printed be brought to an abrupt halt, even if temporarily?

More importantly, in their present form, the publications are reduced in size and quality. Giving space to very few local voices, which are cautiously worded, much of the space is dedicated to government handouts and news downloaded from different news agencies outside the Valley. The comment articles, other than some mediocre pieces on inane things completely disconnected from Kashmir and the present situation, are virtually missing. No editorials appear, other than some occasional ones skirting any serious issue. How does one engage with these new rules of ‘press freedom’?

In this scenario, the challenges before our newspaper are also augmented by the fact that unlike other Valley-based newspapers, its head office is in Jammu. Many of our questions become even more difficult to find a response to. With minimal connectivity, how does one transfer the editorial and opinion pages, how does one arrive at major editorial decisions to be taken in tricky situations in the face of poor connectivity between the Jammu and Srinagar offices?

The logistical unfeasibility of publishing is only one issue at stake. A larger and more vital question is of the difficulty faced by every Kashmiri journalist working for local or outside publications in getting information and gathering news. While rumours multiply, the channels of verifying them have begun to shrink. Landline phones (though the weak connectivity remains a little debilitating) helps only minimally in getting stories verified. While only some officers have telephone facilities, ordinary civilians still do not have them and it becomes impossible to physically investigate each and every detail.

Besides this, most officers are unwilling to speak and pass on the buck to the officers holding the daily press conference are authorised to speak. The ‘daily press briefings’, which are not held as daily as they are made out to be, remain a farce. Two or three questions are entertained and none are answered without being reduced to ridicule.

Sample this: a journalist asked about the restoration of phone connectivity and the senior official addressing the press conference responded, “Why, do you have to talk to your girlfriend?” Such retorts illustrate how the question-and-answer session after every press briefing has been turned into a non-serious and farcical exercise. Questions and concerns are either unanswered or answers mock and trivialise the issue.

Last week there were ‘inputs’ on five people being killed in Soura. With officials inaccessible, there was no way to verify. Our Srinagar staffers thankfully used their own sense of discretion and avoided the story. The next day, it turned out to be a rumour. It is not only state officials who are shying away from responding to media queries.

Many people are hesitant to share any details with journalists. The reporters in the districts, where the situation is still not well known, are yet to find a way to communicate. Some Srinagar-based journalists working for publications outside the state have walked the extra mile to make few voices audible to the world. There are voices, however, that are still silenced behind an invisible wall. Within the Valley, the voices have virtually disappeared.

The silence of information is not born in a vacuum, it is linked to the local conditions and the widening domain of fear that exists between the might of the government that can detain anyone without a charge and some faceless non-state actors, suspected to be militants, who sometimes paste intimidating posters or use the gun against hapless ordinary civilians. The highly volatile and embittered young generation that has begun to take charge of a counter state narrative may also soon become an intimidating force to reckon with.

Media persons are exposed to greater vulnerability. In the run-up to August 5, one web portal editor, Qazi Shibli, was arrested. Another journalist, Irfan, working with a local paper, was picked up and released few days later. Senior journalist Gowhar Geelani was barred from leaving the country at the airport, before he was flying out for a training course. At least three journalists have been served notices to vacate government accommodation in the middle of abnormal conditions in the Valley.

Last Saturday 7 Sep. 2019, four photojournalists were beaten up by security forces while covering an attempt by Shia community members to take out a Muharram procession. One of them received pellet injuries. On Sunday, a woman journalist working for The Tribune, Rifat Mohidin, had her car rained on with police batons and she was verbally abused. Earlier, a woman journalist working with an international TV channel was abused by security forces while reporting an incident in Nowhatta.

In normal circumstances, such incidents would have inspired the outrage of local press bodies, they would have gathered at the Press Enclave for sit-ins and protest marches, journalist deputations would have met high level delegations in the government. Right now, there is hardly a whimper. The world of media in Kashmir has changed like never before.

When it becomes a choice between life and professionalism, truth becomes a casualty and speaking out becomes an unthinkable blasphemy. Amidst the increasing fear, there is a helpless surrender that stems from hopelessness. The present situation may be temporary and may improve by notches, yet it renders everything permanent. In their heart of hearts, every journalist fears that this process may be irreversible.

Intolerance to dissent at the highest echelons of power is deepening and unlike the rest of India, the Kashmiri journalist is also grappling with two extra phenomena first, the threats of militants and angry mobs; and second, the demonisation of Kashmiris in the nationwide imagination of what is “anti-national”. The month-long information vacuum has fuelled rumours, myths and untruths to take firm root, enhancing the sense of intimidation and fear.

In a month or so, or perhaps more, there is the likelihood that more communication networks could by and large be restored. And finally, so may the internet facility eventually return, depending on the situation in Kashmir. Reporters will be able to file their stories and local publications will be able to print easily. But what voices will we get to hear? Will publications resembling publicity pamphlets suffice as newspapers?

A newspaper is not measured by the length of columns it can print but by the words and images it offers. That kind of a commodity may soon become extinct in Kashmir.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the executive editor of Kashmir Times.

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