Kashmir: How journalists face harassment and threats of violence while reporting from behind India’s communications lockdown

By Zubair Sofi

Source

By restricting journalists’ access to the outside world and harassing them on the streets, the Indian government is effectively stifling reports of unrest in Kashmir following its decision to revoke the region’s autonomy, reporters, editors and rights groups say.

This week, the Supreme Court in Delhi ordered the government to respond to a petition by the editor of the Kashmir Times newspaper, demanding an end to the communications blockade that has been in place since 4 August.

In Srinagar, the Kashmiri summer capital, journalists described how they are forced to use motorbikes and back streets to avoid the maze of barbed wire and police blockades that have blighted the city’s road network since the Modi administration declared its move to strike down Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave Kashmir the right to make its own laws.

Without access to the internet, mobile networks or landline phones, hundreds of reporters in the Valley have been forced to share a government-run “media facilitation centre” with just five desktop computers, two of which are reserved for women.

Others, assuming use of the computers is being monitored, said they had stocked up on USB sticks and external hard drives to store mostly photo and video footage of protests and send out their data via friends travelling to different parts of India.

But if getting the story out is hard enough, it is while physically attending the protests that journalists find themselves in the most trouble.

In the days leading up to 23 August, pamphlets were circulated by protest leaders setting out a date, time and location where Kashmiris upset by the loss of their autonomy where asked to gather, in Anchar Soura, an area in Srinagar.

Some journalists managed to attend, but a number of them told The Independent they were stopped at a checkpoint after leaving, stripped of their identity documents and briefly detained.

Xuhaib Maqbool, a photojournalist who has worked in Kashmir for the last seven years, is living proof that journalists face the threat of physical force from the police – and that this danger is not necessarily a new one.

Xuhaib is blind in the left eye from an incident on 4 September 2016, when a policeman opened fire on him with a shotgun full of pellets – a “non-lethal” crowd control tool that has led to tens of thousands of injuries in the decades of separatist unrest in the region.

He believes the situation for journalists in Kashmir is more dangerous and life-threatening now than at any point in recent years.

Xuhaib says he was stopped by the Indian paramilitary forces on 17 August, during a protest which broke out after the death of a civilian, Ayoub Khan, amid clashes where the forces had fired tear gas.

He says the security forces refused to let Xuhaib and other accredited journalists take photographs documenting the protest, or even to stay and report it. “After many requests and pleading for half an hour, the policeman eventually told us to go, saying ‘Chal nikal, agar idhar photo kheencha to haddiyan tod dunga’ (go, if you click any photographs here I’ll break your bones),” recalls Xuhaib.

Police threats of violence towards journalists are a common theme in many accounts of what life is like reporting from behind the communications blockade.

In an incident the day after the government’s 5 August announcement, a reporter for The Independent and a photographer were attempting to document the new restrictions when they came across an army checkpoint with an armoured vehicle – and an old TV, being used to control traffic.

As they attempted to photograph the unusual scene, a group of policemen hauled the reporter out of his car, pulled his beard and forced him to unlock his phone and delete the photos.

Fearing for his life, this reporter did so, but was later able to recover the images from a “recently deleted” file. As the police returned the journalists’ identity cards, one officer threatened: “I have all your details. If you use any [of these] pictures, I will kill you.”

Shahana Butt, a senior TV journalist working in the region for Press TV, told The Independent she had never before worked in such difficult conditions.

“For the first 10 days, I had no idea where to go,” she said. “I have not seen such a situation in my 11 years as a journalist. The communication blackout has given open space for rumour-mongering. Detours and checkpoints hamper journalists from reaching events which need timely attention,” she said.

Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin, who filed the Supreme Court petition, said the restrictions on local journalists meant the media coverage of the crisis was skewed overwhelmingly in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“The government has its own publicity department, but over and above that, you have these big moneyed television channels, you have certain sections of print media who are virtually working as extensions of the government publicity department,” she told The Associated Press on Thursday. “They are giving a one-sided picture.”

Amnesty International has said the communications ban denies the Kashmiri people’s right to freedom of expression, and on Wednesday the regional director for Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, said the restrictions “should be lifted immediately”.

India applies its internet shutdowns using a British colonial-era law from 1885 stating that it is “in the interest of public safety and for maintaining public order”.

It uses such measures more regularly than any other country in the world, according to the US nonprofit Freedom House. And of the 340 internet shutdowns since Mr Modi came to power in 2014, more than half have been based in Kashmir, including 55 this year.

The shutdowns have a compounding effect, said Sundar Krishnan, executive director of the Delhi-based Software Freedom Legal Centre – disrupting businesses and schools and demoralising the public.

“It’s obstructing the free flow of information, but it’s also bringing many elements of a modern society to a grinding halt,” he said.

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