‘Systematic fear’: How India battered press freedom in Kashmir

For five years, Sajad Gul wrote about the conflict wracking his homeland, Indian-administered Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan territory where an armed rebellion and India’s brutal crackdown on it have raged for more than three decades.

That changed on a snowy Wednesday night this month with a knock on his door.

Gul found himself surrounded by Indian soldiers wielding automatic rifles who bundled him into a vehicle and sped away, ploughing through the snow-laden track in Hajin, a quiet village about 32km (20 miles) from Srinagar, the region’s main city, said his mother, Gulshana, who only uses one name.

Journalists have long contended with various threats in Indian-administered Kashmir and found themselves caught between warring sides. But their situation has gotten dramatically worse since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, throwing it under a severe security and communication lockdown and the media in a black hole.

A year later, the government’s new media policy sought to control the press more effectively to censure independent reporting. Dozens have been arrested, interrogated and investigated under harsh anti-terror laws.

The fear of reprisals has made the local press largely wilt under pressure.

“Indian authorities appear determined to prevent journalists from doing their jobs,” said Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Gul’s arrest, which the CPJ condemned, underscored the fast-eroding press freedoms and criminalisation of journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Police told Gul’s family that he was arrested for provoking people to “resort to violence and disturb public peace”. A police statement later described him as “habitual of spreading disinformation” and “false narratives” on social media.

He was detained days after his single tweet linked a video clip of a protest against Indian rule, following a Kashmiri rebel’s killing. He spent 11 days locked up before a local court granted him bail.

Instead of freeing Gul, authorities charged him in a new case under the stringent Public Safety Act, which allows officials to imprison anyone for up to two years without trial.

“My son is not a criminal,” said Gulshana. “He only used to write.”

‘Direct assault on free media’

Media has always been tightly controlled in Indian-administered Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region. Arm twisting and fear have been extensively used to intimidate the press since 1989 when rebels began fighting Indian soldiers in a bid to establish an independent Kashmir or union with Pakistan.

Pakistan controls Kashmir’s other part and the two counties fiercely claim the territory in full.

The fighting has left tens of thousands of people dead. Yet, Indian-administered Kashmir’s diverse media flourished despite relentless pressure from Indian authorities and rebel groups.

That changed in 2019, when authorities began filing criminal cases against some journalists. Several of them have been forced to reveal their sources, while others have been physically assaulted.

“Authorities have created a systematic fear and launched a direct assault on free media. There is complete intolerance of even a single critical word,” said Anuradha Bhasin, an editor at Kashmir Times, a prominent English daily that was established in 1954.

 

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