India Targets Voices of Truth in Kashmir
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One of the world's most brutalized regions risks slipping into an information black hole.
Long before the rest of the country entered lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, India-administered Jammu and Kashmir was placed under military quarantine — albeit a hundred times more stringent — last August, when New Delhi unilaterally stripped the region of its autonomy and put thousands under detention.
Veteran politicians and former chief ministers, such as Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, were among the leaders detained. While the Abdullahs were released in March, Mufti remains in detention.
The internet was suspended for more than seven months, and broadband was restarted only in March at 2G, which the rest of the country gave up a decade ago.
But through all those challenges, Kashmiri journalists have worked relentlessly to share the stories of pain and tragedy, hope and ambition of the world’s most militarized region with the rest of us. They’ve done so in the face of the toughest odds imaginable. They’ve had to report despite security forces causing hindrances. Without the internet, they’ve mostly had to send across their reports and photos through USB drives carried by people flying out of the region. The government set up four measly computers with internet access for more than 400 journalists in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital. And reporters had to coax and cajole people to speak freely at a time when ordinary Kashmiris knew that even their leaders wen’t being spared, says Srinagar-based journalist and OZY writer Yashraj Sharma.
Words are a writer’s weapons. All I have is: words.
Gowhar Geelani, journalist targeted by Jammu and Kashmir police
Now, with the country’s — and the world’s — attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic, India’s government is taking steps that journalists worry could cut that final information link too.
In recent days, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted three respected journalists with legal threats that appear designed to intimidate the Kashmiri press.
Last Saturday, Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist whose work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, TRT World and Al Jazeera, was charged under an anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for “uploading anti-national posts [on Facebook] with criminal intentions to induce the youth.”
A day later, the police came knocking on the door of senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq, claiming that a report he had published in India’s second-largest English daily, The Hindu, was fake and that the “news was published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.”
On Tuesday, police charged 38-year-old Gowhar Geelani, an author and journalist who writes for several publications, including Deutsche Welle, with “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media.”
Condemning these moves, Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told OZY: “This is an attempt essentially to snuff out those voices that continue to challenge the government narrative.” But she also cautioned against assuming that this would remain restricted to Kashmir. “Historically we’ve seen that the types of pressure and intimidation that Kashmiri journalists face filters out to the rest of the country sooner or later.”
CPJ has asked the police to drop investigations against the journalists. “Journalists are not terrorists, and police in Jammu and Kashmir must stop treating them as such,” its statement said. Jammu and Kashmir police, while confirming these incidents, has said that it maintains the “highest regard for freedom of the press.”
Sure, harassment of journalists is not a new phenomenon in the region, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and where the Indian army has fought militants for three decades.
Still, Geelani tells me, things haven’t been this brazen for the past decade — that is, up until last August. “Since then, any journalist who has a voice and some following on social media is being summoned by police, [who are] asking them to reveal their sources” so that the government can control the narrative.
Journalists continued working in the face of those risks. Their stories — and Kashmir’s voices — were being heard around the world, leading to growing criticism of the Modi government in global corridors, where the prime minister was previously feted as a reformer.
Now, with the world fighting the pandemic, the Indian government appears to have decided it has found the moment to throttle the remaining voices emerging from Kashmir. ‘They want to curtail all the voices going out with any considerable amount of following,” says Geelani.
It’s a view shared by journalist groups in Kashmir and across India. The Kashmir Press Club, in their statement, has said the “police needs to understand there is a vast difference between journalism and cybercrime.” The Editors Guild of India has said the only purpose of the police action “can be to strike terror into journalists.”
That’s even more worrisome at a time the region, like other parts of the world, is battling the coronavirus, says Sharma. “Now, panic and trauma have engulfed all of us so much so that it doesn’t even seem like the coronavirus is a big deal,” he says.
Yet Geelani refuses to back down — and therein lies hope, as long as the rest of the world doesn’t forget Kashmiri journalists. “Memory will win. Words are a writer’s weapons. All I have is: words,” he tweeted. “Journalism and words will stay and survive. Censorship won’t.”