Press Freedom today stands in a courtroom, defending itself, where the murderer is the judge, jury and the executioner.
In the hostile environment of Kashmir, asking questions or holding the powerful to account can mean prison. The message is clear. Do not question, do not ask, OBEY!
The press in Kashmir today faces layers within layers of censorship, that do not allow independent journalism to function. There is direct censorship, where the entire communication is blacked out, making it impossible for reporters to travel, or to file stories.
Today, as some restrictions have been eased, there are other forms of muzzling.
The revenue is controlled. The idea of the state to advertise with local press is to reach out to their audiences with messages, but the largest circulating newspaper has been denied advertisements. The state is denying public money to institutions that work for public good, money that comes from the public, and does not belong to a regime.
Controlling the revenue of news organisations gives complete control over what it publishes. And this control of revenue channels has meant that the only news outlets that survive, are those that carry the press releases of the government as it is, and do no brainwork.
While the press fills the gap between the policy makers and the public, in Kashmir, there is no room for movement here.
News organisations that depended on a private advertisement market find themselves struggling, as the market economy too is controlled, and decimated, surviving an unprecedented crackdown post August, 2019.
With a fresh lockdown imposed due to corona virus, the death blow rendered in August, is now complete.
Independant journalists who brave out the storm, and find some room to swim against the current, do not comply, have been booked under preposterous charges, and even imprisoned.
Masrat Zahra, an independent journalist has been booked under UAPA, an act in the Indian constitution used to “fight terrorism”. Peerzada Aashiq, a senior journalist with an Indian newspaper, has been booked for filing a report. Senior Journalist Gowhar Geelani was booked for social media posts. Qazi Shibli, editor of a local news website, was jailed for nine months. Aasif Sultan remains in prison since two years now.
None of the charges have been proved in court.
Kamran Yusuf, who remained in prison for over six months, was granted bail after the National Investigating Agency couldn’t prove anything against him. Kamran has not been given any reasons or explanations for his prison time on these charges that allowed the government to jail him. Kamran’s defense lawyer had told Free Press Kashmir that it was ‘plain harassment’.
The powers in Kashmir have come down hard on local press. And while the Indian press dutifully toes a nationalistic line in tune with the official policy, in near absence of a local press, it was the international press that exposed blatant lies.
The powers in Kashmir, whose record of preserving human rights, and civil liberties is black, called reports carried by newsrooms with multiple filters and checks as fake news. It would be a classic case of ‘might is right’, but it is a better case for the ‘emperor has no clothes’.
In India, the leader of the state does not speak to a free press, and takes no questions. In Kashmir, the experimental ground, it is almost state policy. There are no answers to questions, and journalists are booked for not carrying an official version, even when the offices shut out journalistic requests.
While the press struggles with reporting a pandemic, the doctors have been told not to speak to the press.
The pandemic too is being used to crack down further, brush things under the carpet in near complete silence.
The activists are finding it hard to work, students cannot study with restricted internet. While the government has argued in the Supreme Court of India that high speed internet is not a fundamental right, it has forgotten that education is.
In Kashmir, there is no logic. It is a never ending assault.
Information too is a human right, regardless of what the government argues. And in that light, Journalism is a public good. Journalists work risking their lives, war and pandemic alike, to bring authentic information to the public.
World policies regarding the current pandemic are formed on the basis of credible and authentic reportage, coming out of different parts of the world. But in Kashmir, things work in reverse. While the administration should have appreciated the role of the press, journalists are being assaulted by armed forces left right and centre, booked by the police, and the judiciary provides no support to respect civil and human rights.
The road ahead looks dark. And there seems to be no hope.
But it is in these times that we must keep reporting stories that need to be told, and retold. Our pens must report what our eyes see, our publications must publish the stories of the people, not the stories of the powerful.
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