New Media Policy Officially Ends Free Press in Kashmir
Last month, the Indian government took an unprecedented step to criminalize and attack the free press in Jammu & Kashmir with the release of a sprawling and deeply concerning “media policy”. This new policy is only the latest escalation in the systematic campaign to suppress and intimidate journalists in the region. The revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status in August 2019 has meant all aspects of Kashmiri life are now governed by an unelected bureaucracy. The changes made have been dramatic, with the newly announced media policy being no exception. Before August 2019, media suppression at the hands of pro-Indian regimes took the form of seemingly adhoc actions, including beatings, interrogations, restricting movements, imprisonment without charge or trial, banning publications, stopping publications from printing for indefinite periods, and not credibly investigating the murder of journalists.
The new policies, announced on June 2nd, represent a significant step by explicitly codifying and openly endorsing many of these tactics that have previously been carried out under the radar. The new policy has been met with sharp condemnation from leading international press freedom watchdogs.
The 53-page media policy gives the government pre- and post-publication control over all journalism in Jammu and Kashmir. It allows the government unbridled authority to:
Determine what constitutes “fake, anti-national, or unethical” news
Pursue punitive action against editors, media entrepreneurs, owners, publishers and journalists
Become the exclusive accreditor of journalists, pending a government-issued “security clearance”, with the rights normally afforded to journalists now subject to approval
Perform “background checks on newspaper publishers, editors and key staff members”
Determine whether media should have the ability to receive what presently constitutes most advertising revenues
The document openly states that the policy aims to “foster a genuinely positive image of the government”. It mandates that the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) monitor the media. Interestingly, mass layoffs took place at the DIPR earlier this year with employees claiming to have “been caught in politics...the administration seems to have given way to regional politics instead of merit and competence”.
Reaction of Press Freedom Watchdogs
Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk:
“As there is no definition of what constitutes fake news or anti-national content, the government has absolutely infinite interpretative leeway to censor any journalism it does not like and to impose its own narrative.”
“By means of this totally Orwellian regulation, the Jammu and Kashmir administration becomes plaintiff against the free press, judge and executioner all in one. We therefore call for the withdrawal of this directive, which is unworthy of India’s democracy and will have the immediate effect of inducing a profound self-censorship that in practice amounts to prior censorship.”
“In a working democracy, it is not up to the government to arbitrarily determine what is and is not true. This is what usually happens in autocratic regimes, and it speaks volumes about the state of democracy in J&K.”
“Similarly, the government’s intention to ‘conduct tours/field visits for media persons, from both within and outside J&K’, is a sad reminder of Czarist Russia’s Potemkin villages, and is a practice that you would normally see in China-occupied Tibet or in North-Korea.”
“As no clear definition is given of what is ‘fake news’, what is deemed ‘anti-national’ or what ‘violates decency’, the executive power has an infinite space for interpretation, and will basically decide what is ‘truth’ or ‘false’.”
Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists:
“[G]iven the Indian government’s track record around targeting critical journalists with legal and criminal cases, particularly in Kashmir, there is little reason to believe this policy will not be misused.”
“We urge the Jammu and Kashmir administration to show good faith toward the media community and press freedom and to immediately withdraw this policy.”
“This policy is just another avenue for the government's crackdown on criticism and dissent, and yet another effort to silence the Kashmiri people.”
Concerns and Implications
The new Indian regime in Kashmir began its tenure in August 2019 by attacking the free press. The Ministry of Home Affairs called reports of mass protest and firing upon protestors published by the international press (including the BBC, Reuters, the Washington Post, and Al Jazeera) “fabricated and incorrect” despite clear video evidence supporting the reports. The Indian government then contacted the BBC and Al-Jazeera calling the videos “fabricated” with the news agencies standing by their reporting. This happened with the ongoing policy of officially banning the international press from Kashmir already in place. During the imposed communications ban, when all phone lines and internet access were cut, no avenues were provided for the local press to file reports and communicate with the outside world. Journalists were forced to get stories out by giving thumb drives to airline passengers leaving Kashmir. It was only later that media were compelled to use makeshift government facilities which reporters complained were woefully inadequate and heavily surveilled.
The intervening months saw journalists restricted from travel, restricted in movement, fired upon, have their equipment broken, harassed, physically attacked, interrogated, intimidated, summoned by authorities to give up sources, told what stories they cannot cover, questioned for their social media activity, have their photos and videos deleted, have their equipment confiscated, booked under the PSA and UAPA with specious cases, and jailed.
These realities, in addition to the history of media suppression by Indian authorities in Kashmir, make government claims that the new government policy is intended to improve media coverage difficult to believe. Taken together with the arbitrary imprisonment of civilians, dissidents, virtually all nonviolent pro-freedom parties, and even pro-Indian politicians, the more likely intention is to crush perceived narrative opposition to Indian government claims and actions.
The broad language of the new policy is concerning. Expansive powers the Indian government has arrogated to itself are severely abused in Kashmir and harshly criticized by human rights organizations-- the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) continues to prevent Indian armed forces from being prosecuted for gross human rights violations, Section 144 is used to cut internet access and prevent public protest from taking place, the Public Safety Act (PSA) is invoked to arbitrarily detain civilians without charge or trial, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is used to detain journalists and dissidents under terrorism statutes without trial. Abuses against civilians at the hands of police, armed forces, and bureaucrats are well-documented. The new policies empower bureaucrats and police to enforce media rules through punitive measures. While unofficially it was always the case, journalists and editors are now officially at their mercy.
Legal mechanisms in place do not redress wrongs and structurally support government impunity. In Kashmir, human rights abuses are effectively legalized by the judicial system. Government impunity has been thoroughly documented for decades and remains unaddressed. It would be safe to assume unrestricted government control of the media will be abused and remain unaccountable to judicial review.
Freedom of expression is denied to Kashmiris. Protesters in Kashmir continue to be fired upon and jailed. Internet usage remains heavily surveilled, with “cyber crime” units monitoring Kashmiri social media posts for “promoting anti-India, anti-social and anti-national activities”. Criticism of judicial decisions on social media have resulted in citizens being forced to appear for lengthy interrogations. Art is also being monitored and scrutinized. Political cartoonists have been censored into silence. Clergy were summoned to appear before law enforcement and threatened with arrest if they spoke about the prevailing situation. Politicians and protestors who were granted bail were released on the condition they would not comment on or speak about the Indian government’s “recent actions”. Even beliefs have been criminalized and continue to keep detainees imprisoned without trial. There is clearly no respect for holding certain ideas let alone free expression of thought. Given this reality, the intentions of the new regime are clear. It seeks to actively suppress open debate. Allowing media coverage of opinions unpopular with the government seems impossible.
The Modi regime has cracked down on media and civilian criticism throughout India. Since March, officials have lodged cases against 55 journalists throughout India, “the worst record of any democracy”. This, in addition to the arrests of civilians for posts critical of or mocking Prime Minister Modi on Facebook and private Whatsapp chats, calls into question the federal government’s intentions regarding the new media policy in Kashmir. The federal government now has complete control in Kashmir since the downgrading of J&K to a Union Territory in August 2019. Government critics have warned what happens in Kashmir may be later introduced in mainland India. The new media policy in Kashmir may foreshadow what is to come in India nationally. The government disseminating guidelines for news stories and troubling court rulings regarding media coverage are concerning developments as well.
News Coverage Already Affected
Pro-Freedom Political Parties
Among the topics journalists claim they were told not to cover after being interrogated by authorities were statements made by pro-freedom Kashmiri political groups. The effects are already being seen, as most coverage of pro-freedom parties now concern their arrests, internal dissension, being banned, or government claims made in cases pending against them. In addition to having their leaders arrested, parties have been denied holding rallies, freely meeting with the public, and unrestricted movement. Foreign diplomats say they are now “unofficially deterred” from meeting with these parties. Given the support these groups have, their systematic targeting by Indian authorities and now enforced media silence burns the only bridge of dialogue between the Indian government and popular Kashmiri sentiments. The absence of such conversation portends a troubling future.
Human Rights Abuses
Despite the media policy’s lack of clarity around what type of coverage will be targeted, recent actions taken against journalists may provide an insight as to what will not be tolerated. On May 19th, Indian forces trapped two militants in the Nawakadal neighborhood of Srinagar, killing them both. According to civilians, the army beat neighborhood boys, used local boys as human shields, looted valuables, and destroyed 22 surrounding homes. The Kashmir Walla news portal posted civilian accounts and its editor has been detained for interrogation over its coverage by senior police officials multiple times.
Media coverage is already being affected. Reports of human rights abuses and collective punishment have often emerged after interviewing civilians in the wake of encounters. There is a conspicuous absence of such stories of late, a troubling development as armed forces have dramatically increased their pursuit of militants. Local protest over police and military abuses were regular features. Now coverage of encounters is typically reduced to brief government accounts of what happened.
Militants and Encounters
This policy is particularly troubling given that media coverage has repeatedly vindicated civilian accounts that oppose government claims of militant encounters. Included in these divergent narratives is “fake encounters”-- a repeated phenomenon documented by human rights groups in which officials claim militants were killed when in fact civilians are executed in extrajudicial killings. Instances of massacres in which the government accuses militants of culpability have been proven to be fake encounters as well. Locals have come to expect the government to claim resolution of high profile crimes not by court cases, but through the extrajudicial killing of militants. The government has always withheld sanction in fake encounter cases, leading to assertions that fake encounters are undeclared government policy in Kashmir. Disappearances have often preceded fake encounters, with the disappeared being falsely accused of being culpable militants. Recent cases of local youth disappearing is an ominous trend given the history of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Officials have begun claiming some are militants with distressed families vehemently opposing the assertion. Local media had been crucial in bringing public pressure to resolve these disparate accounts in the past.
Government intimidation coupled with the new media policy will make exposing false narratives around violence and human rights abuses in Kashmir virtually impossible. This only serves to undermine Indian government claims and further weaken Kashmiri public confidence in Indian institutions.
This mandated censorship of journalism could not come at a worse time for J&K, the region, and the world. Coronavirus is spreading in part due to official negligence, newly imposed demographic engineering that was long-feared is worried will “obliterate (Kashmiri) identity”, and regional instability over J&K has seen border areas become sites of deadly clashes between India and nuclear powers China and Pakistan.
The unelected Indian bureaucracy governing Jammu and Kashmir is already unaccountable to an electorate. It would appear it has now achieved freedom from accountability to a free press as well.
Reaction of Local Journalists
Anurada Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times:
“First (it will) completely choke the finances of the organisation that is refusing to toe the line. Second, for individual journalists who are not toeing the line, the whole argument of fake news and being anti-national can be used against them.”
“Journalism is supposed to act as a bridge between the ruler and the ruled. But with new media policy we are only supposed to sing praises of the ruler. That completely reduces media to a PR agency. And the government already has PR agencies. Why do they need more?”
Rashid Rai, President of the J&K Editors Association:
“It makes (the) government the editor, publisher and printer of the newspaper.”
Zaffar Chaudhary, senior journalist and editor of The News Now:
“Who is the Government to find out what is fake news and what is anti-national? Fake news has to be determined by independent bodies which are outside mainstream media and outside the government control system.”
Quratulain Rehbar, freelance journalist:
Junaid Nabi Bazaz, freelance journalist:
Gowhar Geelani, freelance columnist:
Journalists choosing to remain anonymous:
“The government wants to intimidate journalists who dare to write about the evils of society. Journalists are pushed to a position where they have to seek permission before publishing. They do not want the real picture to reach the outside world, as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned.”
“The government wants the journalist to become their mouth-piece. If I report something tomorrow which cannot be digested by the government, they can book me under draconian laws. This policy is an attempt to scuttle the freedom of press.”
“What’s anti-national? And who will decide? Is reporting about the killing of two militants somewhere in Kashmir anti-national? What if some 10,000 people at some place are shouting slogans for ‘azadi’ (‘freedom’)? Should reporting that be also considered anti-national? It’s very dangerous if such a decision is left to the jurisdiction of officials and policemen. The ultimate aim of this policy is to make local media in Kashmir as the extension of the state.”