Freelance Kashmiri journalist Sajad Gul said he has been struggling with constant headaches and anxiety ever since police raided his home in Indian-administered Kashmir in October. Officers checked his phone, deleted his tweets, and threatened him with jail – all over a story he wrote about a gun battle. Gul’s story was about a family whose son was killed in a gunfight and they had contested the police’s claim, saying their son was not a militant but “innocent.”
“Ever since the raid, I have barely slept at night. I feel the police might raid my house again,” Gul said.
Gul is pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism and said he has been in the field since 2014. He has been writing for several Kashmir-based publications.
He was also booked in February after he wrote an article for an online Kashmir-based magazine on the administration’s demolition drive in Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Gul was then charged with “rioting, trespassing, and assault.”
Freelance Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan said he has been questioned by the police multiple times for his work. On several occasions, Hassan said, he was threatened with harsh consequences, both overtly and covertly. “Overtly they said my stories can land me in trouble.”
Another freelance journalist, who wished to remain anonymous fearing reprisals, said he has been facing direct and indirect intimidation from the government. This journalist said he was recently summoned by the police for a tweet critical of the government forces’ actions.
“I was interrogated for hours. It was no less than a mental torture,” the journalist told The Diplomat.
In September, police raided the houses of four Kashmiri journalists, including a senior editor, in Srinagar in a case that was filed by Jammu and Kashmir Police last year. The four journalists were then detained and questioned.
Several journalists based in Indian-administered Kashmir said the intimidation of media persons intensified since August 2019, after the Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party government brought the region under its direct control and erased its autonomous status.
In October alone, around half a dozen journalists were either summoned to different police stations or had their houses raided, their gadgets seized, and were later detained.
But even prior to the intensified intimidation and what several journalists call attacks on the press, the Crime Investigation Department (CID) wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Police began profiling some journalists. The journalists included mostly freelancers and those writing for international publications.
The profiling included a call or summons from the CID, who took personal and professional details of the journalists, including bank account details, family profiles, property owned, and affiliation to any political or religious group.
Several journalists The Diplomat spoke to confirmed that they had received calls from the CID.
In all cases, the journalists said they cooperated and gave the demanded details to the police.
Hassan said he too received a call from officials introducing themselves as from the CID: “They took my personal and professional details, including bank account, passport, and travel history.”
Gul said he often gets calls from the police and the CID. “Not only that, sometimes my village heads and other elders tell me that police were seeking my personal details from them.”
The profiling helps the police to create a database of journalists, including the minutest details. “When I was recently called to a police station, an officer there knew everything about me: my studies, my address, my family, and he told me about things that surprised me. I was shocked,” Gul added.
According to a report by The Wire, over 40 journalists in Kashmir have either been called for a background check, summoned, or raided in the last two years. In some cases, “they are being forced to present themselves to explain their stories, social media conduct and other societal behavior.”
After frequent reports of incidents of detention, intimidation, and curbs on the press in Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and president of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), wrote a letter to the Press Council of India (PCI), India’s top statutory press body. In her letter, Mufti raised concerns about an “attack” on freedom of speech and expression.
“In a democratic setup, a free and independent press is crucial and essential for government institutions to function in a transparent manner with due accountability to its citizens,” Mufti wrote in her letter. “We have witnessed the manner in which fundamental rights such as freedom of speech & expression enshrined in the Indian constitution have increasingly come under attack especially in the last two years by a hostile and insecure dispensation,” she added.
The letter also raised concerns over banning several journalists from travel, the profiling of media persons, and the details they are asked for.
After Mufti’s letter, the PCI constituted a three-member “fact-finding committee” to look into the allegations of harassment and intimidation of journalists in Kashmir.
Even as the three-member PCI team was on a fact-finding mission in Kashmir, however, fresh incidents of detention of journalists and raids on their houses were reported.
On October 12, the Jammu and Kashmir Police raided the house of photojournalist Mukhtar Zahoor in Srinagar. After the midnight raid, Zahoor was taken into police custody and released the next day. Media reports quoted a concerned police officer, Tauseef Meer, as saying that “the police had some suspicion and they are questioning him over the same.”
On October 13, Gul said, his residence was raided by the police while he was at university. When he returned and went to the police station, Gul said the officer took his phone and deleted his tweets. “They told me I should not report, otherwise I can land in jail,” Gul added.
When The Diplomat spoke to the senior superintendent of Police Bandipora, Zahid Ahmad, he said: “In the garb of journalism, he (Gul) is doing all nonsense. And he posted the thing without taking the official version and (without) verifying it.”
The same month, two journalists from south Kashmir – Salman Shah, who edits an online weekly, Kashmir First, and Suhail Dar, a freelance journalist – were arrested and charged under a law that empowers police to prevent a “breach of peace.”
Another journalist, Sulaiman Shah, who works for a local daily, was also detained after a midnight raid at the house by the police and the Indian Army.
Media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sought the release of detained journalists and asked India to “move quickly to improve its shameful record of harassing and detaining critical journalists in Jammu and Kashmir…”
“The growing number of detained journalists in Kashmir demonstrates authorities’ continuous and blatant lack of respect for press freedom. Authorities must immediately release Sulaiman Shah, Salman Shah and Suhail Dar, and commit to allowing the media to operate without fear of reprisal,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director.
After the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 2019, the first and biggest casualty in the media industry was the local press. Under pressure from the government and its different agencies, and due to its dependence on government-released advertisements, most of the local press has given in and adhered to the diktats of the authorities.
The effects of the authorities’ influence on the local press can be gauged by how newspapers place stories that are critical of the administration or the Indian government, and how the government press releases and announcements get a priority, both in space and placement.
One of the daily English newspapers, Rising Kashmir, is a case in point.
A former employee of Rising Kashmir, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat that after 2019, there was a massive shift in the editorial policies. “First, the news stories related to the Hurriyat Conference – pro-freedom political groups – were banned.
Then, stories related to Kashmiri mainstream political parties, like National Conference and the PDP, were also given less space. Even the formation of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration uniting all the Kashmir-based pro-India political groups – which was a massive event in Kashmir’s political history – was also not given due space by Rising Kashmir.
“Only coverage was given to the BJP,” the former staffer said.
All these diktats were verbal; none of it was written or said through official channels. It was not discussed in meetings either. It happened gradually and at the top editorial level.
“Then there was another phase,” the former employee said. “We were told that we can’t publish anything that is against or critical of the government or the administration.”
The last diktat was again delivered verbally, remaining unwritten and unofficial. “It was to change the stylesheet. We were told to replace the word ‘militant’ with ‘terrorist,’ and ‘Pakistan-administered Kashmir’ with ‘PoK’ [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir]. We resisted. But our consulting editor said they had orders and the pressure from the higher-ups,” the former employee said.
The former employee claimed that following this order and the subsequent resistance, a string of lay-offs took place at the Rising Kashmir office. “Those who resisted this diktat were shown the door,” the journalist, who was also fired, said.
The Diplomat reached out to the Rising Kashmir editor-in-chief Ayaz Hafeez, but he said, “I do not want to comment and I do not want to talk on this issue.”
Several journalists The Diplomat spoke to said they were facing mental health issues and were concerned about the safety of their families. “I am traumatized and not doing mentally well. All these things add up,” an independent journalist, on the condition of anonymity, said about the intimidation of journalists.
“I am concerned for my family’s safety and the safety of my brother. I don’t want them to feel I made a wrong decision by choosing this profession,” the journalist said.
Hassan, too, said his mental health was affected due to the “circumstances.” “I feel anxious. And the anxiety comes from the fact that there is someone watching you and also because I know I am not able to report freely.”
Hassan added that because of the raids on the residences of journalists, the “situation has become more precarious.”
“I get horrible dreams. Sometimes I wake up with a start in the middle of the night and I feel disturbed,” Hassan said.
The paranoia has reached the extent that Hassan said he sleeps without changing into nightclothes because, in case of a raid at his house, he wants to remain prepared.
Apart from that, Hassan said he is “very, very cautious” with his electronic gadgets and the privacy of his sources.
Gul also said he feels traumatized because of what has happened to him in the past year.
“I am not the only one suffering from mental health issues now. My aged mother is also worried, and so are my relatives. I am not able to focus on my studies or work.”
An editor based in Kashmir, who has been in the field of journalism for nearly a decade, said the current climate of fear had made everyone paranoid. “We are treated like criminals. We are constantly watched. We have had multiple stress management sessions. Everyone is suffering from anxiety,” the editor said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“I am battling with severe anxiety coupled with depression. It takes a toll on work too, of course,” the editor added.
In this climate of fear, most of the journalists The Diplomat spoke to said they were exercising extreme caution and ensuring there were no loopholes in their stories.
The editor who spoke anonymously said they have been killing more stories than they have been reporting.
Another freelance journalist told The Diplomat that because of the “climate of fear, I indulge in self-censorship. I report less on human rights and I don’t report from south Kashmir because that part remains usually volatile.”
To keep people safe, the journalist said they cut the names of the subjects in the story. “I am losing my sources also.”
Hassan said one has to “think a hundred times before writing a story given the times we live in.”
“I have been extremely careful about how I write stories. I also take into consideration the type of stories I should do. If details and facts in my story are not watertight, I leave it there. If the story has the potential to attract attention from the authorities, I reconsider it for the fear of reprisals,” Hassan added.
“It has led to self-censorship … sometimes one tries to give more space to the official version in a story, or maybe one tries to balance the story.”
A senior journalist told The Diplomat that the current phase was the toughest period for Kashmiri journalists. “In the history of Kashmir journalism, I think, such an assault is unprecedented. Even though a lot of people talk about the harsh conditions and situation of the 1990s in Kashmir, right now it’s the toughest period for Kashmiri journalists, because there is the criminalization of content and opinion.”
He said self-censorship among journalists has been institutionalized.
The general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, Ishfaq Tantray, told The Diplomat that journalists ought to operate in a free and fair environment in a democratic society.
“The Press Club has a limited mandate. Despite this, we have taken up the issue at different levels. We have taken up the matter with higher authorities and apprised them of the situation of the journalists. On and off, the Kashmir Press Club has engaged with the higher authorities.
“A Kashmir Press Club-nominated member recently met the fact-finding team of the PCI and apprised them of the situation of the media in Kashmir,” Tantray said.
He said the Press Club also keeps issuing press statements, calling on the authorities to allow free and fair journalism in Kashmir.
Despite meeting with the higher authorities, Tantray said, the summons issued to journalists have not stopped.