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Indian Government Responses to Reports on Journalism in Conflict Zones Reflect Dark Times

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Indian Government Responses to Reports on Journalism in Conflict Zones Reflect Dark Times

The BBC and the Editors’ Guild of India are facing the government’s wrath for criticizing the state of media affairs.

Indian Government Responses to Reports on Journalism in Conflict Zones Reflect Dark Times

Staff members of Srinagar-based news portal The Kashmir Walla remove the signage of their office as they vacate their rented premises in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug 21, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

On September 2, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police threatened to initiate legal action against the BBC for its report titled “Any story could be your last—India’s crackdown on Kashmir Press.”

Accusing the BBC reporter of “placing quotes of unidentified journalists” to “bolster her non-existent claims of state overreach against journalists,” the J&K police said it reserves “the right to initiate further legal action against the media house for misreporting facts in a case which is sub judice.”

The BBC report claimed that Kashmiri journalists they spoke to over the span of a year told them that the Indian government was trying to shut down reporting related not only to separatist movements and militant groups but also any coverage critical of the security forces or the J&K administration, “even on day-to-day civic issues.”

The report described police cases and other forms of harassment that journalists faced. The identity of most of the journalists who spoke to the BBC was not revealed as they feared reprisal from the government, the report said.

It is the second time this year that the BBC has faced the wrath of the Indian government. In January, the Narendra Modi government imposed a ban on a BBC documentary on Modi’s alleged role during the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the state’s chief minister. The ban was followed by raids by income tax officials into the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai.

The BBC’s Kashmir report, however, is not the first to highlight the plight of journalists in volatile Jammu and Kashmir. An article in The Hindu published in May described how “a playbook that closely restricts press freedom” was being played out, with journalists being harassed through a variety of means, including frequent detentions. In 2021, a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism titled, “Killing the story: How the Kashmiri press was silenced after the region lost autonomy,” painted the same picture.

In February 2022, the news magazine Caravan detailed in one article how a group of journalists allegedly close to the union territory’s current unelected administration “took over” Kashmir Press Club, the largest organization of journalists in Kashmir, in a “coup” in the presence of security personnel the previous month. Its reporter has been repeatedly harassed by authorities.

In July of last year, Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan was barred from traveling to Sri Lanka. In October, the government stopped Sanna Irshad Matoo, a Pulitzer-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, from traveling to the U.S. to receive the award.

This August, only a few days before the BBC report came out, the J&K administration blocked the website and social media handles of The Kashmir Walla, one of the region’s last independent media platforms. Its editor, Fahad Shah, has been in jail since February last year for “frequently glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news, and instigating people.”

Following the latest action against the website, senior Kashmiri journalist Anuradha Bhasin warned that the message was for all journalists in India. “As long as you are toeing the government’s line, you will be fine,” she said, adding, “It (the trend) won’t stop at Kashmir.”

Such threats of police action have become almost regular, indeed, not only in Kashmir but also in other parts of the country. The trouble-torn northeastern state of Manipur is another recent example.

On September 2, the Editors’ Guild of India (EGI) released a fact-finding report on the role of the media in the ongoing conflict between the state’s Meitei majority and Kuki-Chin minority. It was based on a field visit by three EGI members from August 7 to 10. Manipur has been plunged into complete chaos since ethnic clashes broke out on May 3.

The report said that the EGI had received a written complaint from the Indian Army that cited specific examples from Manipur, which suggested that the media may be playing “a major role in arousing passion and not letting sustainable peace come in.”

The subsequent field visit revealed that the Manipur media seemed to have turned into “Meitei media” during the conflict and “became a party to the vilification of the security forces, especially the Assam Rifles” by carrying out constant propaganda in the name of “purveying the views of the public,” though without verifying and weighing the facts. “Journalists of Manipur wrote one-sided reports,” the EGI report noted.

It also highlighted how the communication blockade imposed by the government “had a deleterious effect on journalism” by impacting the ability of journalists to communicate with each other, their editors, and their sources. It not only made it very difficult to get a balanced view of the situation but also to get enough content to meet their news requirements.

“With the internet suspended, and communication and transport in disarray, the media had to rely almost entirely on the narrative of the state government,” said the EGI report.

While the Editors’ Guild Manipur and All Manipur Working Journalists Union issued a joint statement criticizing the EGI report for misrepresenting facts, the Manipur government, led by N. Biren Singh of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, asked the police to register a complaint against the three EGI members as well as the EGI president.

The two police cases involve multiple charges, including that of promoting enmity between groups, injuring or defiling a place of worship, and uttering words with deliberate intent to hurt religious feelings and statements conducing to public mischief.

The EGI and the Press Club of India (PCI) have both condemned the police action. The EGI also approached the Supreme Court of India seeking remedial action, and the court has given them interim protection from arrest or coercion till September 11.

As anyone following developments in India is aware, these are not isolated cases of the government targeting the media. Rather, this has emerged as a norm since Modi was sworn in as the prime minister in 2014. As a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report puts it, “With an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media.”

According to the RSF’s real-time data, five Kashmiri journalists — Irfan Mehraj, Fahad Shah, Sajad Gul, Aasif Sultan, and Manan Gulzar Dar — are in jail as of September 6, some of them since 2021.

The rest of India may not be as bad as Kashmir is for journalists, but their situation is not too bright either.

The International Federation of Journalists’ report for 2022-23 noted the trend of journalists “rushing to identify closely with the government and with market forces” and adopting a “nationalist” tone in their coverage. This happened in the backdrop of the central government using “its agencies to conduct raids, searches and ‘surveys’ on intransigent media houses” and filing police cases against journalists, including under anti-terror laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Security Act, the report pointed out.