Is Media Free in IIOJK?

By Javeria Fareed Qureshi

Indian administration and police are continued with crackdown on Journalist Community in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), especially since the revocation of the Valley’s Special Status back in 2019. The instances of Journalist harassment increased after the Modi-led BJP administration revoked Jammu and Kashmir semi-autonomous status on August 5th, 2019. Since then, IIOJK has seen internet and communication blocks and restrictions, and journalists have been detained or questioned for alleged national security violations. According to Access now, India shut down the internet at least 106 times in 2021; with at least 85 shut downs in Jammu and Kashmir.

Recently, the police in IIOJK raided journalists’ houses over online threats. Indian police raided seven places across three districts of Kashmir and detained several people for questioning in connection with alleged threats issued to journalists. Later on, a list was published in which a dozen journalists were named as traitors, collaborators, stooges, and were alleged of having links with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). As a result, five of the journalists named publicly announced quitting their jobs.

On the other hand, journalists and media analysts say that the list underscores the dangers for Kashmiri media professionals, who risk being attacked or threatened from extremist groups on one side and accused by authorities of supporting or promoting terrorism on the other. Human rights activists claim that the actions of Indian government violate journalistic freedom to quiet opposition.

In June 2020, Indian government announced a new media policy, giving more power to the authorities for censorship. It was followed by the raids where many journalists received threats on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, accusing the journalists of being anti-national and demanding punishment. Amid growing restrictions on media freedom, Indian authorities have arrested several journalists on spurious terrorism and sedition charges, and have routinely targeted critics and independent news organizations, including raiding their workplaces.

As per bi-annual review of human rights situation in IIOJK by Legal Forum for Kashmir, since 2019 at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police raids, interrogation, threats, physical assaults, arrests, release and re-arrests or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting. Prominent journalists like Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Qazi Shibli, Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, and Siddique Kappan were arrested, detained and even stopped from travelling abroad under the black laws citing the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA). According to another report by RSF, 10 journalists including Manan Gulzar Dar, Nilesh Sharma, Aasif Sultan, and Gautam Navlakha are still imprisoned because they are accused of spreading anti-government rhetoric and having ties with the militant organizations and are deemed as white collar terrorists.

In March 2022, Mumbai airport authorities prevented Rana Ayyub a prominent female journalist and an outspoken critic of BJP from flying to London to address a journalism event. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 20 female Muslim journalists had been listed on a fake auction app as for sale in order to degrade, humiliate, and intimidate them. It was followed by another incident in April where at least five journalists covering an event organized by Hindu nationalist group in Delhi were attacked. Journalist Meer Faisal was then accused of inciting hatred through a tweet but in reality, he was attacked because he was a Muslim.

While the police maintain that the raids were required to ensure the journalists’ safety, many critics contend that they are a form of intimidation and an attempt to muzzle critical voices. The raids have chilling effects on Kashmir’s media, with many journalists now unwilling to write on sensitive themes for fear of retaliation.

For many years, the situation in Kashmir has been difficult, with the region being a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. The Indian government has been chastised for its heavy-handed response to the dispute, which has included the deployment of military force and the arrest of political activists. The media has frequently gotten caught in the crossfire, with journalists imprisoned, assaulted, and even killed while reporting the conflict.

Raids on journalists’ houses have only heightened the fear and persecution in Kashmir. Many people have urged the Indian government to protect press freedom and enable journalists to report on the situation in the region without fear of retaliation. Despite these obstacles, many journalists in Kashmir have stayed committed to their profession, often at tremendous personal danger. The ongoing situation in IIOJK emphasizes the significance of press freedom and the need for journalists to be able to report on sensitive issues without fear of retaliation. Indian police actions have perpetuated an environment of surveillance impunity that results in a chilling effect on free speech and media freedoms. It is critical that the Indian government respects journalists’ rights and allows them to do their jobs without interference. Anything less would be a grave injustice and a violation of democracy’s fundamental principles.

-The Author Is  a  Student  of Peace and Conflict  Studies at NUST.