Press freedom in Kashmir — a year later

How women journalists here, navigate reporting a year after the lockdown.

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Photo credit: Umer Asif

In the past one year, Kashmir has witnessed the most heinous human rights violations and conflict situations. After the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35(A), people living in the valley have lived through strict security blockades and communications blackouts — and continue to live a life that is anything but free.

After the lockdown — to counter protests disapproving the annulment of the two Articles — was imposed, the internet was shut down, mobile services were snapped and travel to and from the valley came to a halt — thanks to the Indian government that left no stone unturned in making the lives of Kashmiris miserable.

The press, too, has been oppressed like never before. To say that it has been choked, is not an understatement. Reporting from the world’s most militarized zone is not an easy feat. Journalists were left paralyzed without any channels of communication to report what was happening in Kashmir. Websites of papers and magazines went offline. Reports only got out through thumb drives taken by passengers flying out of the valley by air. Journalists were not allowed to enter hospitals at certain hours during the day.

Journalists were detained and intimidated by Indian security forces. Advocates of freedom of the press have been vocal about the state of press freedom in Kashmir during the last one year, urging international movers and shakers to pay heed, but to no avail. Not much has changed since August 2019.

This year in April, photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offence against public tranquility.” In a statement issued by the cyber division of Kashmir’s police department, a Facebook user named Masrat Zahra had “uploaded anti-national posts with criminal intention”. The said information, according to them, was received through “reliable sources” without mentioning the fact that she was, in fact, a photojournalist. A First Information Report (FIR) was also filed against Masrat under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code. She was charged under a law that gave the government a freehand to “proscribe individuals as terrorists and empowers more officers of the National Investigation Agency to probe cases”. If proven guilty, Masrat stood the risk of being jailed for up to seven years.

The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) reached out to Masrat at the time to understand why she was being targeted through the draconian laws. Traumatized after being booked arbitrarily, she shared that the Kashmir police asked her to report to the police station immediately.

“I have been working as a professional and have covered everything, even offbeat stories. What has happened (with me) is beyond comprehension and I will go through all the legal formalities to deal with it accordingly,” she said when speaking with CFWIJ in April.

Till date, many women journalists in Kashmir find it challenging to practice journalism amid the constant restrictions on press freedom. It has become increasingly difficult for them report from the valley, following the fear of persecution, particularly through the use of stringent anti-terrorism law.

CFWIJ reached out to women journalists who have been reporting from the valley for the past year. Nawal Ali Watali is an independent photographer, researcher and writer in the Indian administered Kashmir. When asked how she views the state of press freedom in the valley she decided to tell it all.

“There is absolutely no press freedom here. I won’t sugarcoat, I won’t say there is a little cause there is none. And with the new media policy, it has become even clearer. However, this isn’t the first time that an official order has been taken out in Kashmir against press freedom. Press censorship has been happening since the Dogra rule itself,” Nawal said.

“Even if newspapers are publishing, they are doing it under this invisible pressure. Editors are being summoned, officials don’t talk to you easily when you approach them, and then there is the funding problem. One does not want to fall prey to corporate funding and even if one does, the government can easily ban those ads. Big brother can do anything,” she added.

Durdana Bhat, a Kashmiri visual journalist, echoed Nawal’s thoughts.

“The state of press freedom is self-evident, in my opinion. Currently, there are a lot of issues with the regulation of movement of journalists and journalism, as an institution,” Durdana said when asked about her take on press freedom in Kashmir.

The Media Policy 2020, released in June, introduced media regulations imposed by India to “counter false news and incitement in Jammu and Kashmir” will now be used as a ploy to stifle the press. Weaponization of law is being used to silence the voice of journalism by the world’s largest democracy.

Quratulain Rehbar, a journalist based in Srinagar, also shared similar sentiments about the challenges to press in the valley.

“There is no press freedom in Kashmir. If we do a story on human rights violations or conflict in Kashmir, we remain under fear. At this moment, it is tough for us because some journalists have been slapped with UAPA. Therefore, one can imagine how difficult it is for all of us,” Quratulain said when speaking with CFWIJ.

What happened with Masrat, as a woman journalist, became a ruthless example of how low the Indian government can go when suppressing press freedom in Kashmir. While her senior colleagues and members of the Kashmir Press Club stood with Masrat during the difficult times, it was not enough to ease the apprehensions of other women journalists reporting in the valley. The fears became more evident. Resorting to censorship or careful use of language kept journalists aware about what they wrote and said post August 5.

“I’m not practicing self-censorship, in terms of what I write on or report. But yes, I’m very careful with my language and words. Like using the word allegedly when even though we know something is done by the forces but it’s not accepted by the state yet. Because I don’t want them to silence me on this, the fight is very very long and we need to tread carefully to keep going on in the fight, Nawal said.

Quratulain stated that the authorities would not care much about journalists earlier, but since August 2019, they know everything about journalists including their workplace.

“It was fascinating to see journalists in Kashmir doing stories fearlessly. They would go on the ground, to protest sites and talk to people without fearing about their lives. But the situation has drastically changed in a year. Now we have to be very cautious when doing stories and remember that we are being watched,” she said.

The situation worsened for journalists who had to work without a press card and communication facilities. Nawal Watali shared about her experience of what went down when she was reporting on the ground.

“Post Article 370, it was difficult to navigate through armed forces’ check posts without an institutional identity card. And then we could not call our sources or local contacts in various districts in Kashmir,” she said.

Nawal added that she focused on documentary photography and long-term projects before August 5, but she later realized the importance of media‘s role in framing a narrative and countering Indian media’s misreporting.

“I was called a jihadist by an Indian journalist. He was calling me names on Twitter. That’s how powerful these people are. They can call you names publically and get away with it. The only thing you can do is counter the state peddled narrative by constantly building an authentic homegrown narrative through reporting and that’s what I have been doing now,” Nawal wrote in response to a question by CFWIJ.

Durdana, too, has been working under immense apprehension.

“Post August 5, journalists — in general — have been working with a lot of apprehension when it comes to reportage as well. There is this fear of being incriminated for simple reporting. As for including the women’s angle into the question, now there is clear evidence that the questioning, summoning and arresting doesn’t happen within the boundaries of gender,” she said when asked about the changes in her reporting as a woman journalist since the abrogation of Article 370.

Quratulain also shared about the way her reporting has altered given the increasing conflict and human rights violations in the valley since last year.

“Right now, I’m working as a freelancer. But earlier, I was working as a staffer at the Kashmirwalla magazine. There, I did stories related to women’s issues including health and education, along with those related to conflict. But after August 5, my focus has shifted entirely towards stories related to its aftermath. For instance, how women feel threatened after the Article was gone, minors being illegally detained, and the Public Safety Act (PSA) detentions among many others,” she said when responding to CFWIJ.

Quratulain’s life as a journalist was no different; she experienced drastic changes after the events in Kashmir last year. It was tough for her to report because of the communication blackout.

“I’m from South Kashmir, but I was living in a rented place in Srinagar at the time. It was not easy to live in an atmosphere where there is no internet facility for background research. With the internet, the work can get much easier, but there was none at all, which meant that I had to do extra work. Sometimes, I even had to decide whether I should go with the flow or how to do stories which could possibly create trouble for me,” she said.

It is frustrating for Nawal to file stories to publications and agencies. She informed CFWIJ that 4G is still not working and broadband speed is very slow.

Durdana deems it to be “very Beckettian, almost like ‘Waiting for Godot’.”

Apart from the issues that women journalists have been confronted with since the past one year, they have also had to work with an extra layer of risk associated with their gender. Being a woman journalist in Kashmir meant more risks to their safety, given the local and political dynamics of the valley.

For Quratulain, working as a woman journalist in Kashmir comes with familial, societal and political pressures, considering the valley’s conservative norms. Originally from Pulwama district in South Kashmir, she was working from Srinagar when the abrogation was announced. Quratulain informed us that a day before August 5, she had told her mother not to worry about her safety, if she is unable to communicate due to the blackout.

“I went home after two weeks. My mother literally cried because a lot of our neighbors kept asking her questions about me. They even questioned me about the situation and why I did not come home. This made me really uncomfortable. It was shocking and hurt me a lot,” she said.

Quratulain added that women are often considered vulnerable and weak, while their hard work is neglected.

“Personally, I do not believe in gender when it comes to work. Because we have equal opportunities and it depends on us how we utilize them. But how can I prove to people that I am doing better than the man you praise?”

While Durdana looks at it from a slightly different lens.

“There has been a particular uneasiness concerning the freedom of movement. I think that is the only challenge there is that families are not comfortable with, and the idea of being possibly slapped by legal procedures,” she said.

Nawal opined that as a woman it is more difficult to work in the journalism profession.

“You have to face these ultra-masculine state powers, whose gaze too is exploitative and abusive. And then comes the social dynamics where, although now women in journalism are more or less internalized and normalized, you (still) need to fight the society and family to enter a field like this,” she said.

Nawal added that she had to fight her family when researching in the far-fetched LOC areas and also had to deal with local authorities after she made it there.

“Once there, the authorities — from whom you need to take permission to visit these areas — would look down upon me and shun me away with stupid reasons just because they would not accept that a woman alone can visit these places,” she shared her experience of working as a woman during field work,” she shared in response to CFWIJ’s question about the challenges of working on the ground as a woman.

Kashmir is not an easy space to maneuver for women who are passionate to practice journalism amid the ongoing conflict and human rights violations. Before writing this story, I was struggling to connect with women journalists in the valley. While some were having trouble responding to my queries due to internet issues, others possibly wanted to stay away from being in the spotlight — and rightly so. What has happened in Kashmir since August 2019, is inhumane, to say the least. To know that women journalists continue to tell stories and speak truth to power, even in the world’s most militarized zone, strengthens one’s belief in the way journalism can challenge Orwellian governments amidst the state of repression.

This story was originally published in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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