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Thursday, March 23, 2017
Athar Parvaiz – Asia Media Forum*
- Abdul Rehman stopped in his tracks when he did not see his usual newspapers strewn out on his lawn one morning this month. But little did he know that he would not see newspapers, whether out on the newsstands or delivered to subscribers like him, for three more days. “Reading the morning newspapers, for me, is as essential as breakfast,” says Rehman. He later discovered that local newspapers have suspended publication from Jul. 8 to 11 – the first time this has happened in the 20-year conflict in India-administered Kashmir – to protest the government’s restrictions on the movement of reporters and technical staff.
While the security situation in Kashmir has been improving over the past two years and peaceful protests have been replacing armed violence against heavy Indian security presence, the pressure on media has continued — and even increased – in an environment where the press is already closely watched by both the provincial government and anti- govenrment protesters.
“Such curbs on journalists in Kashmir are unprecedented. We have never seen this before,” says Zaffar Mehraj, a senior journalist.
The situation has not been helped by a wave of fresh violence in majority Muslim Kashmir, where resentment toward the presence of over half a million Indian troops, runs deep. A May survey on Kashmir by the London-based think-tank Chatham House said that 75 to 95 percent of Kashmiris want independence from India. Kashmir is claimed by neighbouring Pakistan, and India has fought three wars with it over this dispute.
On Jun. 11, Indian security forces gunned down a 17-year- old schoolboy on his way home from a tuition centre in downtown Srinagar. This sparked off a series of protests across Kashmir and 14 more people got killed — mostly teenagers — while dozens got injured in the ensuing police action.
It was against this backdrop that press associations met and decided to express their protest by suspending the publication of all local English and Urdu language newspapers.
“We had to suspend publication of our newspapers for four consecutive days given the restrictions imposed on media personnel,” says Bashir Ahmad Bashir, editor of an Urdu- language daily. “Our curfew passes were cancelled. Reporters and photojournalists were ruthlessly beaten up, while cases were filed against some media persons in an effort to stop them from publishing the reality.”
Riyaz Masroor, a senior journalist with English-language daily ‘Rising Kashmir’, says he was “beaten up ruthlessly by policemen” after he identified himself as a journalist to authorities who stopped him outside his residence, just four kilometres away from city-centre Lal Chowk.
Journalists say the recent government measures deprived audiences of independent news beyond state-controlled information, but the Kashmir government has denied putting curbs on the media.
“We had to cancel the curfew passes to avoid their misuse, but we issued special curfew passes to the media persons,” says government spokesman Khurshid Ahmad.
But news organisations say there was a severe shortage in the number of curfew passes. “It is not the editor who can bring out a newspaper. There are other people – people involved with desktop printing, layout designing, printing and distribution – who make the publication possible. Issuing a few curfew passes is not going to help publication,” says Zaffar Mehraj, chief editor of ‘Kashmir Monitor’.
The latest restrictions come on the heels of the government’s Jun. 26 instructions asking its local cable television channels to cut their hour-long evening news bulletins to just 15 minutes and barring the stations from rebroadcasting them. Media owners were unable to disobey for fear of backlash by district officials, who can “cancel their (business) registration”, says Sheikh Showkat, a political commentator.
There are no private satellite television channels or private radio stations in Kashmir.
“This leaves only two options for the people. Either they read local newspapers for objective information or watch the local cable channels,” Showkat explains. “Information fed by the state-run radio and television is not taken as reliable information by the people of Kashmir since the state broadcasters give only the information which suits the government.”
It was amid the restrictions already in place on television and radio that prompted journalists’ associations like the Kashmir Press Association, Press Guild of Kashmir, Kashmir Journalists’ Corp, Kashmir Press Photographers Association and Kashmir Video Journalists Association to call a meeting and decide to stop publication of newspapers as protest.
Limits on the media are far from new and have existed since the insurgency in Kashmir started in 1989.
“At least 10 journalists have been killed, a dozen have survived fatal attacks, and scores of scribes were beaten and threatened at various times since the inception of insurgency,” says journalist Jahangir Bukhari.
“Though there are no stated laws for not allowing journalistic freedom, journalists in Kashmir have mostly worked in difficult times and have even opted for self- censorship at times because of fear,” Bukhari adds. “Photojournalists and video journalists often find themselves at the receiving end (of violence) as they venture out to shoot protest demonstrations.”
While newspapers have resumed publication after the government assured it would not harass journalists, the situation remains grim. “We hope we will be allowed to work freely,” says Bashir.
*The Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org) is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.