Silence in the Valley: Kashmiri Media After the Abrogation of Article 370

Independent Kashmiri media appears to have been silenced and rendered powerless while the “national” media has been given more access, and allowed to shape the narrative on Kashmir. 

Note: The authors of this article visited the Kashmir valley between 30 August 2019 and 3 September 2019. Mobile services, excluding internet services were resumed for postpaid users in Kashmir on 14 October at noon, after 72 days of a communication blockade. Internet services and pre-paid mobile phone services remain deactivated even today.  

In the face of an unprecedented communication shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) since 4 August, it is impossible to independently determine the veracity of the Indian government’s persistent refrain that all is normal in the region. 

On 5 August 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah moved the statutory resolutions abrogating Article 370, with the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Second Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 to downgrade the state into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. It was passed in the Rajya Sabha on the same day, and in the Lok Sabha on the day after. Three days later, it obtained the presidential assent. 

Article 370 granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and Article 35A empowered its legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state, and accord them with specific rights and privileges. For the people of Kashmir, both articles were instruments that allowed them to have faith in their autonomy, and in their struggle to determine their own future. For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Paty (BJP), Article 370 was an obstacle to the “integration” of the country and  a “historical blunder.” The party had declared its commitment to the abrogation of the article in its election manifesto.   


Figure 1: A fuel tanker bears a message for peace and end to violence.

While there has been much debate over the manner in which this was done, and petitions questioning the legality of the resolutions are now pending at the Supreme Court, the union government adopted a series of measures to deal with the response on the ground. An increased number of security forces were deployed to the Valley, the annual Amarnath Yatra was truncated, and overnight, non-Kashmiri tourists from hotels and guesthouses were told to pack their bags and leave. Migrant labour from other states was also asked to leave as “trouble” was expected (India Today 2019).  

However, controlling communication was the most crucial measure the union government adopted. It maintained total suspense over its plans (PTI 2019) and even its party’s own members of parliament were not privy to anything (IANS 2019). When the union home minister moved the resolution to decide the fate of Kashmir in Parliament the next day, the people of Kashmir were the last to know. 


Figure 2: Deserted Makka Market, just metres away from Lal Chowk.

Our two-member team sought to investigate the impact of the ban on communication on the media in Kashmir—from the complete blockade of the free flow of information during the current conflict, to the long-term impact this would have on the media, and finally, the effect of this communication clampdown on the shaping of the narrative of “Naya Kashmir” promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Condemnations, both in India and internationally, and demands to lift the ban has not made a dent in the government’s stubborn stance that the shutdown is in national interest, and necessary to curb terrorist activity. 

Of course, the ban on communication was part of a larger shutdown, with the imposition of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in large parts of Srinagar. Section 144 bans the assemblage of more than four persons. Large-scale detentions and arrests of leaders of mainstream political parties, separatist leaders, lawyers and youth were also made. In the wake of the shutdown, there have also been reports of a health crisis, a disruption in the lives of students, or the youth going outside the Valley for education or employment, or the panic and anxiety due to the lack of contact with family or friends.  


Figure 3: Television cameras line up in anticipation of a press briefing in a government created media centre addressed by Principal Secretary Rohit Kansal in Srinagar on September 2, the only administrative exercise to "speak" to the media. The briefing lasted exactly 12 minutes. He took three questions and answered none.

Collective Punishment? 

In overt terms, the communication ban seems to be a drastic form of collective punishment, ostensibly to curb the potential of some “miscreants” to foment trouble in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370. But it is also a covert new strategy where the free flow of information from diverse sources is restricted, and a one-dimensional state-controlled narrative is disseminated. When there is an information vacuum, citizens are kept in a state of uncertainty and anxiety with little or no means to reach out to their families or friends. Consequently, the situation is not as normal as the government claims.


Figure 4: Concertina wires stop movement of traffic before Friday prayers on 30 August at Lal Chowk in Srinagar.

It was clear, early on, that independent newsgathering and the dissemination of verified information had become a major casualty. For the first week or so, most journalists were not even able to move around, given the imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC, and the massive deployment of forces on the streets, with multiple checkpoints every few metres. Unable to contact their sources, or be contacted by them, and face with threats if they try to use their cameras, photojournalists told us that the visual record of the people’s response in the first few weeks was completely missing. Instead, a state-controlled narrative was disseminated through “friendly” national television channels. 


Figure 5: Women workers with infants say they had walked for hours looking for food, but everything is shut.

A month on, there were no signs of ease. If anything, it had gotten progressively worse. As we stated in our report:

Our examination revealed a grim and despairing picture of the media in Kashmir, fighting for survival against the most incredible of odds, as it works in the shadow of security forces in one of the most highly militarised zones of the world. Amid restrictions and a myriad government controls, the media is valiantly trying to report the situation on the ground, the serious and long-term implications of the communications blockade on health, education, trade and the economy. 
In contrast, there is a deafening silence and invisibilisation of voices from Kashmir expressing alienation, anger and disillusionment at perceived breach of trust. The government’s control of communication processes is intrinsically undemocratic and harmful, as it privileges the voices of authority and weakens those who speak truth to power. 


Figure 6: As the date for exams draw near, newspapers are full of such advertisements, asking students to collect their study material.

Throttling Independent Media

Independent media in the Kashmir Valley grew in the 1990s. At a time when the international media was ejected from the Valley, only five or six Urdu newspapers were published from Srinagar. According to data provided by the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), only in the mid-1990s did English dailies make their presence felt, with Greater Kashmir becoming a daily in 1995. Over the next two decades, almost a 100 publications were registered, and about 20 of these were widely circulated, which contributed to democratic discourse. Over the last few years, a vibrant online news and features media had also emerged, yielding a rich harvest of voices with diverse stories and perspectives. Digital media has dealt a severe blow in the Valley with the ongoing internet shutdown.


Figure 7: There’s always soft news when hard news is difficult to come by.

Today, as per official data, there are 414 empanelled newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, of which 242 are in Jammu and 172 in Kashmir (DIPR). Of these 172, there are 60 Urdu and 40 English newspapers. There are 100 dailies and the rest are fortnightlies and weeklies. Only a handful are independent and professional in terms of editorial line and reportage, but they have been vibrant players in Kashmir’s media landscape where there is no local electronic media. 


Figure 8: A television cameraperson is mindful of the security personnel as he sets up his camera for a shoot at a deserted Lal Chowk.

The Director of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) controls the advertising budget, amounting to about Rs 40 crore annually. This is the mainstay of the media in conflict-hit Kashmir, where industry has not been able to step up to provide advertising revenue, and no big corporations are subsidising publications like elsewhere in India.

Advertising from the central Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) had ceased during the unrest of 2010 when several newspapers refused the toe the official line. Media houses then became heavily dependent on advertisements from the J&K DIPR (Press Council of India, 2017), which suspended advertisements to two major English dailies in February this year. The media community was outraged, and even published blank front pages as a mark of protest 

Kashmir has witnessed internet shutdowns 180 times since 2012, and 54 times before the current ban in 2019 alone. This time, however, not only were mobile networks shut down, but broadband was also cut off, along with landlines and cable. It was only after 20 days that the government restored mobile phones and landlines in some districts of Jammu and Ladakh. At the time of writing this, there is still no internet connectivity in the Kashmir valley (except for four broadband connections in the media facilitation centre), while landlines, the use of which is limited in any case, has been restored in about 20 of the Valley’s 95 exchanges. The ban on postpaid mobile services was lifted on 14 October, but prepaid services and internet connection is yet to be restored.


Figure 9: A newspaper vendor at Shopian who managed to open his shop after 20 days. He had to travel around 50 kms to Srinagar, to pick up newspapers as regular transport was not functioning.

 A petition filed by Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, details how the ban has resulted in an information blackout and made it impossible for her newspaper to get in touch with district correspondents and obtain any authentic news, thereby resulting in the suspension of publication of the newspaper’s edition from Srinagar. The absence of a mandatory official notification for the internet ban was brought up in the Supreme Court on 30 September, during the hearings related to the lockdown. Bhasin's petition comes up for hearing on 16 October. 

While most newspapers had to suspend publication after 5 August and are yet to update their online sites, some newspapers did begin publication, but only managed to bring out skeletal editions with barely four to six pages filled with agency copies and pieces  on diet, lifestyle, relationship advice. Mass layoffs and salary cuts have made life tough for Kashmiri journalists who have been forced to seek other avenues of sustenance. The nascent independent Kashmir press associations, including the Kashmir Editors Guild, the Kashmir Press Club, the Kashmir Working Journalists’ Association, and the Women Journalists Association have had to address all of these issues and more.


Figure 10: Television journalists set up their camera at the historic Lal Chowk, blocked by security forces before Friday prayers on 30 August.

Journalists and editors speak of working amidst an astounding level of surveillance and monitoring. There is always the possibility of being summoned to the police station for unfavourable reports, and being questioned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). News organisations also stand to lose the status of an empanelled publication with the J&K DIPR. Alternatively, government advertisements, which are a major source of revenue, could be suspended.  

Leaving that aside, the censorship or takedowns regularly experienced by pages and accounts of the vast Kashmiri online community, including the diaspora, are regularly surveilled. District Magistrates routinely issue directives to administrators of WhatsApp groups to submit the details of all their group members.

In a press release issued on 23 August, the Kathua district magistrate told WhatsApp group administrators to enable the “only admins can send messages” status for all WhatsApp groups till 21 October 2019. The admins have also been directed to report to the nearest police station if “any posts or rumours circulated which are sensitive and likely to cause public disorder” (Copy of press release available with the writers).

There have been anguished reports  about the havoc the blockade has caused to the lives of people. The humanitarian crisis brought about by the shutdown has been somewhat covered, even if the government downplayed it, or downright denied it. It has been impossible to fathom the scale of repression on civil liberties. Nowhere, for instance, does the government provide figures or exact details of the arrests, the numbers, the charges levied on them, and even the jails they have been sent to. Journalists were not allowed access to hospitals where victims of pellet injuries were being treated. Officials in press briefings also dismissed questions about the number of minors who have been detained on the pretext of ‘operational details’ that could not be disclosed.

The administration, forced to deal with a flood of journalists from outside the Kashmir valley, set up a Media facilitation centre in a room rented from a starred hotel, with five computers, a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) internet connection, and one phone line controlled and managed by government officers attached to the DIPR. Two months on, journalists have queued up to access the internet, file stories and upload pages for national and international publications they report for. Often, they wait an entire day just to send one photo or video file. Limited and slow internet has deeply impacted their ability to cross-check facts with their sources, or even respond to queries from their editors based outside the Valley.

During  the first few days of the shutdown, journalists used every means possible to get their stories out. They sent pen drives to colleagues outside Kashmir and some travelled by road to other places within Jammu and Kashmir with internet connections. Some even travelled to Delhi to file their stories. The current shutdown has been unprecedented, even for Kashmiri journalists who are no strangers to living and working amidst the most difficult conditions. 

Repressive laws have been an ever-present threat. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 gives sweeping powers to military personnel, and the Public Safety Act 1978 allows detention without trial of persons—including journalists—for "acting in any manner prejudicial to security of state or maintenance of public order” (Bukhari 2012). Journalists have also been detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Counter-terror agencies such as the NIA have sweeping powers that allows them to summon, detain and investigate civilians, including journalists (Wire 2017). 


Figure 11: Banner of an event commemorating the first death anniversary of Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari

From the killing of Lassa Kaul, the director of the Doordarshan Kendra in Srinagar in 1990, to the killing of Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Rising Kashmir in 2018, as many as 22 journalists have been murdered (International Federation of Journalists 2017). 

Veteran journalists and senior editors admitted that the situation has never been as bad as it is now. In one the biggest developments of their lives, they were rendered silent. As a local journalist told our team, "We are supposed to tell the stories of Kashmir, but we are unable to, and feel helpless.” The inability to operate freely has also had a deep psychological impact on journalists, inducing a sense of having failed their own people. 

Particularly, independent Kashmiri media appears to have been targeted all the more aggresively, being increasingly silenced and rendered powerless. The “national” media has been given more access, and allowed to shape the narrative. International media is gradually emerging as the most credible source of news, even as foreign journalists are denied access to Kashmir and local journalists working for international media are facing the brunt of overt and subtle forms of harassment.


Figure 12: Hunger for some news: A reader at Pulwama

The union government has maintained that the abrogation of Article 370 would bring in development, and bring an end to dynastic corruption and terrorism from across the border. It justified the extraordinary communication clampdown as being necessary to maintain law and order, and mitigate violence that was likely to result from the announcement. Its claims on the number of deaths, the schools that reopened, the surgeries in hospitals, the availability of commodities and even traffic jams in Srinagar, can only be validated by a media that can operate without fear or favour. In the absence of this, the insistence of “normalcy’” will remain unchallenged. 

In today’s Kashmir, independent journalists are hindered from doing their work, and the basic democratic right to information has been denied to citizens. Outside Kashmir, with few diverse voices from the ground allowed to be heard, it is the official narrative that prevails. The truth, yet again, is the casualty.

A team from the Network of Women in Media, India and the Free Speech Collective, comprising Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu, visited the Valley between 30 August 2019 and 3 September 2019, and met more than 70 journalists, correspondents, editors of newspapers and news websites in Srinagar, and South Kashmir, along with members of the local administration and citizens. A report entitled "News Behind the Barbed Wire: Kashmir’s Information Blockade", was released on 4 September, 2019, and can be accessed here: https://freespeechcollective.in/2019/09/04/news-behind-the-barbed-wire-kashmirs-information-blockade/

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