“Any story could be your last,” according to India’s onslaught on the Kashmiri press

On April 5, 2022, there was a joyful mood felt across the Sultan household in Batamaloo, which is located in the center region of Srinagar.

After more than three and a half years of going to courts and police stations, they finally got some good news: Asif Sultan, a journalist as well as a husband, a father, and a son, had been released on bail. It was a beautiful spring day in the part of Kashmir that is ruled by India.

Relatives got around in anticipation of his return to the house. As the hours went into days, Asif’s family started to get increasingly worried.

On the 10th of April, Asif was additionally charged with another crime. He was not allowed to be released and was sent to a jail outside of Kashmir, making it difficult for visitors to see him.

We are in utter disbelief, but we will not give up our legal battle. His father, Mohammad Sultan, stated that since it is common knowledge that his son is blameless, they will ultimately prevail. Areeba, his granddaughter, who is now five years old, went into the room and sat on his lap. When her grandfather was taken into custody, Areeba was only six months old.

Asif Sultan was initially accused of providing support to militants in Muslim-majority Kashmir, a region that has been experiencing an armed uprising against Indian sovereignty since the year 1989.

He is accused of violating the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is a law that was designed to combat terrorism and makes it very difficult to obtain released on bond. The second allegation that has been brought against him is in accordance with yet another contentious regulation known as the Public Safety Act (PSA), which permits detention without trial for a period of up to two years.

The claims are false, according to Mohammad Sultan. He feels that Asif was singled out for his work, specifically an article that Asif published on an anti-India extremist one month before he was arrested in August of 2018. He believes that this piece was the reason why Asif was detained.

“Asif is a professional reporter, and he has been locked up because of the articles he wrote about the militant group. His father insists that his son is not affiliated with the militants in any way. “They [the government] wanted to make an example out of him so that no one else would dare to cover topics that the government does not approve of,” said the journalist.

Over the course of more than a year, the BBC has conducted an investigation into allegations made against the Indian government, specifically that it is conducting a malicious and methodical campaign to coerce and stifle the press in the region. Because of the potential for retribution, the journalists requested that their identities remain concealed throughout our private meetings with them.

Over the course of a number of travels, we had conversations with over two dozen journalists, including editors, writers, and photojournalists who worked independently in addition to for local, regional, and national publications. All of these journalists agreed that the acts of the government should serve as a warning to them.

Asif had been incarcerated for a total of five years at this point. There have been at least seven additional Kashmiri journalists placed behind bars since 2017. Asif is one of the four individuals that are still being held in custody.

Fahad Shah, the editor of a digital magazine, was detained in February 2022 and charged with “propagating terror” under the anti-terror legislation that were in effect at the time.

One month prior to his imprisonment, free-lance journalist Sajad Gul was taken into custody shortly after posting a video on social media that included villagers yelling anti-India sentiments. Sajad was arrested on suspicion of participating in a criminal plot. Both have been re-arrested on a variety of different crimes, but each time they have been released on bail.

The most recent arrest of a journalist took place in March of this year. Irfan Meraj, whose writing has been published in foreign publications, is being accused of having connections to organizations that provide support for terrorist activities.

There have been complaints lodged against a large number of other members of the press.

The regional administration and the police have been contacted by the BBC on multiple occasions to comment on the claims that have been made against them. We have reached out to people for interviews and also sent emails containing questions of a more particular nature. There has been no response sent our way.

During the G20 meeting that took place in Srinagar in May, we posed the question of an alleged crackdown on the media to the region’s chief administrator, Manoj Sinha. He stated that there is “complete freedom” for the press. He stated that journalists were “arrested on terror charges and for attempts to disrupt social harmony, not for journalism or for writing stories.” Journalists were “detained and arrested on terror charges and for attempts to disrupt social harmony.”

Multiple eyewitness testimonies, all of which contradict the accusations, have been presented to us.

“Being called in for questioning by the authorities is nothing out of the ordinary for a journalist working in this city. And dozens of incidents in which reporters have been jailed due to the reports that they have filed,” one reporter informed me.

“I began receiving phone calls from the police over a story that I had done. They didn’t stop questioning why I’d done it. After that, a direct interrogation of me took place. They claimed to know everything there is to know about me and my family, which sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t stop wondering if I would be arrested or if someone would assault me physically.

More than ninety percent of the journalists that I questioned stated that they had been called by the police at least once, with many of them being called more than once in relation to the same subject. Some people said the police acted in a courteous manner. Others have reported receiving hostile responses, including threats.

“We live in constant dread that each given story may turn out to be our final story. And then you’d be behind bars,” commented one of the journalists.

Another reporter told me, “Journalism in Kashmir is done for and has been laid to rest.”

Every journalist I talked to confirmed that they had received “routine background checks” from the authorities on multiple occasions over the course of the preceding few years.

I was present for one of these kind of phone calls.

A call came through from the local police station to the journalist I was with at the time. They decided to listen to the call on speakerphone. The officer then proceeded to identify himself to the journalist before inquiring about their name, residence, and place of employment.

When the journalist asked the officer why these details were necessary, the officer’s tone remained friendly while he read out details of the journalist and their family. These details included what the journalist’s parents do for a living, where they live, where their siblings study and work, what degrees their siblings have, and the name of the company that one of the journalist’s siblings owns and operates.

After the phone call, I questioned the journalist about how they were feeling.

“It should give us pause,” they remarked. “I’m thinking right now whether or not they are watching me, whether or not they are watching my family, what caused this phone call, and what is going to happen next.”

Other journalists have said that they have been asked even more in-depth questions about their personal lives, such as what properties they own, what bank accounts they have, and what their political and religious convictions are.

“In Kashmir, journalists are being treated in the same manner as criminals. We have been given the reputation of being anti-nationals, sympathizers of terrorism, and pro-Pakistan reporters. They have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that journalists play in society, which is to present all perspectives.

India and Pakistan contest ownership of the whole Kashmir area, and both countries, in addition to China, hold territorial claims inside the territory. It has long been assumed that militant groups operating in Indian-administered Kashmir have the help of Pakistan’s intelligence services. Militant groups operating in Indian-administered Kashmir have their bases in Pakistan, but Islamabad categorically denies this accusation.

In addition, there have been allegations of breaches of human rights committed by Indian security forces in Kashmir for a very long time. These allegations have fueled hatred against Indian rule and have contributed to support for pro-Pakistan insurgent organizations in certain areas of the territory.

Reporting on separatist movements and militant groups, as well as any coverage that is critical of the security forces or the administration, including coverage of day-to-day civic issues, is reportedly under attack by the Indian government, according to members of the media.

The vast majority of journalists with whom I spoke indicated that they started to feel more scrutiny after the arrest of Asif Sultan in 2018, and things have grown significantly more challenging since August 2019. It was at that time that India decided to withdraw the region’s unique status and partition the only Muslim majority state in the country into two territories. Both of these territories are now under the authority of the national government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A case challenging the legitimacy of these actions is currently being considered by India’s highest court, the Supreme Court.

It’s been five years since this area has had a regional government that was chosen by the people. And this week, when the chief justice asked the government when elections would be held, adding that “restoration of democracy is important,” the government responded by saying that it could not give a precise date for when elections would take place.

A journalist stated that “because there is no elected representative we can approach, the government gets away with acting with impunity” because there is no elected representative available to the public.

At least four Kashmiri journalists have come forward to say that they were prevented from leaving India and had their boarding cards stamped with the word “cancelled” by immigration officials, who did not provide any explanation for their actions. The first is a photographer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize but was unable to be present at the presentation.

According to information obtained by the BBC, there are dozens of names on the list of Kashmiri journalists who are not permitted to leave India. However, this list has not been made public. We contacted the police about the legal basis for these “look out circulars,” as they are known in official jargon, but we have not gotten a response to our question yet.

When journalists have applied to renew their expired passports, they have also had their requests for new passports denied. Over the past few weeks, passports that had been previously given to a number of journalists have also been revoked. According to a communication that came from the administration, the journalists are being viewed as a “security threat” to India.

“We feel like we’re being choked and suffocated,” one of the journalists remarked. Everyone here exercises some form of self-censorship. The first time I read my report, I interpreted it as if I were a journalist. The second time, I read it as if I were a law enforcement officer, and I began cutting information out and diluting it. It’s largely simply public relations for the administration, and there isn’t really much of an effort being put into journalism.”

The editors have informed us that they frequently receive directives from the administration over what topics to cover and which topics to exclude from coverage. When referring to armed insurgents, they are to use the word “terrorist” rather than the phrase “militant” as it has been directed to them to use.

Regional media outlets have a significant reliance on advertising from the government, and several of them have been warned that they may lose access to these monies if they do not comply with regulations.

“I despise what I have to do on a daily basis, but what about the individuals I have to supervise? What would happen to them if I close down?” asked one of the editors.

When you read articles in the local press, it quickly becomes clear what has become of journalism in this region.

I spent three days going through dozens of periodicals published in Kashmir and comparing them to the daily news release issued by the government.

Nearly all of them featured the press release prominently on the front page; some of them had altered it, while others carried it word for word.

Statements issued by the government or the security forces took up the most of the space on the remaining top pages. There were many feature pieces, but there was very little media that held the government accountable for its actions.

It was reported in June that members of the Indian military had entered a mosque in the city of Pulwama, which is located in the southern region of Kashmir, and yelled the Hindu hymn “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram).

Under typical conditions, journalists working for a variety of publications would have been present in Pulwama, speaking with representatives from all parties involved and gathering information to file reports.

The next day, just a few local newspapers reported on the incident, and almost all of them did so by including a remark from a provincial politician named Mehbooba Mufti, who demanded that an investigation be conducted.

Over the following few days, other newspapers published it, but they did so solely as a story about the investigation being conducted by the Indian army into the occurrence. There was hardly any reporting from the scene of the incident.

Even though the majority of journalists I spoke to stated that they feared retaliation from the state, some of them also stated that they feel threatened by extremists.

There have been instances of militant groups issuing threats to journalists via statements published on their websites.

I had a conversation with a journalist who had been threatened.

The life of a journalist in Kashmir is analogous to walking on the edge of a razor. “You constantly exist in a state of fear,” he told me.

I wanted to know what frightened you, so I asked.

“Of a bullet heading in my direction. “Every time I see a motorcycle pull up next to me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because I know that someone is going to pull out a gun and shoot me, and no one will ever figure out who did it,” he explained.

In 2018, prominent editor Shujaat Bukhari was killed in the parking lot of his office in Srinagar by gunfire, according to the authorities. After five years, the investigation into his death has not yet begun in court.

The Kashmir Press Club in central Srinagar was one of the few places in a region that was plagued by conflict where journalists were able to openly congregate, debate stories, and share their concerns with one another. It served as a safe haven in particular for freelance journalists who did not have offices of their own.

But that wasn’t the only factor. Additionally, it was the most important organization in the area that fought for the rights and freedom of the press.

The government ordered it to be shut down a year ago. The building that I’ve been to so frequently in order to gain priceless insight into local culture has recently been converted into a police station.

When they feel endangered, journalists have reported that they have nowhere to turn for help.

To enter Kashmir, journalists from other countries need permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is only occasionally granted. The G20 summit that took place in May marked the first time in the past few years that international journalists were permitted to visit Srinagar. However, access to the city was very restricted, restricting both the locations to which they were permitted to travel and the topics that they were permitted to cover.

The last ten years have seen a significant fall in press freedom across the entirety of India. This decline has been mirrored in global rankings, as well as in lawsuits brought against journalists and raids against media institutions. We have found evidence that the freedom of the press in Kashmir has been severely compromised, and the degree to which it has been compromised is extreme in Kashmir.

On a shelf in the living room of the Sultan home is a copy of Kashmir Narrator, a magazine that Asif Sultan used to write for and which now holds a prominent place in the family’s collection of memorabilia.

His father flipped through the worn-out magazine and pointed to Asif’s picture that was featured in a byline. Mohammad spoke to his granddaughter about the identity of the individual depicted in the picture.

“Oh, My Daddy. Areeba said that he was indeed incarcerated.

Areeba has not yet reached the age when she can comprehend what has happened to her father, therefore Mohammad hopes that Asif will be released before Areeba does.

“I’m getting old,” he said. “I’m getting old.” However, I’m doing my best to parent and grandparent her at the same time. How much longer am I able to keep this up?

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