I was just back home after a seminar of a fellowship program in March, and was observing the sudden change in weather, the blossoms and brightness, that spring brings to Kashmir.
It was then that one of my neighbors visited me and handed a note that someone had left in my name. The chit had a name and phone number written on it, and a message to call on the given number. With my journalistic instincts being fired up, I decided to call the number. As soon as I dialed this number the call was picked up before it even rang. Hello, you had dropped a note for me to call you.
“Yes, if you are around, come visit the police station,” the man on the other side replied. After asking for the reason of this unusual summon, the officer on the phone denied sharing any details, but kept on insisting that I visit him at the police station, located at a distance of around 5 kms from my house.
I decided that it would be wise to go and find out what the matter was, so the next morning I decided to visit the Police Station. When I reached the compound, I asked for this particular officer and was directed to a cabin. Upon meeting him in the cabin of one of his senior colleagues, this officer told me to wait for a while, as went on to get some documents he had received from the ‘Police Headquarters’. “Here you go,” he said as he handed over the document to another senior officer ho entered with him, “this is what we received.” The senior officer went through the content and looked at me. “Why do you share ‘fake news’ on social media?” My response was a cold smile, and stretching out of my hand, signaling that I wanted to have look at the document myself. He handed it over to me. The document revealed that the Police and its agencies were advised to talk to the administrator of the organisation that I worked for, and ensure that this ‘unregistered’ news portal carries no ‘unverified’ content on its website and social media.
I tried to explain the nature of my work and its importance in bringing out the voices from the ground in a multimedia format, to the officer, but it seemed that they had made up their mind. “You must save your life. People are being ‘picked up’ for small reasons and arrested. You media people are the basic reason for the law and order situation in Kashmir,” the officer told me. These words were not new to me. The press in Kashmir, which is trying to report on issues like human rights abuses, corruption, and governance is often labeled as ‘rumor-mongers’ in police press releases. The senior officer who must have been in his late 50’s directed me to go to the office of the magistrate located in the vicinity.
I was told to submit a sworn statement, explaining not only what my role in the organisation I work for is, but also what the organisation does. I was told to write that the organisation will not publish any ‘unverified’ news or content which might become a reason for deterioration of law and order in this part of the world. By unverified, it seemed, the document meant the stories which expose state repression and hold it accountable.
My organisation which I work for, in the last 4 years of its existence in Kashmir, has documented the 2014 Kashmir floods, the issues of corruption in relief and rehabilitation, the uprising of 2016, the stories of abuses by Indian armed forces, issues of development and social justice, in a video format. These videos have been watched by millions of people online, and more than a hundred thousand people have been directly or indirectly benefited by the work we do. I prepared these sworn statements and submitted them to the same investigating officer at the Police station.Before leaving, I asked the officer who had called me, if it was alright for me to show him what we do. He agreed to this request of mine. I quickly grabbed my cell phone and showed him the most recent reports that we have done. After seeing a few videos, he told me that he was ‘impressed’ about the way we make a difference at a grass-root level, and how we give a voice to the communities which are ‘unheard’. While the incident ended without much trouble, it forced us to start self-censorship, because of the nature of this unpleasant exchange.
But, this is not new in this part of the world. It is part of the media control policy in the region of Kashmir, which has been going on, not only with our organisation at a small level, but in different measures across media houses, depending upon their impact. In the past, the house of one of our correspondents from south Kashmir was raided and he was taken to the nearest army station where he was beaten and his phone and camera were broken. This was done just because they did not like what he has been producing from his community. In 2017 too, I got a phone call from the Army asking me to send some ‘proposals’ to them to create a ‘positive content’. They didn’t just tell me to make videos, but also wanted us to take their money (under the Army goodwill program). In another similar incident, I and my team were taken to the police station while we were interviewing the father of a young boy who was killed in police custody and was harassed and intimidated with extremely nasty questions by the police officials.
This comes in the backdrop of Journalists being jailed, booked, and a senior editor being shot dead in broad daylight in the press avenue of Srinagar. Revenue of some leading newspapers in Kashmir is stopped, mobile phones of journalists are checked, and other such measure are an everyday affair now. In such a scenario of harassment and intimidation, and sometimes a blanket ban, it becomes ever more difficult to report on human rights violations. When even socio-religious organisations running schools are being banned, when Kashmiri students are being attacked and their properties damaged across India, when no Kashmiri feels safe to travel to any part of India, the ‘truth’ as it ought to be reported easily becomes a casualty.
Press freedom is not just a word, it is a sign of how good or bad the situation is. While reporters in Kashmir work under tremendous pressure, those who hold dear democratic values in the system must ask themselves, that if the bridge between the policy makers and the public is broken, what would be the result of such a catastrophe.Until then, we must continue to work and produce the content that deserves to be heard.
First Appeared in Free Press Kashmir