Journalists based in Kashmir these days call the Kashmir Valley an information black hole. Journalists say lack of access to officials, a widespread communication blockade and intimidation by security forces makes their job tougher than it's ever been before.
Muzamil Jaleel, Deputy Editor of the Indian Express – one of the largest English dailies in India – was in Kashmir the day the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcated it into two centrally-administered territories.
Jaleel says to reach his Srinagar office, which is barely 3 miles from his residence, it took him around three hours as security forces at checkpoints would not let him pass. He had to make multiple detours to reach his office.
Even his press card wouldn't open any doors.
“I was told by everyone not to show press ID. At one point I did show my ID to security forces, and I was asked to go back immediately,” Jaleel says.
The communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir began the night of August 4, and by the next morning, all phones, landlines and internet services were blocked across the erstwhile state. Among those worst hit are journalists.
Parvaiz Bukhari—based in Kashmir and freelancing for an international news agency—says that working within a communication blockade feels like functioning out of a black hole.
Bukhari says it's extremely difficult to confirm reports or get any information out of officials.
“I reported about a boy hit by a pellet gun canister straight on his shoulder. I came to know about it accidentally 20 days after he was injured,” Bukhari says.
The lack of access to information and various other restrictions have barred journalists from reporting several incidents or prevented them from confirming the information they manage to get — which makes it easier for officials to deny the reports.
Bukhari says the restrictions mean that journalists in Kashmir have not been able even to skim the surface of what is happening there.
“One of the biggest difficulties has been that authorities have not been made available to cross-check the information or to seek their responses on what we find on the ground,” Bukhari says.
“Fundamentally, all these restrictions have resulted in stifling reportage out of Kashmir."
And the reasons: inaccessibility and intimidation.
For example, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, a freelance photojournalist based in Kashmir, says that since the beginning of the lockdown, there have been several occasions when security forces stopped her from doing her job. Worse, she was forced to delete photographs and videos she had shot.
“To reach a particular spot, it was altogether a difficult task. There were barricades, restrictions and security forces would tell us they had orders not to allow the media to pass,” Mattoo says.
“There were incidents where security forces made us delete the footage, and we were not even able to communicate with other journalists about what had happened,” she adds.
Another journalist who does not want to be named writes for a Delhi-based news website, has been covering the events in Kashmir since the beginning of the lockdown. The administration initially issued passes to few journalists so that they could move around amid restrictions. This journalist was also issued one such ‘Curfew Pass’.
But two days later, he says, he was stopped by security personnel and not allowed to pass a checkpoint and then, “A CRPF personnel tore that ‘pass’ apart."
He says that reporting from an ‘information black hole’ was so difficult that he had no idea where to go to get stories out. “I would go to a random village and talk to people. It was a matter of luck if you got your hands on some story,” he says.
What makes things worse is there is no way to cross-check these stories. He says the officials could not be reached on the phone and they were not available in their offices. “To confirm a news report, it took many days.”
Jaleel narrates the same story. He says his colleagues in Kashmir were harassed on the roads by security forces. “I talked to some journalists, their cameras were checked, their phones confiscated and their footage was deleted,” Jaleel says.
He says that journalists who managed to travel outside Srinagar had to be very careful not to reveal their identity. At many checkpoints, Jaleel says, he concealed his profession and told security forces that he was going to meet some relatives, so that he could pass a barricade.
The favoured ones
Journalists say reports emerging from the foreign press in the Kashmir Valley are markedly different than those appearing in Indian media.
Parvaiz Bukhari says he has been monitoring media coverage on Kashmir since August 5.
“If you compare the coverage in the international press with what they report on Indian TV channels, you will find two completely different places existing on two different planets.”
Bukhari says the international press has made a big difference in getting genuine reportage out of Kashmir, which you don’t find in the Indian media.
“Although the events that the international press has concentrated on has also been reported in the Indian press, the major difference is that of context,” he says, “the Indian press and TV networks have reported Kashmir though a prism of hyper-nationalism.”
He says sometimes it appears there are two completely different sets of principles applicable for the foreign and local press.
Muzamil Jaleel says the government has made two categories of journalists in Kashmir, with those based out of Delhi getting more access to officials and other facilities in Kashmir.
“One category is of those who have been reporting from Kashmir for a long time and are locals. Then there are journalists who have been parachuted in from Delhi,” he says, adding that Kashmir-based journalists are mostly denied access.
Most of the Delhi-based journalists, especially TV journalists, get all the access, he says, “they even use their mobile phones and internet, and I have no idea how they do that.”
Almost a week after the lockdown began, the Jammu and Kashmir administration set up a media facilitation centre where journalists could use the internet and make phone calls.
The media centre has four computers and one mobile phone. With the internet shutdown elsewhere, dozens of journalists wait for their turn to use the computer to send stories, photos, videos and emails across.
But Jaleel says that initially the administration only preferred non-local journalists at the media centre and that may have been formalised now. The latest news is that the media centre is currently only allowing journalists 'accredited' by the Indian government, access to the facilities. This undermines several dozen journalists who have been reported from Kashmir for years.
“Then we told them there are more than a hundred local journalists working in Kashmir who also needed to use the Internet,” says Jaleel.
Sometimes even if you do manage to access the internet at the media centre, it doesn't get you very far.
“The internet speed is excruciatingly slow, and journalists believe it is deliberate because you can send across only texts and not photos or videos. It takes a long time to send videos,” Bukhari says.
Before the media centre was set up, and even after, journalists would store data in flash drives and go to the airport where they would ask any passenger travelling to Delhi to drop it at their office.
Bukhari said he used to do the same before the media centre was set up. However, for those who need to send across large-size video footages, there is no other way but to carry the storage devices to Delhi offices physically.
The Women Journalists Association of Kashmir issued a press statement recently saying that a female Kashmiri journalist working for a national daily was stopped by security forces when she was in her car on the way to an assignment. She was stopped and not allowed to pass a checkpoint near Jehangir Chowk, near the city centre, despite showing her press ID and a 'curfew pass'.
“Her car was attacked with batons. She was warned of dire consequences and abuses were hurled at her family,” the statement read.
Jaleel says that in 25 years of journalism, he has never witnessed such severe restrictions on journalists.