How one Kashmiri magazine survived a press crackdown

Indian paramilitary troopers in Kashmir on August 5, 2019. (Photo by Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Fahad Shah is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Time, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, and elsewhere. He is also the founding editor and publisher of the Kashmir Walla, a news and culture magazine based in his hometown of Srinagar, Kashmir. 

The Kashmir Walla began as a blog in 2009, when Shah was still at university. A few years later it had grown into a full-fledged magazine; its current staff numbers fourteen. It covers sensitive political topics such as protests, armed conflict, and the censorship of dissidents, as well as local stories about power cuts, entertainment, and Kashmir’s youngest rugby coach. For years, Shah has been subjected to arbitrary harassment and attacks, like many independent publishers in the politically fraught atmosphere of Kashmir—a disputed region claimed by both Pakistan and India, and India’s only Muslim-majority state. In 2017, local police detained and interrogated Shah for eight hours and confiscated his laptop. In 2018 his car was vandalized and his residence teargassed. 

ICYMI: The unsolved assassination of a journalist

Last August, Jammu and Kashmir state’s special autonomous status was summarily revoked by the Modi government. With the stripping of rights came a total blackout of the internet, which lasted until the end of January, when it was partially restored. This was the longest-running internet crackdown in a democratic state in history—and a catastrophe for digital publishers like Shah, who rely on traffic to stay afloat. Police harassment of journalists continues,with two more summoned for questioning on Saturday in Srinagar, in evident punishment for reporting on a strike call from the pro-independence Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front.

CJR spoke with Shah over email to learn more about the challenges journalists are facing in Kashmir. This exchange has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 

You can never tell what is coming next in Kashmir. We might work hard again for the next few months, and then something politically drastic will happen and we will be back to square one.

 

Why were you detained in 2017? And why the tear gas attack in 2018? Did you ever learn more about the reasons?

Shortly after returning from a personal trip to Pakistan in 2017, I found a police contingent waiting for me outside my house. They took me first to a police station, and then to the notorious Cargo detention center, where I was interrogated for four or five hours by a group of officers. They asked about my writing and my travels, my contacts and links with certain people in power. 

I was in detention for a total of eight hours, and was released only after the intervention of the chief minister. After my release, a few cabinet ministers called me and apologized, saying the police had made a mistake and that it had been unacceptable. But it was the worst eight hours.

I never learned more about who’d been behind the tear gas attack, except that one senior politician told me over the phone that it had been carried out on the orders of a single political leader. 

 

Tell us about the founding of the Kashmir Walla.

In the summer of 2008 there was a mass uprising in Kashmir in which more than eighty civilians were shot dead in street protests. I had finished high school and was preparing to study engineering. But I felt very disheartened to see people in Delhi not knowing anything about the uprising of that summer; it made me realize how the media presents Kashmir. 

That was when I started thinking of writing about my home myself. But I didn’t know anything about journalism. 

Eventually I attended journalism college in Kashmir, interned at a local newspaper, then joined a writing workshop run by Muzamil Jaleel, a veteran journalist. In February 2011, inspired by US magazines—Guernica, the New Yorker and especially Harold Ross has been my major inspiration—I had the idea of turning my website into a digital magazine, which I did with some college friends. After nine years of running this organization, and reporting for over two dozen global publications, I feel my ambition for the site is taking shape. 

Specifically, I wanted to reach people outside of Kashmir. As a freelance writer for publications in India, I felt that editors based in Delhi or Mumbai would add their own assumptions to stories reported by Kashmiri journalists. My aim was to tell the story of Kashmir to the world, and that is what we do here.

We started this office in Srinagar in May 2018. It’s the third time I’ve opened an office to establish this organization properly, with a team. Financial pressures shut us down both of the previous times. Once, an investor backed out at the last moment, leaving me with huge debts that I had to pay back by doing freelance work over the next two years. After that, I started over once more. One can’t give up on passion and dreams. 

In 2018, I came to my current space, offered by a kind friend. It’s just a hall and one table with a few chairs. I funded the project with my own earnings from freelance work until I found an investor, whose stake funded our growth over ten months, from two people to fourteen, and permitted us to launch our print weekly newspaper as well. 

In August 2019, when the Indian government abrogated the special status of Kashmir and imposed a clampdown with no communications, our whole organization came to a halt. Our internet audience went to zero, and we couldn’t update our website for five months. We lost all the money we had. 

But the team continued working. Barring one or two, nobody quit and gave up. I am lucky to have such brilliant people with me.

 

How did the Kashmir Walla manage during the internet blackout?

For two weeks after 5 August 2019, we couldn’t print our newspaper. When we were able to resume, at a lower quality and with fewer pages, we still couldn’t distribute properly. We’re reestablishing ourselves now, almost as if we were launching the organization again. The internet we have now is very slow, pathetic. It takes so much time. 

For some weeks now we have been able to publish properly from our offices, but without any certainty of what will happen in the days ahead. You can never tell what is coming next in Kashmir. We might work hard again for the next few months, and then something politically drastic will happen and we will be back to square one. 

It really takes a toll on your mental health. I had never imagined I would need to visit a doctor for stress. But Kashmir today is such that you can’t get away from stress. It’s affected my physical health, too. And life seems like it is slipping like sand. We only hope that at least by doing all this an institution is being built.

 

Now that some of the jailed political leaders in Kashmir have been released, do you think tensions are easing?

They are, but the situation won’t improve until senior leaders and party heads are released. Only then will any kind of political engagement begin. Currently, life is returning to normal, but politically the place is dead. 

 

Have more publications been whitelisted since the first group of 301 was announced? Who is controlling the firewall?

Yes, a few more websites were whitelisted this week, including ours. I think it is the home ministry and security agencies who decide. It is not clear how the decisions are made, but I guess it could be seen as giving a little bit to every side—like, five shopping sites and five news sites, and many international media websites. But people have been using VPNs, so they are accessing everything, even social media.

 

What are the risks right now of continuing to publish? 

You have to publish the facts. If you make one mistake, even unintentionally, you can be gone forever. The world has seen how media can be crushed or forced not to function, so it is more important than ever for people and organizations to support independent media houses, smaller media platforms, and offer opportunities to people who are out there reporting despite every hardship. Strengthening the model of subscriptions and public-funded journalism is the only model that can keep media free. There is no other way. If we don’t strengthen media institutions today, we shouldn’t expect to know the truth, ever. Because what you will be told will be different than what is reality. 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Kashmiri narrative

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.