Dangerous times for the press in Kashmir

Journalists hold placards during a protest against the assassination of veteran journalist Kashmir Syed Shujaat Bukhari at Lal Chowk, on June 26, 2018 in Srinagar, India. (Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

On June 14, gunfire rang out in Kashmir, drawing startled journalists to their windows. A valley in the foothills of the Himalayas, Kashmir has for decades been the ground of a bloody feud between India and Pakistan; for most of that time, journalists have covered the conflict unfettered by government minders. Recently, however, that has been changing. In May, foreign journalists—including me, the outgoing India bureau chief of The Washington Post—received an official warning from the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi about traveling to “certain areas” without asking for permission; we all knew it was referring to Kashmir. Then a French documentary filmmaker was arrested and interrogated about his time there, as were two Kashmiris—a reporter and a photographer—each accused of having ties to militant groups; one is still in jail. In June, the United Nations released a damning report on human rights abuses in Kashmir. Hours later, gunmen who police claim had ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group fatally shot Shujaat Bukhari, a well-respected editor at Rising Kashmir newspaper who’d served as mentor to many. His two bodyguards were also killed.

The event was tragic. But to many reporters, it was not a total surprise. “My sense from Kashmiri journalists is that they’re under pretty significant pressure,” David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, says. “Fear of detention or being shut down seems to be hovering over a lot of the independent Kashmiri press.”

The feeling was shared throughout India, which, this year, fell two places in a global press freedom ranking compiled by Reporters Without Borders, to 138. (The country trails such autocracies as Myanmar, where two Reuters journalists were recently sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly breaching a law on state secrets while reporting on the military’s abuse of the Rohingya people.) Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk for Reporters Without Borders, says that the climate for journalists in India has worsened since 2014, when Modi took power. “Editorial independence is really decreasing,” Bastard tells CJR.

 

Modi, like President Trump, shows contempt for the mainstream media—adopting the derogatory term “news traders” (i.e. trading money for information)—and prefers to address the nation on Twitter or do carefully controlled interviews with friendly media outlets. In more than four years in office, he has never given a press conference.

His administration has targeted journalists through the media companies for which they work—threatening business interests that require government cooperation, taking down negative stories, and even firing editors. “The government’s tactic is not to pressure the editor but the owner, and owners can decide to bury that hatchet in the editor’s expendable back,” Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of The Print, an online news site, and the president of the Editors Guild of India, tells CJR.

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Last year, Bobby Ghosh, a prominent Indian-born American editor of one of India’s most-read daily newspapers, was ousted from his job after he created an online “Hate Tracker” monitoring the rise of hate crimes. (The site is now inactive.) In May, human rights experts from the UN called on India to protect Rana Ayyub, a reporter critical of Modi who received death threats in an online hate campaign that included a pornographic video. Critics believe that the anti-journalist trolls—who remain active—are part of an aggressive network supported, at least tacitly, by Modi’s party. (Modi follows some of India’s worst harassers on his Twitter account.)

In July, Punya Prasun Bajpai, a Hindi news channel anchor whose show, Master Stroke, attracted 10 million viewers a night, ran afoul of the government when he featured a farmer on his show who said that she had been coached by government officials to falsely claim that her income doubled in a year due to Modi’s programs. The Modi administration denounced the story, which the information minister called “despicable” and “#unfortunatejournalism.” Advertisers loyal to Modi pulled their ads. For days, during Bajpai’s timeslot, the transmission signal of his broadcaster, ABP News Network, went dark. In response, India’s Editors Guild condemned what it called the undermining of “the right to practice free and independent journalism” that has resulted in “some media owners’ inability to withstand political covert or overt pressures from the political establishment and frequent instances of blocking or interference in the transmission of television content that is seen to be critical of the government.” The Guild called the transmission blocking “almost Orwellian.”

Bajpai, unrepentant, tweeted, “You can black out the screen during Master Stroke, but we will convert it into a ‘blackboard’ and write the truth on it.” Nearly a month later, however, ABP’s chief executive officer called him to his office and made clear that he had to resign from his job, Bajpai tells CJR. He reluctantly complied; the managing editor left, too. The head of personnel for ABP News Network declined comment. “When the CEO tells you there is no other option, then you have to leave,” Bajpai says. But it sets a dangerous precedent. “News channels penetrate every Indian village,” he adds. “Now the government is trying to impose its agenda on the news.”

Indian officials and leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismiss such charges as griping from liberal media that enjoyed decades of cozy access to the previous government. They note that India has a vibrant media landscape: nearly a third of the country’s 1.3 billion people read newspapers every day, and millions more watch cable news and a growing number of channels in Hindi, English, and regional languages.

Prakash Javadekar, the former minister of state of information and broadcasting who is now Human Resource Minister, calls allegations that the Modi government is impinging on freedom of the press “baseless.” He adds, “Journalists have no fear. They are working at 700 channels! Tell me, in America you don’t have this many channels. We don’t stop anybody. There are multiple channels, multiple voices, multiple views—that’s democracy.”

 

When I received word that the government was reviving a long-dormant rule that could require foreign journalists to wait up to eight weeks for approval to enter Kashmir, I was concerned. As S. Venkat Narayan, the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia, says, “When a story breaks out you can’t be sitting in Delhi waiting for the government of India. The media needs access.”

I also found myself a target of social media attacks, which escalated when I immersed myself in a project chronicling the rise of Hindu extremism under Modi. I ignored the nasty remarks about my appearance but reported death threats to Twitter—including one from a Hannibal Lecter-type who said I was so “plumpy” it made him want to cut me. Twitter eventually got better about suspending these accounts. Still, the extremism project took a toll. A BJP campaign volunteer I had interviewed texted me asking where I lived and whether I lived alone. “I can’t tell if he wants to hit on me or put a hit on me,” I quipped to friends, but the alarm was real.

In August, my tenure as bureau chief came to an end. I wanted to visit Kashmir one last time, but I didn’t receive the official permit. Using a friend’s wedding as an excuse, I flew up for a brief trip to say goodbye to Ishfaq Naseem, who for many years has been the Post’s stringer in Kashmir. At the airport, I registered at the foreign visitor desk as a tourist, but that did not stop the police from dogging my every move. Tariq, my longtime driver, bore the brunt of it, his cellphone ringing at frequent intervals. Where is Madam now? police wanted to know. What is she doing? Where is the wedding? What is the groom’s name? What is his father’s name? Tariq brushed them off politely.

I was looking forward to catching up with Naseem, who had been my unflappable companion for years in Kashmir. But when we met, over a plate of fried snacks at a local teahouse, I found him despondent about the state of journalism. As waiters brushed by carrying steaming copper samovars of Kashmiri fruit tea, he told me that authorities were arresting journalists and pressing them to become informers. Those who interviewed rebellious Kashmiri youth who threw stones at security forces—known as “stone pelters”—suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of the National Investigation Agency, the country’s counterterrorism agency. “There’s nothing which works in Kashmir,” Naseem said. Of the government, he added, “They always want their version to be written about. There’s no press freedom in Kashmir valley.”

Naseem had been working as an editor at Rising Kashmir newspaper on the day Bukhari was shot and killed. To protect his own security, Naseem didn’t want to talk publicly about what happened. He has since left the newspaper and returned to freelancing, and started working on a novel.

At the end of our visit, we said goodbye in a parking lot. It was early evening; the sky over the mountains was a pearly pink. Soon, the evening call to prayer from dozens of mosques would echo over Dal Lake. I promised Naseem that I would come back and visit soon. But my permit was never granted.

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Annie Gowen was the India bureau chief of The Washington Post from 2013-2018. She returned to the United States in September to be a correspondent on the Post’s National desk.