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'Journalists in Kashmir can't work freely'

Kashmir Press Club concerned over ‘harassment, frequent questioning’ of journalists, says statement

Hilal Mir   | 11.02.2020
'Journalists in Kashmir can't work freely' FILE PHOTO

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir

The Kashmir Press Club on Monday said that since last Aug. 5, when Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its political autonomy, the government “is not enabling journalists and media to operate freely.”

“As if the six-month internet shutdown was not enough, physical attacks, threats, and summons to journalists are being employed by security agencies to intimidate journalists,” said a statement issued by a meeting of the club, which has more than 270 journalist members.

The meeting was called two days after Naseer Ahmad Ganai, who works for Indian newsmagazine Outlook, and Haroon Nabi, a reporter with local news agency CNS, were questioned at the key counterinsurgency center of Kashmir Police, called Cargo, in the regional capital Srinagar on Saturday.

Both had published a statement issued by the banned separatist organization Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front calling for a strike on Feb. 9 and Feb. 11, the death anniversaries of Kashmiris Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his alleged role in an attack on India’s parliament, and Maqbool Bhat, the front’s founder, who was hanged in 1984.

Both said they were told to reveal how they received the statement – which was emailed to all journalists and news organizations – besides information about their families and close relatives.

“Harassment and questioning of journalists in Kashmir by the police on flimsy grounds is a damning verdict on the appalling conditions in which the media is operating,” said the statement, the strongest in the past six months.

The statement cited the examples of journalists Irfan Amin Malik (picked up by policemen from his home on Aug. 14, 2019 and detained overnight at police station); Peerzada Ashiq (questioned by police and pressured to reveal sources of my story on detentions); Zubair Dar and Muzamil Matoo (beaten in November while covering prayers at a shrine); and Azaan Javaid and Anees Zargar (beaten up by police while covering a student protest).

On Nov. 30, the club statement said, Basharat Masood (Indian Express) and Hakeem Irfan (Economic Times) were summoned to the Cargo center and “grilled by the police for their stories.” The duo was stopped on Dec. 23 by the police in Handwara while researching a story and taken to the office of the police superintendent. They were told that they “are trying to provoke people.”

The questioning of the two prompted a delegation of journalists to meet a top police official. A reporter present at the meeting told Anadolu Agency on the condition of anonymity that the official told the delegation in a very “genial manner” that “everybody is behaving well.”

“He said ‘but only media and militants are not behaving well’,” the reporter said.

Journalists struggling to work

Until Jan. 25, when low-speed internet was restored on phones with a rider that only 301 government-approved websites only could be accessed, journalists had been forced to work from a government facility that had 11 computers. On average, 250-300 journalists visited the center daily.

“By making all journalists work under one roof, making them struggle for a few minutes of internet access, the government ensured journalism produced in Kashmir is very limited. We felt we were being watched every minute. And you couldn’t protest because the assembly of more than four people in a public place was a criminal offense,” said Hamid, who requested he be quoted by middle name only.

Hamid said that restoration of internet has not made journalists’ jobs any easier. Many reporters working for local news organizations have been asked to pledge that they will not use social media or access websites not cleared by the government.

A journalist who works for an English daily told Anadolu Agency, “I did not sign the undertaking. I told my boss that I would rather not use office internet because this undertaking is very humiliating.”

The journalist said the authorities have employed several methods to build and maintain pressure on journalists, citing the example of two newspapers, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, which were deprived of all government ads months before the communications and security clampdown was imposed on Aug. 4. Ads have not yet been released to Kashmir Reader, whose publication was banned for three months in 2016.

Anadolu Agency tried, without success, to contact top police and civil officials for their version. We will update the story once their statement is available.

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