On Sunday morning, whispers spread through Srinagar. Someone had been killed in Udhampur, people said. Two policemen had been burnt alive in Srinagar's Mandi area after protesters set fire to their car. The government was planning to cut off water and electricity supply. Food supplies coming in through the highways would also be blocked.
As newspapers in the Kashmir Valley disappeared over the weekend seemingly because the state government had decided to clamp down on the press, people relied on word of mouth to get information about local developments. Warned Bashir Manzar, editor of Daily Kashmir Images, “Now rumours will rule.”On Saturday morning, it wasn't just the print media that was missing. Cable networks had also been taken off air. Mobile internet services had been suspended since July 8.
"The lack of information is suffocating and scary, we do not know what it's like out there,” said Saleem Rather, a resident of Maloora, on the outskirts of Srinagar. “We get our information from people who pass by or gather around at evenings and the radio doesn't say much, but we know most of what we get to hear are rumours."
Ahmad Nasir, a resource specialist with the Ministry of Human Resources and Development, who lives in Anantnag, said. "Since yesterday, we are relying on government media, both television and radio, and some with broadband convey information."
Though entertainment channels came back by mid-day on Saturday and Indian news channels by late evening, newspapers will not be published till July 19.
On Saturday, journalists and staff from several newspapers, including Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Daily Kashmir Images, Kashmir Observers, said their offices and printing presses had been raided overnight by the police, copies seized and staff detained, in some instances. The authorities, they said, refused to show any formal orders for their actions. "They gave us no prior intimation," said Manzar of Daily Kashmir Images.
But the government claimed it was a question of public order. “It is not a ban, it is an enforcement of curfew," said government spokesperson Naeem Akthar. "Distribution is not possible as there are apprehensions of trouble, Pakistan has given a [black day] call. The lives of people matter.”
According to a report in the Pakistani daily, Dawn, the Nawaz Sharif government has decided to observe a "black day" in protest against "Indian atrocities" in the Valley. Earlier scheduled for July 19, it has now been shifted to July 20.
Reuters quoted a government minister to say that cable television had been blocked because Pakistani channels had “launched a campaign aimed at fomenting trouble here" and "some newspapers were also sensationalising the violence".
The Valley has witnessed widespread violence since July 8, when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was shot dead in an encounter with security forces. Since then, more than 40 people have been killed as security forces opened fire on protesters, and 3,100 injured.
Cell phones go silent
Cellular services in South Kashmir were shut down hours after the encounter. A week later, on Thursday evening, cellular services, barring those provided by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, were shut down across the Valley as the authorities attempted to prevent fresh violence after the weekly Friday prayers. In much of North Kashmir, landlines have been snapped.
Sajjad Haider, editor of another daily Kashmir Observer, emphasised that newspapers are a vital source of information in the Valley. “We don't have an alternative,” he said. Cable operators have been banned from broadcasting local news since 2010, when massive protests had broken out in Kashmir and over 120 people were killed as security forces opened fire.
This isn’t the first time local newspapers have faced curbs either. Similar restrictions were imposed in 2010 and in 2013, when mass protests broke out after Afzal Guru, convicted for his involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack, was hanged. Each time, several thousand copies of papers were seized, circulation was stopped and further printing curbed.
'Targeting democracy'Journalists pointed out that the newspaper raids go a long way in undermining faith in the system. “Media is an important part of democracy,” says Manzar, “If you target the media you are targeting democracy.”
Added Haider: “They have deprived us of the option of going to court, since they [those who conducted the raids] did not clarify who they were. Tomorrow the government can deny it seized the papers. They are behaving like non-state actors. Anybody can take advantage of this in the future.”
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