To the rest of the world, Kashmiri newspapers have remained frozen in time. On their websites, Jammu and Kashmir is still a state, with its own constitution and special protections under Articles 370 and 35A. Kashmiri parties are still vowing to fight for special status and its leaders have just been put under house arrest.
The websites had last been updated in the early hours of August 5, before Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced the government was scrapping the state’s special status, carving it up into two Union Territories and revoking Article 35A, which gave Jammu and Kashmir the power to define permanent residents and grant specific rights, including the right to own land.
As the government cut off all communications, including phone lines and broadband internet, the Valley seemed to disappear in a blip. Newspapers in the Valley were unable to update their websites – but they kept a print edition alive with what scraps of information they could find.
“J&K divided, disempowered and downgraded” said the front page of Greater Kashmir, the Valley’s most widely circulated English daily, on August 6. “Over 550 political workers, leaders detained in Kashmir” was its front page headline on August 8, sharing space with a report on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visiting villages in South Kashmir.
On August 9: “Revocation of Article 370 historic decision: PM Modi”. On August 10: “Eid celebrations, return of Hajj pilgrims our priority”. There was also a report on the Jammu and Kashmir Upper House being abolished. Doval’s exploits in the Valley continued to be tracked.
On August 11, the focus shifted to the Hajj, with a report on two million people scaling Mount Arafat. A second front page headline also noted increased traffic movement in Srinagar.
Most Valley-based newspapers then began a four-day hiatus for the festival of Eid.
The editions of Valley-based newspapers reflect how the local press had to make do with less and less. Editions that were 16 to 20 pages shrunk to four to seven pages.
“We were not expecting a lockdown of this magnitude, that even landlines would be shut,” said Ishfaq Tantry, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club. “We thought even if they go for a communications blockade, broadband and landlines will be open.”
Very often, reporters took down news from television channels still accessible through satellite connections. An editor at Rising Kashmir said they also took down wire copies available through a few “specific lines” of internet connectivity that were still working.
The edition of Greater Kashmir on August 9 had an entire page devoted to announcements of “invitation cancelled”. With no other means of communication, residents in the Valley had put out notices to let people know that the large scale wedding celebrations they had planned would no longer be held.
But as the security lockdown put severe restrictions on movement, the circulation of newspapers also shrank, with few reaching outside Srinagar. National papers such as The Tribune stopped sending newspapers to Srinagar after August 6 as they could not be distributed. Most other Valley-based publications stopped printing. Another reporter for a national daily said she sent stories to the paper’s headquarters but did not know if they got published.
Phone and internet connectivity have been restricted in Kashmir before, during mass protests in 2008, 2010 and 2016, for example. But no blockade was this complete. “This is the worst of times to send out reports as a journalist,” said Tantry. “In 2016, landlines were working, broadband was blocked only for a bit and lease lines were working.”
He made an appeal to the authorities for internet and phone access to be restored, saying more reporting would help the government combat rumours.
‘I am scared of arrest’
Over the past week, reporters in Srinagar have braved an unofficial curfew and communications blockade to file reports on pen-drives sent with friends and colleagues travelling out of the Valley. But Kashmiri reporters, those working for the local press as well as for the national media, speak of a more specific problem.
The state and security agencies have shown an institutional bias against Kashmiri journalists, they say. As restrictions on movement continued, the administration refused to issue curfew passes for reporters, forcing them to rely on passes handed out to the general public, which do not necessarily allow access to places where the news is.
“Your entry is at the mercy of the local police controlling the checkpoints,” said a Kashmiri journalist who works for a Delhi-based news outlet. “For us, it’s been arbitrarily enforced.”
He explained: “Yesterday, we tried to go to downtown Srinagar. There were three non-Kashmiri journalists with me.” The security forces at the checkpoint only refused to recognise his identity card. Another day, he said, he was stopped at a checkpoint by a security force personnel who told him, “you look like Burhan Wani”, a reference to the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose killing in 2016 had led to mass protests in Kashmir.
Said Tantry: “Local reporters were completely handicapped.”
In the run up to the government’s sweeping decisions, there had been a crackdown on the Valley’s press. First, government advertisements to Valley-based newspapers, including Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, were stopped. Then, editors were detained or summoned for questioning by the National Investigation Agency. That included Greater Kashmir’s editor, Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo.
Faced with hostility from state authorities, journalists fear further action, especially if they write reports critical of the government or mention facts that disrupt the narrative of a peaceful Valley. “I am scared of arrest,” said the reporter who writes for a national daily. “My family is telling me every day – don’t tell, don’t write. We are caught in between, because people also don’t trust us.”
Now, among other troubles, official sources of information have also dried up. “Stories are supposed to be balanced,” said the reporter. “Kashmir stories are one-sided.”
No one among the authorities would talk, said journalists, so there was no way to confirm information. Sometimes, there was no way to even get official responses to things they had actually seen – injured protestors in a hospital, for instance.
The media facilitation centre
As the government enforced a communications clampdown, for most journalists, official sources of information have shrunk to a daily press briefing held at the newly set up “media facilitation centre” run by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations.
This is in the Sarovar Portico Hotel on Gupkar Road, home to most of the Valley’s political leadership. The fortified building stands next to the now defunct United Nations building and currently houses a large section of the national media reporting on Kashmir. Here, from a dais every evening, the government spokesperson and other senior officials of the administration, address the press.
On the evening of August 12, for instance, while barricades were set up across the Valley and prayers were prohibited at most public grounds, officials at the press conference spoke of a “peaceful” and “relaxed” Eid.
SP Pani, inspector general of police, Kashmir, also warned journalists against believing a “malicious campaign” run on social media platforms by accounts outside the Valley. “We have taken up the matter with the service provider,” he said.
K Vijay Kumar, advisor to the governor, walked in soon after the press conference ended and was surrounded by Kashmiri journalists. When asked about a Kashmiri journalist allegedly thrashed by security forces in Srinagar, he said, “I am not aware of the situation or context or anything.”
Kumar confirmed that media passes were not available but claimed they had “no specific instructions regarding local journalists”. He pointed out that the national security advisor, Ajit Doval, had been in the Valley for a couple of days and had spoken to journalists. “There was no question of insider-outsider,” he said.