India is the world’s largest functioning democracy, a status that is appreciated and hailed. Yet freedom of expression and the right to dissent, which are endorsed in all other democracies, are not always present in Kashmir.
With more than 600,000 Indian Troops stationed in the Kashmir Valley, this region of northern India feels like an eclipsed prison. Seldom does anyone in Kashmir recognize himself as a part of a “democracy.”
“Democracy is a form of government in which all people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives directly or indirectly,” Samurah, a Kashmiri blogger, has written. “Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”
The right to dissent has very dangerous repercussions in a pace like Kashmir. Dissenters are often charged under the atrocious Public Safety Act. This legislation allows a person to be detained without trial for two years under the pretext of the maintenance of public order.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990 also allows the military to detain and harass civilians; it has been denounced by the United Nations as a “dated and colonial-era law that breaches contemporary international human rights standards.
“Kashmir’s situation has made people paranoid. With [hundreds of thousands of] troopers guarding them, they feel like they are living in an invisible prison with someone always watching and following them,” says Khurram, a man I met in Kashmir.
It is not only the common people who bear the brunt of the conflict, but the media persons as well. Reporters and editors too often fall victim to atrocities committed by Indian security personnel. Indeed, the media in Kashmir has faced countless difficulties since the insurgency started in the 1990s. The oppression of the media in this region is indicated by India’s position at 128 out of 178 countries in the annual press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Since the 1990s, dozens of journalists have lost their lives and several others injured. Their ability to report is curtailed in times of controversy and tension; during protests, for example, journalists are not allowed to work, or else they are beaten.
Media outlets were initially muzzled during civil unrest in 2010, when news of the Macchil Encounter spread like wildfire throughout the Kashmir Valley. This event outraged thousands of Kashmiris because several senior Indian military officials pretended innocent youths – who had been murdered by their troops – were actually foreign militants.
Despite the oppression of the media, news of the Macchil Encounter reached Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, and prompted intense protests. The demonstrations turned gruesome when a tear gas shell, fired by Indian security forces, hit a young man in the head. The young man, who was not part of the protests, died instantly as his brains spilled onto the street.
This occurrence fanned the anger of the populace to an unprecedented level. Virtually the whole population of the Kashmir Valley went onto the street, but then even more security forces were dispatched. In total, 127 youth were killed.
Throughout this tumultuous period, curfews were imposed on the population and journalists were banned from conducting interviews. It was probably the most difficult period for media outlets in the Kashmir Valley.
“People were locked in their homes and barely allowed to move around. People had no source of getting news,” says Junaid Ahamd, a media student in Kashmir. “Local news channels were banned to avoid ‘provocation.’ Newspapers were barred from publishing and if they published they were not allowed to circulate.”
People associated with news organizations were beaten. Local journalists and national reporters alike were harassed by the police and security forces. The curfew passes provided to members of the media were not respected by soldiers at any of the check points.
“During the mass uprising, the media was gagged by the state in order to stop the flow of information to the outside world,” says Izhar Ali, a journalist in Kashmir. “The curfew passes issued by the government to a handful of media persons were dishonoured by the Indian paramilitary forces and the police.”
“In such a scenario, the work of the journalists became more difficult.”
Reporting objectively is a difficult task for journalists in Kashmir. Often, journalists face harassment by the state and its armed forces when they report the truth. Many popular journalists are under constant surveillance by the state authorities.
“Phone tapping and e-mail filtering are some of the measures taken by the state to curtail the freedom of press in Kashmir,” says Ali. “On the one hand, the people expect the media to reveal the truth. And on the other hand, the government wants to conceal it.”
Ali believes the media outlets in Kashmir are caught in a catch-22. Even after dozens have lost their lives, the journalists continue to be at abused. Yet they still try to report objectively on current events in the region.
“The situation gets grimmer, especially when it comes to reporting human rights violations, which take place on a large scale in Kashmir,” Ali explains.
Authenticating facts and figures is another serious problem the journalists face while reporting conflict. Often members of the media are forced to rely on the estimates of biased government officials, or equally biased protesters.
“If the Army claims to have killed infiltrators at the Line of Control (LOC) dividing the two parts of Kashmir, it becomes impossible for media men to cross the border to check the facts,” explains a journalist in Kashmir, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity.
“We don’t get to have access to those areas,” he says. “In these cases, the media must report only one side of the coin … but this is against the ethics of journalism.”
When the protests became more violent in 2010, the restrictions became tighter and stricter. This further hindered the ability of the press to work properly.
During the past few months, photo journalists have been under scathing attacks by the Indian authorities in Kashmir. Security forces have beaten journalists while they were conducting their professional duties. On August 20, 2011, Showkat Shafi, who contributes to Al-Jazeera as a freelancer, and Mexican photojournalist Narciso Contreras were beaten and detained by the police. Furthermore, in a similar incident on November 25, 2011, four journalists were thrashed by police while covering protests in the capital city of Srinagar.
Eyewitness say that some of these journalists were truly “beaten to a pulp” by Indian security officials and police, when they were covering protests. Their professional cameras were also broken by the troopers as the reporters tried to save themselves from the sticks and batons. These attacks have prompted the Press Council of India to demand action against the culprits who decry the freedom of press. Predictably, action to be taken on this issue by the government is still being awaited.
The same is true in a more general sense throughout the region. It is clear that for the moment, despite India’s status as the largest democracy in the world, there is no room for a free press in Kashmir.
First Published on The Dispatches International