By an order dated 29th September, 2021, the Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) Justice C K Prasad, taking cognizance of a complaint by Mehbooba Mufti, President of the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, set up a fact-finding team (FFC) consisting of three members – Mr Prakash Dubey, Convenor, Mr Gurbir Singh and Suman Gupta, both members. The FFC, as per the terms of the order, was requested to investigate the complaint dated 27th September, 2021, if need be visit the Kashmir and Jammu regions, meet the various parties and individuals with a stake in the matter, and file a report at the earliest.
The complaint by Mehbooba Mufti cited various problems faced in Jammu and Kashmir by members of the news media. These included cases of intimidation and harassment by state security forces and representatives of the government. Ms Mehbooba stated in her complaint that in recent days, various journalists had been ‘raided’ by security forces, and several of them had their communication gadgets like laptop computers seized. She further stated that journalists had been randomly told to report to the police and subjected to interrogation and harassment. Other forms of intimidation, Ms Mehbooba alleged, included being ousted from government accommodation, and being placed on an Exit Control List (ECL) preventing them from foreign travel. Many news persons had been also detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), she had stated in her letter.
The letter has also an attachment – a questionnaire sent by the Police department to various journalists asking them to provide certain details including their allegiance to political parties, the property assets they own, and to list the names of relatives in Pakistan.
In brief, Ms Mehbooba Mufti’s case presented to the PCI chairman, Justice Prasad stated that while the Constitution of India guaranteed freedom of speech and expression, for the Press and news networks in J&K “the freedom of expression had been virtually guillotined…” She also lauded the journalists stating they were stretched to the brink reporting in a conflict zone, and requested for intervention so that “truth does not become a casualty”.
Following the setting up of the FFC, the three-member committee visited Srinagar on 12th and 13th October, Jammu on 17th and 18th November and Srinagar again on 18th, 19th and 20th November. During the visits, we met and recorded the statements of a wide cross-section of people – journalists, owners of media companies, social workers/NGOs, and senior government and police officials. We also met the complainant, Ms Mehbooba Mufti, the Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar, the Divisional Commissioner for Kashmir, Pandurang Pole, and Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha.
While Jammu was generally peaceful, the atmosphere of hostility and conflict was palpable in both our visits to Srinagar. A few days before our first visit to Srinagar, on 7 October Satinder Kaur, principal of a school, and Deepak Chand, a teacher in the same school, were shot dead by alleged militants in Srinagar’s Aolochi Bagh area. Media reports said a militant group The Resistance Front (TRF) had claimed responsibility, and blamed them for getting students to “participate in 15 August celebrations”. Two days earlier, the TRF had also claimed responsibility for the killing of Srinagar’s well-known pharmacist, Makhan Lal Bindroo, a popular Kashmiri Pandit who had continued business in Srinagar.
During our second visit, on 18th, 19th and 20th November, Srinagar was under the cloud of the Hyderpora encounter, where members of civil society claimed that in the hunt for militants, two ordinary citizens had been shot by the police. Altaf Ahmad Bhat, a businessman who owned the building where the shooting occurred, and Dr Mudassir Gul, a dentist, were picked up to identify the militants, but in the alleged gun battle, the police spokespersons claimed the duo were killed in the crossfire. The operation by the J&K Police, Army and CRP, was botched up possibly by wrong intelligence, but the issue was further exacerbated by the police secretly spiriting off the bodies of the slain civilians to Handwara, 70 kms away, for a secret burial. The families and supporters of the victims took to the streets, and the police retracted their statement that the duo were militants. The local administration subsequently allowed exhumation of the bodies, and returned them to their relatives for burial in Srinagar. When we reached on 18th November, a bandh call had been given by the Huriyat Conference for the 19th of November. There was tension, but the bandh was widely and peacefully observed.
These incidents highlight the deeply fractured situation in the territory of Kashmir. Conflict and tension between the government forces and the militants is a fact of daily life, and the people have been forced to live under the shadow of the gun, with all the disruptions that go with it. The issues that plague the Kashmir valley and broadly the entire region of J&K, is not the subject matter of the report. However, it needs to be underlined that the members of the media are functioning in this ‘conflict’ atmosphere for quite a while, and are therefore often subject to pressures from the various parties of the conflict.
To again clarify, the FFC report by the Press Council (PCI) team has confined itself to the terms of reference outlined by the Chairman of the PCI, which relate to the problems and issues being encountered by the news media in the Jammu & Kashmir region.
When we consider the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir have a population of just 13.6 million – less than metropolitan region of Mumbai – the number of daily and weekly publications in circulation is impressive. Government registrations show Jammu with 259 print publications (both dailies and weeklies) including 82 English dailies, 29 in Urdu and 22 Hindi dailies. Kashmir region has registrations of 166 publications, including 41 English and 57 Urdu dailies. These numbers indicate only those publications that have registered for being eligible for government advertising. Therefore the actual number in circulation, including those who have just launched in the last 2-3 years or who haven’t registered, may be 20-30% more than the official figure.
Besides print publications, there are the broadcast news television regional networks targeting Kashmir and Jammu communities. These include both divisions of national networks like News18 J&K, Zee Salaam and DD Kashir and DD Urdu as well as local networks that include Gulistan News, Win TV, STV and Munsif TV. All India Radio too has bulletins in 5 local languages targeting local communities in Gurjarri, Balti, Urdu, Kashmiri and Pahadi.
Besides these, internet based news channels are popular and quick with the news, often ahead of the broadcast networks. We came across several like ‘Kashmir Crown’, ‘The Real Kashmir News’, ‘Kashmir Newsline’ and ‘The Kashmir Walla’, as well as news agencies like the Kashmir News Service (KNS) and CNS that transmit news reports and photographs to a variety of platforms.
PRINCIPAL AREAS OF CONCERN
Ouster from Accommodation:
One of the common complaints we encountered in Srinagar was the ouster of journalists from the residential accommodation they were occupying. Several persons also complained that offices allotted to them by the Government’s Estates Department had also been claimed back. Often the reasons given were not in writing but were mere oral instructions. In some cases, the department claimed the persons or organizations had defaulted on payment of rentals.
We found that unlike other centers, in Jammu and Kashmir, because of shortage of accommodation or perhaps the low income level of journalists and sparse resources of news organizations, most of them were occupying government-allotted residences. A large number of the Press Corps for instance stay in the Srinagar Press Enclave, which is owned and administered by the local government. This widespread cases of ouster from government allotments showed that the action perhaps had been turned into a lever, especially in the last 12 to 18 months after the abrogation of Article 370, to bring pressure on those who the local administration felt did not see eye to eye with the government of the union territory. Some of the depositions reproduced below seem to support this hypothesis.
Mohd Aslam Bhat, President of the Editors Forum, said: “Kashmir is a conflict state and our situation is different, it is difficult to judge government action. However, it is an indicator that of the 40 persons who have got notice to vacate government accommodation in recent days, 20 of them are journalists.”
Earlier deposing as the Executive Editor of the Kashmir News Service, he revealed: “We have been facing an onslaught by the state, and we do not know the reason. On 15 October, 2020 the KNS office was sealed. We have been honoured with many state awards, and we have an active staff of 25 journalists. The office was allotted to us 20 years ago, but suddenly, without notice, it was sealed by the Estate Division of the J&K government. We have been paying regular rent of Rs 7,000 a month without default. When we asked for the reason, the local officers said they had orders from above, from the secretariat. It was around the same time when the ‘Kashmir Times’ office was also sealed. The phone call we got to vacate the office was from Deputy Director – Estates; but till today, there are no written orders.
“Now more than a year has passed but the govt department is not allowing us to take our material and equipment from the sealed office. Our generator, computers and other equipment is rotting there without maintenance.
“As we have mentioned, there was no notice, and no reason why we were thrown out from our office. Our doubt though is that we are running news about opposition groups and parties too. KNS news is carried by most papers and we have wide subscription. Raj Bhavan, the seat of the Governor, was a subscriber too, till suddenly one day the subscription was cancelled.”
Yusuf Jameel, a senior journalist, now working for the Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age, told the FFC as follows: “Those who did ‘balanced’ reporting were targeted. I was given the run around. Altaf Hussain of BBC and AFP’s Naseer Masoodi were told to vacate their government accommodation. Kashmir Times too was evicted from their office and residential accommodation. The officer coordinating the ‘eviction’ activity was one Gulam Hussain of the Estates department.
“In my case, I initially got a few phone calls asking me to vacate. There was no written notice given, no reasons given. I was just bluntly told, it is government property, vacate! I have occupied my residential accommodation since 1988, and nobody gave me such an ultimatum earlier. Finally, I decided not to resist any further and vacated the accommodation in March 2021. I had no other home, so I moved in with my father (in the Naseembagh area of Srinagar).”
Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, and Pramod Jamwal, Editor of Kashmir Times, who both appeared together before the FFC at the Jammu Press Club, stated as follows: “The residential quarter allotted in the name of Anuradha Bhasin in 2001 in Jammu was vacated and all the belongings thrown out in October 2020. No show cause notice or eviction order was sent to Anuradha Bhasin. Cases filed in the court are yet to be heard. Listing of the case in J&K High Court, Jammu is yet to take place. In the first instance, judges refuse to hear the cases on the plea that they know the party-petitioner Anuradha Bhasin.
“The office of Kashmir Times allotted in 1991 in Pratap Park, Residency Road, Srinagar was sealed on October 19, 2020. The same day, the order of eviction and sealing is stayed by the court of Deputy Commissioner, Srinagar, but police force and Estates Department officials sealed and disconnected the power supply. The case is yet to be listed and heard in the court or the J&K High Court, Srinagar. No show case notice or eviction order was given to the Editor, Kashmir Times, Srinagar.
“In 2009, a similar order of eviction and demolition issued by the J&K government was quashed by the court in Srinagar and Estates Department was directed to settle the dues with allottee who has invested money in setting up the office with new construction. The reimbursement of money from the Estates Department is still pending.
“We are not the only victims of the state’s accommodation policy. Altaf of BBC and Nasem Masood of NDTV have also been summarily been evicted without notice from their government accommodation.”
Even as we were recording depositions of various news persons in Srinagar in November 2021, the largest circulated English daily in the region, ‘Greater Kashmir’ was forced to vacate its offices in Srinagar. Arshid Rasool, who writes for Daily Guardian and J&K New Age, said the newspaper vacated the office on 18 November, which had been occupied by the newspaper for over 20 years. Despite appeals they did not get extension.
‘Greater Kashmir’ editor-in-chief Fayaz Kaloo had received a formal notice on 17th November, 2021 signed by the deputy director of estates, saying that the period for which the office was allotted to the newspaper had expired, and that the newspaper was occupying the premise ‘illegally’. The newspaper was told in the notice that it had to pay outstanding rent amounting to Rs 13,383. Though time was given till 24th November to vacate the office, the newspaper’s management shifted out on 18th November to a private premise in Rangreth area, Srinagar.
It must be mentioned this mass-circulated daily has been in the cross hairs of the government administration, and has been blacklisted in respect of release of government ads. Its offices were raided in October 2020 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in cases related to ‘terror funding’.
The FFC Convenor, Mr Prakash Dubey, wrote to the Chief Secretary, Government of J&K, on 21st January, 2022 requesting the J&K government to furnish reasons for the ouster of several journalists from their homes and offices. When no reply was received, Mr Dubey sent a reminder dated 8th February, 2022 through Secretary, Press Council of India (PCI). However, no reply has been received so far. In case, the J&K government sends its version of events, it will be incorporated in the report.
Discrimination in respect of government advertising
A common theme among newspaper editors and owners we met was the complaint that government advertising was released to newspapers selectively based on the ‘line’ and nature of its coverage. Some newspapers, who had earned the wrath of the local administration, found advertising either totally withdrawn of curtailed to a trickle.
While the newspaper industry in India is heavily dependent on advertising, in Jammu and Kashmir, after decades of conflict, private industry and commerce are at a low ebb and so is private sector advertising. In these circumstances, the biggest advertiser by far is the J&K Government and its various arms and subsidiaries. The government of the union territory is aware of the high dependence of the news media on government advertising and has therefore put in place a Media Policy for the region, released on 15-05-2020. This has replaced the earlier 2016 policy. The new media policy has decreed the government’s Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) as the nodal agency for the release of all advertising of government departments, and government owned companies and their subsidiaries.
New Media Policy: Among the major changes, the new media policy has taken note of the growth of digital media platforms and earmarked 40% of the funds for platforms other than print. An important aspect of the Policy is that it requires a newspaper of any other news platform to be ‘empaneled’ with the DIPR for being eligible to receive government advertising. For this the newspaper or news platform needs to be in continuous existence for a minimum period of 3 years. The process of empanelment, it appears, is a grueling one; and while it is a necessary condition, it may not be sufficient for a news media outlet to receive government advertising.
The Policy calls on the DIPR to prepare media plans on the basis of maximum reach and economy and newspapers cannot refuse to take advertising, on pain of being ‘de-empaneled’.
The Policy annexures make it clear that (i) “Government advertisement is not intended to provide financial support to any media… Promoting a transparent, constructive and healthy culture of unbiased information to all shall remain the overriding objective of the policy.” And (ii) While releasing such advertisements, DIPR shall not take into account the political affiliation or editorial policies of the newspaper, publications and journals…”
In the same breath, the policy gives itself a wide berth with a broad spectrum of negative categories. These unfortunately allow wide scope for subjective interpretation. The policy states that (a) “DIPR shall not release advertisements to such newspapers…which incite or tend to incite communal passions, preach violence, violate broad norms of public decency or carry out any acts of propagate any information prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
More specifically, it says: “J&K has significant law and order and security consideration, It has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border.” In order that “efforts of anti-national elements to disturb the peace are thwarted”, the policy recommends that before empanelment, the “antecedents of the paper/news portals as well that of its publishers / editors / key personnel are duly gone into.”
A statement prepared for the FFC by the Information Department conceded that as many as 26 publications of 259 in the Jammu region, and 17 of 166 publications in Kashmir region had their advertising suspended in recent weeks and months on various grounds. In some cases like mass circulated ‘Greater Kashmir’, ‘Kashmir Reader’ and the Urdu ‘Kashmir Uzma’ – which are known for their anti-establishment stand – no reason was ascribed. As many as 9 publications in the Kashmir regions were taken off ad support for the reason of “poor printing quality”.
Depositions: Many of the editors and owners of news outlets who met the FFC, complained that the power to sanction and withdraw advertising was being misused by government authorities as a carrot-and-stick strategy to discourage critical news coverage.
Deposing before the FFC in Jammu, Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times and its sister publications said stoppage of advertising for the group had pushed many of its editions towards closure. She also said the discrimination in releasing advertising was not new but went as far back as over a decade since the Congress-led UPA had formed the government in the Centre. Complaints and appeals to the Press Council and the courts had not helped the situation.
“The release of advertisements from DAVP was stopped in April 2011 to all newspapers of Kashmir Times Publications: Kashmir Times (Jammu Edition), Kashmir Times (Srinagar Edition), Dainik Kashmir (Hindi, Jammu Edition) and Jammu Prabhat (Dogri, Jammu Edition). No show cause notice was given. The fate of the petition filed before the Press Council of India in 2011 is not known despite a dozen meetings with the then Chairman Justice Markanday Katju and other members. The DAVP and the Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry says that this has been done on the advisory of Ministry of Home Affairs. The representations made to the Home Minister, I&B Minister and even the Prime Minister did not bear any fruit and no reply has been received so far.
“In 2013, the then Home Minister P Chidambaram issued another advisory asking all the Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) of Government of India and private organization to stop sending advertisements to Kashmir Times groups (A copy was sent to Press Council of India and seen by many members in presence of a delegation of J&K Press Association). Interventions by the PCI or other press organizations have not helped in any way.
“The release of advertisements from J&K government was stopped on August 5, 2019 to Kashmir Times Publications and never restored since then. The representations sent to the Director Information and Public Relations and Secretary-Commissioner Information remain unacknowledged till date. Two newspapers ‘Dainik Kashmir Times’ and ‘Jammu Prabhat’ have suspended publication. Interventions from the PCI and Editors Guild of India and other press organizations have not helped so far.
Manish Gupta, editor of ‘earlyTimes’ published from Jammu, journeyed all the way from Jammu to Srinagar to record his deposition before the Press Council Committee sitting in Srinagar. He said his newspaper had been stopped on 10th May 2021 for 3 days for having put out news that the J&K Shrine Board based in Jammu had become non-functional, and its website was also not functioning.
He said that the principal secretary Niteshwar Kumar, who is also the Shrine Board CEO, was behind the drive to ‘throttle’ ‘early Times’. He said the newspaper had faced discrimination in advertising for last one year. He said the newspapers were facing discrimination and administration was putting pressure not to discuss issues like ‘early elections’. Only issue that is allowed is ‘development’. Mr Manish also put on record before the FFC the various representations before the authorities on the discrimination in release of advertising.
A DIPR statement to the FFC, conceded that advertising had been withdrawn from ‘early Times’ and said it was on the basis of a recommendation of an Enquiry Officer, Deputy Director Information (PR), Jammu vide a letter dt 26-08-2021 following complaints registered of “harassment, abuse and torture” against the publication.
Farzana Mumtaz of ‘New Kashmir’ said “there are no big corporates, or businesses in the valley so the government is the main advertiser, and we have submitted cases showing how government is using advertising to arm-twist the press.”
Tahib Mohiddin, Editor in chief of the Urdu daily ‘Chattan’, told the FFC as follows: “There is hardly any interaction with the Press by the Government Information department. On advertising, however, we were asked many questions on our editorial policy, on circulation, etc.
“There is no defined policy on how government advertising will be allocated. ‘Chattan’ is a 40 year old liberal paper, yet we get only the minimal advertising. ‘Greater Kashmir’ has been shut out for all government advertising because the government does not like its editorial policy. As a result, many reporters and photographers had to be fired. Earlier monitoring was being done by the Information department of the government, now it is the police that is directly doing it.
“I have been trying to meet Mr Rahul Pandey, Director – Information, for the last few months, but he is not accessible.”
S. Tariq, Correspondent for the ‘Kashmir Images’ and secretary of the Anantnag Working Journalists Association, said : “Ads to ‘Kashmir Images’ have been stopped for last 4-5 days; it is perhaps because of our coverage of the Hyderpora encounter, but we don’t know for certain. Our editor Bashir Manzar has received threats on many occasions. I am a cartoonist, yet even I keep getting messages from our office to soften my stand. We try and be as balanced as possible, but things are not good.”
Mohd Aslam Bhat, president of the Editor’s Forum, told the FFC delegation: “It is a matter of concern that someone as senior as Bashir Manzar, Editor of ‘Kashmir Images’, is now seriously considering shutting down the newspaper as all advertising has been withdrawn. Who can survive without ads?”
There are many the FFC team met who felt that the print news media was slowly but surely being choked and was dying. Besides falling readership, they observed that sourcing advertising from mainly a single source – the government – was not a viable commercial model, and news platforms would very quickly have to move online to save themselves from extinction. Zafar Iqbal, formerly with NDTV and now a correspondent of ‘MyMojo Story’ told us: “What we have learnt is that the model of physical advertising, and dependency on printed newspapers, is flawed. It is not sustainable. The digital model works better, it is more flexible.”
Detention, threat of arrest and intimidation
The common thread in many of the depositions and evidence was the constant harassment they faced in the line of duty from security forces. These ranged from accusations of aiding the ‘separatists’ to lengthy interrogation in police camps, to detention and arrests for circulating ‘fake news’. Many journalists said that either themselves or other journalists they knew, had been interrogated in the infamous ‘Cargo Centre’ in Srinagar, which is generally known as a detention and interrogation centre for hardcore militants.
The admitted position, in a statement issued to the FFC by Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) Vijay Kumar, is that since 2016 till mid-October 2021, 49 cases have been registered against journalists. Among these, 8 journalists have been charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 17 have been registered as criminal intimidation, and 24 journalists have been booked for extortion and other crimes.
We have listed some of the signification depositions which raise serious concern:
Zulfikar Majid, Correspondent for Deccan Herald: “In June 2020, I had just completed a painful gall bladder surgery, I was summoned by the state C.I.D. for some innocuous tweets. They told me the police was preparing a background note on all journalists. But the tactics were humiliating. I was summoned dozens of times, sometimes late at night. This created a social problem for me and my family in the locality I lived, perhaps it was done deliberately to put me in a problem.
“In September, this year, 4 journalists were arrested. Out of fear of being hounded by both sides, I have stopped tweeting. The security people accuse journalists are OGW (overground workers) for the militants. Maybe they want me to toe their line. I am not the most harassed, there are others worse off.
“Some of the journos may have become activists, but don’t punish us all. In 2016, I had gone to visit my Uncle in Pakistan. Can I not have relatives in Pakistan? But I am repeatedly questioned: Had you gone to Pakistan?”
Majeed Haidari, freelance journalist: “We in Kashmir are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The militants threaten us and the police too. I have been writing against corruption, and news in general. So far, I have two FIRs registered against me. I have been called and interrogated several times at the Cargo detention centre, which is only meant for terrorists. My social media post of the excessive use of police force on Moharrum was an issue. Questioning the tainted officer S.P. Hazrat Imam was another issue.
They track our twitter posts and harass us on the communication. I have complained to the Lt. Governor, but there is little response.”
Shakir Mir, The Wire: “The Police department is in overdrive to issue summons, lookout notices for journalists, many are arrested, there is an atmosphere of fear. Zahid Rafiq, who used to work for Tehelka, Al Jazeera, etc, was on his way to Cornell University when he was stopped at the New Delhi Airport. Five journalists were detained for supporting ‘Kashmiriyat’, including BBC photographer Muqtar Zahoor. He was accused of supporting rappers resistance music.”
Habib Irfan, The Economic Times
Azam Javed, Independent Journalist, formerly with The Print
There is a long list of journalists who have been individually harassed. The object is to create a fear and intimidation to fall in with the government line.
- Peerzada Ashiq of ‘The Hindu’ and many others were summoned and asked for the ‘sources’ of their stories.
- Basharaat Masood of the ‘Indian Express’ was summoned and threatened
- F.I.R.s have been filed against Masrat Zahra, an independent photojournalist, and Gowhar Geelani.
Riaz Masroor and Aamir Peerzada, both working for the B.B.C., stated the following: “Mukhtar Zahoor, age 26, was picked up from his house and brought to the Munshi Bagh Police Station. He was questioned and detained for a long period, finally released. But he is now mentally disturbed and facing trauma.
“Harassment of journalists goes back to previous regimes too. Riaz Mansoor, another journalist, was beaten by the police in 2010 when Omar Abdullah was the CM. He is still in a state of fear psychosis. No one says: don’t report, but the signal is to fall in line. Recent cases include Tantrey Naseer Ganani, was called to fill a questionnaire by the police on all personal details. Muqtar had been under surveillance.
“It appears the police have resorted to pressing criminal charges, including the use of the UAPA, against several journalists for their social media posts claiming they were designed to ‘incite the public’. In or around 20th April, 2020, Gowhar Geelani, an author and independent journalist, and later Fahad Shah were charged and arrested under the UAPA Act for, according to a statement of IGP Vijay Kumar, “having posted/tweeted many posts which were glorifying terrorism in the Valley, and causing disaffection against the Union of India.”
Around the same period, the J&K Police filed an FIR under the UAPA against independent photo journalist Masarat Zahara, claiming that Zahra was uploading “anti-national posts” on Facebook with the “criminal intention to induce the youth”. Zahra said she had only uploaded her published photographs. She was not arrested or detained, but the FIR and the police inquiry against her continues. The J&K Police also filed a general FIR, though not under the UAPA, against Peerzada Ashiq of ‘The Hindu’ in respect of the an encounter in Shopian, South Kashmir.
Javed Baig, worked as Omar Abdullah’s press secretary, and was also the founder of the Kashmir Welfare Association, an NGO working in Badgam district. He told the FFC that though he campaigned for the ‘unity’ of India, and against secession, he was arrested for 9 months soon after the abrogation of Art 370 under the Public Safety Act. He was sent to Varanasi jail along with 60 others. He is today given state protection, and a police security officer (PSO) is assigned to him.
Kazi Shibli is another journalist who was arrested along with Javed Baig. He spent one year in Varanasi jail, and was released without pressing any charges or trial.
On 10th January 2022, we received a complaint / statement from the General Secretary of the J&K Journalists Association (JAKJA) in respect of a trainee journalist working for the ‘The Kashmir Walla’, Sajad Gul. The journalist was arrested by the J&K Police on 5th January 2022 for a variety of charges including criminal conspiracy and circulation of fake news.
The complaint said:
“On 9 February 2021, Gul was charged with “rioting, trespassing, and assault” for an article he wrote for The Kashmir Walla in which villagers in Bandipora alleged they were being “harassed and threatened” by Tehsildar Hajin during a demolition drive. Gul was later booked under various sections of the IPC on the complaint by the Tehsildar at the Hajin police station.
“In October, Gul was again summoned by the police for questioning after he shared his work and a related video on Twitter. According to his report, the family members of 25-year-old Imtiyaz Ahmad Kakroo, who was killed in a gunfight, alleged that their kin was killed in a “fake encounter”. A week before his arrest, Gul had reported a follow up story for The Kashmir Walla about the alleged gunfight, quoting Kakroo’s family members…
Our inquiries revealed that 3 FIRs were registered against Sajad Gul. Two were based on complaints by police officers, and one was based on a complaint by a local tehsildar. However, a judicial magistrate at Sumbal in Bandipora granted him bail on 15 January, but Gul was booked under the Public Safety Act the next day, a provision which makes getting bail virtually impossible.
The justification of invoking the Public Safety Act (PSA) provided by the Bandipora Deputy Commissioner Owais Ahmad, as quoted by the Indian Express on 23rd January, 2022, says:
“You have always made/ tweeted controversial statements on social media and being a journalist, you are less reporting about welfare of UT (Union Territory) rather promoting enmity. You remain in search of anti-national/ anti-social tweets and have remained a negative critique towards UT Policies. You make tweets without factual check in order to provoke the people against the Government. You act as self-proclaimed messiah of terrorists and their families and often use to raise Issues which harm the national interests.”
Justifying his continued detention, the Deputy Commissioner’s statement says: “There is every apprehension that you may get bailed out from Hon’ble Court of law thus will prove fatal for peaceful atmosphere, tranquility, law and order of the Nation… your release at this stage will be a threat not only for Bandipora area but for the whole valley.”
The Convenor of the FFC, Mr Prakash Dubey, wrote to the Chief Secretary, Government of J&K, on 10-02-2022 seeking a government response on the arrest of Sajad Gul under the Public Safety Act, but no reply has been received yet.
In a statement to the FFC, Divisional Commissioner Pandurang Pole and IGP Vijay Kumar, justified the various penal steps against journalists stating that “On certain occasions it has been observed that “media persons / journalists abuse their position and try to resort of activities that has tendency to incite people which ultimately leads to serious law and order situation…”
Giving examples, the statement said a journalist Asif Sultan was arrested on 31st August, 2018 for harbouring terrorists in Batmaloo. In another case, journalist Aadil Farooq Bhat of the CNS News Agency, hailing from Pampore, Pulwama was apprehended in Makkah Market on 10th August, 2021 with 2 grenades in a search operation near Lalchowk, Srinagar.
When asked why was Majeed Haidari repeatedly subjected to interrogation, Vijay Kumar said he had tweeted that it was a ‘fake encounter’.
Many journalists and some independent columnists also appeared to support the police action stating that many journalists had become activists for the militants and were indulging in criminal and ‘anti-national’ activities under the guise of their profession. Tariq of ANN News pointed to the case of Adil Farooq of CNS News, who was caught ferrying hand grenades in his lunch box. Javed Baig, claiming to be a columnist and researcher, and earlier a press assistant to former CM Omar Abdullah, said “newspaper owners and editors are spreading negativity, and questioning the idea of India.”
“There is ‘Arabisation’ of the culture of Kashmir. It is part of the ISI and ISPR programme. Through negative PR, they are undermining the institutions in Kashmir,” Baig said.
In the opinion of the FFC, there is no justification for journalists to support or aid the anti-government programme of the militants, and if they ferry arms, provide support and harbour militants, or take part in any other unlawful activity, then they cease to be journalists and become militants, or public persons supporting militants, and cannot claim any of the privileges that go with newspersons relaying and communicating news.
However, it is totally another matter, if journalists are penalized or charged with offences for news content circulated that is found to be not in consonance with what the security forces or the government administration believe. News and views may not be always palatable to those who are in power. But it does not mean that they penalize the messenger for it.
Internet darkness, denial of accredition and other normal privileges of news gathering
The common refrain of all those who appeared before the FFC, was the deliberate hobbling of communication networks after the abrogation of Article 370. This was done by suspending the internet networks in the valley for nearly 2 months from 5th August, 2019. While there could be some justification for cutting communication for the civilian population to avoid build-up of unrest, restricting internet services for journalists seems to be an extreme measure which muzzled the normal functioning of the news media.
To provide some communication access to the media to function, the local administration created a ‘Media Facilitation Centre’ with 4 work stations and slow, 2G internet connection. For the more than 300 local journalists and nearly a 100 journalists who had come to Srinagar to cover the impact of the withdrawal of statehood for the J&K region, sharing 4 work stations was seen as something of a punishment and a professional insult. To the FFC, it appears to be a measure to deliberately put a lid on the circulation of news.
Later, the number of work stations were increased over weeks and months to 20. To side-step the restricted communication network, journalists had to pool their stories on a single pen drive and then take turns to fly to New Delhi, from where the stories would be relayed to their respective offices.
Here’s how Zulfikar Majid, of Deccan Herald, described the situation:
“Communication is everything for journalists, yet in Kashmir we are seeing the major problem of Internet darkness. After the abrogation of Art 370, there was complete internet darkness from 5th August to 12 August, 2019. We could only work out of the government-run Media Facilitation Centre. There were 400 journalists scrambling for 4-5 work stations at 2G speed. The situation continued for 2 months. It has only eased after March 2020. Mobile Internet was again cut for 2 days when Syed Ali Shah Geelani (Separatist leader who stood for Kashmir merging with Pakistan) died on 1st September, 2021.”
Zafar Iqbal, a senior journalist earlier with NDTV, and currently working with MyMojo Story, said:
“The shutting of the Internet in August 2019 created a huge problem. If proper communication and news flow is not allowed it only gives rise to rumours. When Geelani died, there was again an internet shutdown. All communication is through the Internet, and therefore communication itself is throttled. Live encounter coverage is also shut by security forces. Shutting mobile towers makes real time coverage difficult. While these issues can be addressed in Srinagar, accessing remote areas becomes difficult.”
Denial of Accredition: Almost all those who deposed before us said that the practice of issuing accredition cards to journalists has been stopped with effect from 31 March, 2020, and no fresh IDs or any other form of press recognition has been issued. Press accredition in the J&K region is an important passport for safe passage and preventing harassment and detention when traveling in conflict zones. Without this government-issued ID, moving around and gaining access to restricted areas and to government offices has become difficult for newspersons.
Pradeep Datta and Amit Sharma, who appeared jointly and who work for ‘Times Now’ news channel, deposing at the Jammu Press Club, told the FFC: “There is no accredition given to journalists since March 2020. This has dried up our access to the Secretariat. If we phone for an appointment, we get access based on the officer’s pleasure. I.A.S. now stands for In-Accessible Service.”
Several members of the Managing Committee of the Jammu Press Club, who appeared collectively before the FFC in Jammu, said that not issuing accredition cards was a deliberate form of harassment as it reduces access. There is also no liaison of government departments with journos. All these steps are designed to reduce the importance of journalism and news media in general.
Sohail Sahran of Times Now told the FFC: “I recall in November 2018, when covering a incident of grenade attack on a BSF party at Puntha Chowk, I was stopped from accessing the site and abused by the Special Operations Group. For many days thereafter I suffered mental trauma.”
Yusuf Jameel, a senior journalist working for the Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age, said this was part of the larger problem of a general suspicion of local journalists working for both the mainline and Kashmir-based news media. A common charge was they were spreading ‘fake news’.
“Simultaneously, the administration developed their own ‘tribe’ of journalists. Accredition of journalists was stopped after 2020; and a policy of selective invitations for Press Conference by government / security spokespersons was followed,” Jameel said.
Iqbal Wani, Srinagar News, complained that reporters were routinely manhandled by security forces during anti militancy operations.
Riaz Masroor and Aamir Peerzada, both of who work for BBC, appeared before the FFC and stated: “There are no curfew passes issued even to mainline media. Our private I.D. cards are not respected when we move about for coverage. Daily reporting has become a problem, we have to find new routes, we are always tense how to get to the spot for covering an incident.”
Most field reporters said the restrictions to report live encounter and conflict incidents with militants had become increasingly severe. A wide cordon around the encounter area would be drawn and media crews kept at bay. The local mobile towers, that allowed internet access, would also be cut off. This made even the use of cell phones for reporting impossible. IG of Police Vijay Kumar said most of the restrictions were for the safety of the journalists, and to prevent the militants from using cell phones to communicate. “Journalists are not required to be close to the site of an encounter. We brief them once the operation is over,” Vijay Kumar told the FFC.
Monitoring and profiling of journalists
One of the specific complaints mentioned by J&K politician Mehbooba Mufti, in her letter addressed to the Press Council, is that journalists are summoned and made to fill a questionnaire which is suggestive that the person might have links with ‘anti-national’ forces. Ms. Mehbooba has also attached a copy of the purported questionnaire which seeks answers to a wide variety of subjects, most of which have nothing to do with the profession of journalism. There are in all 25 questions, which include queries on: 1. Political allegiance of the respondent; 2. Details of property owned; and 3. Relations in Pakistan.
We asked several journalists who deposed before the FFC about being made to answer a questionnaire by the police. Most of them had either been summoned to answer the questions, or were familiar with colleagues who had been interviewed by the police. Zulfikar Majid of Deccan Herald said he had been summoned many times, and on occasion to the Cargo Centre, to provide details contained in the questionnaire. Times Now staffers in Jammu, Pradeep Datta and Amit Sharma, said they had not seen the questionnaire, but had heard about it; they also said they had received calls from the police asking for details about their family.
The IG of Police, Vijay Kumar, had no hesitation in conceding that there exists a programme to profile journalists working in the J&K region. : “Our aim is to profile 80% of Kashmiris, and we will do it for journalists too,” he said.
Other forms of pressure listed by those interviewed mentioned the existence of an Exit Control List (ECL) which blacklists specific journalists from traveling abroad. Many also said that renewal of passports has become a nightmare, and even accessing an internet connection comes with the signing of a ‘bond’ that assures that there will be no ‘misuse’ of the connection.
Riaz Masroor, who works for the BBC, said “the Exit Control List (ECL) is a way we are being discriminated. People now prefer not to travel. Our passports are not being renewed. …Many of our personal, communication equipment like mobiles phones and laptops are confiscated and not released.”
Hakeem Irfan, Correspondent for The Economic Times, confirmed that since November 2020, an Exit Control List has been created. Of the 43 on the list, more than half are journalists. Among those who had suffered was one Zahid Rafiq, who was on his way to Cornell University, New York, for a writers training course. He was stopped at the Delhi airport.
Irfan stated “A bond is sought before an Internet connection is issued. Life of freelance journalists has become hell. Editors are being pressurized not to use the word ‘militants’ and replace it with ‘terrorists’.”
Later, after the FFC returned from the Srinagar tour, the committee interviewed the US-based Zahid Rafiq on the telephone. He told us the following: “I had given up journalism a few years ago to pursue a career in creative writing in the US. I was on my way from Delhi to begin a teaching fellowship at Cornell university (in New York state), but was prevented from boarding the flight. I was detained and taken to Srinagar. After questioning I was released as there was nothing against me.”
Takeover of the Kashmir Press Club
The Fact Finding Committee, in or around mid-January received several complaints from the now suspended Managing Committee of the Kashmir Press Club.
In brief, the nature of the complaints are:
The Kashmir Press Club (KPC), a body of about 300 journalists registered under the Societies Act, 1860, was functioning from a government allotted premise in the Polo View Area of Srinagar for some years. Besides being a place for relaxation and networking for local journalists, the Kashmir Press Club is also a representative body of journalists in the Valley.
The KPC had applied for re-registration in May, last year. This was required by a April 2021 administrative notification after the abrogation of Article 370, and the region being declared a union territory. After a long ‘verification’ process by the District Commissioner, on 29th December, last year, a Registration Certificate under the Societies Act was issued to the Kashmir Press Club. However, soon as the Club Managing Committee announced elections on 13th January, the administration issued an Order on the 14th of January, 2022 stating that re-registration of the Kashmir Press Club “is hereby kept in abeyance till the receipt of final report from Additional District Magistrate, Srinagar.”
The complaint by the members of the Kashmir Press Club is: the Order dt. 14-01-2022 gives no reason for de-registering the Kashmir Club. The complaint also states the suspension of the Kashmir Press Club was also aimed at scuttling the elections to the Kashmir Press Club, which had been announced on the previous day, ie. 13-01-2022.
The next day after the de-registration order, on Saturday, 15th January, a group of persons / journalists entered into the Press Club premises in the Polo View area, Srinagar and declared themselves to be an ‘interim’ body. The group who trespassed into the club premises were provided protection by the J&K Police. Thereafter, the local administration issued a statement that considering the ‘de-registration’ of the KPC and the faction-fight, the club premises had been taken over by the J&K Estates Department, the original owner of the property.
The statement says: “Now, therefore, it has been decided that the control of land and building allotted to the Kashmir Press Club for the welfare and benefit of journalists be retained by the Estate Department for the moment.”
After studying the sequence of events and the orders passed by the authorities, we have to note some disturbing trends:
- The Kashmir Press Club was granted a Non-involvement/verification certificate on 24th December, 2021 by the District Magistrate, based on which re-registration of the Club was given on 29th December, 2021. However, subsequently, another report was received from SSP, CID (Hqrs) dt. 30th December, 2021 based on which the ‘registration’ of the Club under the Societies Act, 1860 has been “kept on hold”. No reasons are disclosed in the said order issued to the Kashmir Press Club dt 14th January 2022 for the turnaround.
- Giving reasons for the 180-degree turn by the local administration is necessary considering the police department vetted the application of the Kashmir Press Club for over 6 months before the Dept issued the non-involvement/verification certificate. The contents of the report of the SSP, CID based on which the ‘registration’ order was “put on hold” has also not been shared.
- If the Kashmir Press Club’s registration process was put on hold on 13-01-2022, why were some private persons, along with police personnel, allowed to enter the Club premises on 14-01-2022, and even allowed to hold a meeting in the premises and set up an ‘interim body’. The tradition respected by security forces everywhere is no police personnel in uniform enter the press clubs without specific permission from the local management.
- The Order of the Registrar of Societies, dated 14-01-2022 states that the re-registration of the Kashmir Press Club “is hereby kept in abeyance till the receipt of final report from Additional District Magistrate, Srinagar.” Nothing is disclosed when the final report from the Additional District Magistrate is expected, and how long will the Registrar of Societies take to decide on the re-registration/ confirmation of de-registration of the Kashmir Press Club.
The convenor of the FFC, Mr Prakash Duby wrote to the Chief Secretary, J&K Government, on 21-01-2022 with a reminder via Secretary, PCI on 10-02-2022 requesting details of the takeover of the Kashmir Press Club. No reply has been received so far. When a reply is received, the contents will be integrated into the report.
Insurance for journalists
Several journalists and representatives of media groups pointed out that Jammu and Kashmir, being an active conflict zone, those reporting from the field ran the risk of being injured or even killed in the crossfire between government security forces and militants. The demand for insurance has been voiced several times in the past, and various elected state governments had also agreed in the past to provide insurance cover to all accredited journalists. However, this facility has not been provided.
The following are the details which were provided to the FFC, along with the minutes from the legislative assembly, by Ashwini Kumar, President of the Jammu Press Club:
Ashwini Kumar, President of the Jammu Press Club, along with members of the Managing Committee of the Club:
“Ours is a conflict zone, needing special facilities. Health and medical insurance has been an old demand by the journalists, which has been repeatedly voiced. Ashok Sodhi, a photographer, was shot dead in 2008 and there was very little government support for his family. Finance minister Muzaffar Baig announced in the J&K Assembly in 2018 that the insurance and medial cover for journalists had been accepted. Even the draft notification was ready, and Rs 2 crore as initial seed money was sanctioned. Unfortunately, it was never implemented.”
The Other View
Before we go to our conclusions and recommendations, it must be mentioned that the journalists we met, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, are sharply divided on their approach to the government of the Union Territory. While most felt that the government and security agencies had trampled on the freedom of expression, many of those who appeared before us were of the view that the government did not interfere with their rights as long as kept away from reporting and commenting on ‘anti-national’ themes, a popular euphemism used in Kashmir for content that is critical of the government and its policies.
There were also several complaints that journalists and the media were under pressure from both the security forces and the militants and were being ‘choked’ by both sides. Others felt that the politician Mehbooba Mufti had no right to lodge a complaint about suppression of the media as she herself, when she was chief minister in the April 2016-June 2018 period, had also acted against those sections of the news media who were critical of her.
Some examples: Ayaz Hafiz, editor of Rising Kashmir told us: “We are working in a free and fearless atmosphere. Mehbooba Mufti’s complaints do not apply to us.” Iqbal Wani, who is the editor of Srinagar News said, “militants were taking the shelter of the political parties; that the Press was not facing any problems when highlighting public issues, and that his team was not facing pressure from any quarter. In fact the local administration has a good grievance redressal process, and we see prompt action being taken in case of complaints.” Wani however complained that reporters were routinely manhandled by security forces during anti militancy operations.
Neeraj Rometra, Executive Editor, Daily Excelsior, one of the largest circulated dailies in Jammu and Kashmir, was emphatic that a fair section of the news media had aligned themselves with the militants. He said: “The complaint by Mehbooba Mufti emerged after raids on 4 journalists on 8th Sept, this year. Those persons credentials are doubtful, they are associated with secessionist organizations. There is a blog being operated from Pakistan that gives its version of Kashmir events. Sajjad Bukhari, who was gunned down, was named on the Kashmir blog as an Indian government agent.
“Many journalists come under the influence of militants, in the 1990s our own Srinagar bureau chief Rashid became associated with secessionist elements, and we had to let him go,” Rometra added.
Iqbal Ahmed and Bashir Asad,– representing the Urdu ‘KAZIM’ said: “The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar feels as if we are in Muzaffarabad Press Club (capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). Yes there is press freedom in Kashmir.
“On other hand, militants are targeting us. We published an expose of Fahad Zoru, how he had grabbed 60 canals of land. After that we have been threatened. We have been targeted by the Pakistani origin blog ‘Kashmir Fighters’. There have been threats from Pakistan since 1992. There are two constituencies in media – anti-nationals and nationalists.”
Rahil Rashid of Asian Mail said: There are two types of people and there are two types of journalists. There are journalists for and against the government. If the journalist has the right to write against the government, the government has the right to shut you out. A concurring view of Sharafat Kira of ‘Kashmir Vision’ was: “There should be a line between journalism and activism. If you truthfully report, no one can harass you.”
There were a number of journalists who complained that they were sandwiched between a repressive state apparatus and an equally intolerant force of ‘militants’. Majeed Haidari, a freelance journalist, said: “We in Kashmir are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The militants threaten us and the police too.”
Mouzim Mohammed, Vice President of the Kashmir Press Club said: “Journalists face suppression from both sides, journalism as a profession is in decline. The elected state governments were no different. Mehbooba Mufti’s government raided many press establishments when she was CM. The ‘Kashmir Reader’ was banned for 3 months. Omar Abdullah was no better.”
Senior journalist Yusuf Jameel said apart from the harassment of the security and government agencies, he had also faced the threats of the militants, who thought he was a government agent.
He told the FFC as follows: “I have had as many as 6 attacks on me from the militants. As a BBC correspondent, I escaped with injuries when a bomb exploded in my office in 1995, but ANI cameramen Mushtaq Ali lost his life in the incident. The worst period was the 1990s during the period of heightened militancy, when 18-19 year olds were roaming around brandishing guns.
“In one case, a militant Yassir Arafat sent a message through a BBC intern demanding I do his interview. He also demanded that it should be a half hour interview. I tried to send word that I never get more than 3-4 minutes on the news bulletins in a day, but who was to convince them? Finally, I did do an interview with the militant, and I sent a message that it will be broadcast at a particular time. Though it was slotted, for some technical reasons, the story was pulled out at the last minute. The militant was furious, and said he would avenge the insult. I feared for my life.
“In another case, the manager of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) had been kidnapped, and through some backchannel talks, his release was arranged. I was invited to the Rajbhavan for the event, and there I found minister Rajesh Pilot was also present. He introduced me to the released IOC manager, and a few photos with the minister were published. Some of the militants drew wrong conclusions. Immediately, I was dubbed a government agent, and I was put on the black list for elimination by an organization called the Hizbul-Momineen. In desperation, and in response to their press release, I put out a press release that I will be present next morning at the Lal Chowk, Srinagar, and whoever wanted to take my life, could do so. Friends and intermediaries pleaded that these people making threats should be treated as ‘children’ and we should ignore them. Some even reached out to them. Finally the threats were dropped.”
From the extensive interview and depositions, one can draw the following conclusions:
- News media in the Jammu & Kashmir region, and especially in the valley is slowly being choked mainly because of the extensive curbs imposed by the local administration. There is also the threat of violence by the militants which acts as a deterrent. At a broader level, because of the continuing conflict, the business of news media has been severely disrupted in the region and sources of advertising are slowly withering away. Print media especially, which has large overhead costs, is hardly sustainable anymore.
- Journalists function with a high level of stress, and are constantly facing pressure both from the government agencies and police as well as militants. That they still manage to do their job in such a hostile environment, itself is commendable. To add to their discomfiture, jobs in news media are not secure due to the declining viability of the business. In this environment, both truth and good journalism are the biggest casualty.
- The normal lines of communication between the local government administration and journalists has been disrupted with because of the former’s suspicion that a large number of local journalists are sympathizers of the militants’ cause. This was admitted by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, who frankly told the FFC that many journalists were of ‘anti-national’ persuasion. He conceded that when he was first appointed, he used to encourage open press conferences, but now had gone back to a ‘selective engagement’ with preferred journalists.
- Restoring lines of communication: Among the first tasks of the local administration is to establish some platforms for discussion so that there can be a dialogue between different stake holders, and the mutual suspicion is slowly eased. The FFC discussed with the ‘Editors Forum’ the setting up a 3-way Media Advisory Committee between the security establishment, government officers and journalist representatives to encourage dialogue and address grievances. There was enthusiastic support for the idea from the journalist community. A role for the Press Council in such an advisory body can also be considered.
- Ouster from accommodation: From the numerous cases we documented, there is an obvious nexus between the Government Estates Department removing journalists and news organisations from government-allotted accommodation and their critical views about government policies. While the J&K government has the powers to claim back allotments on certain grounds, such a process cannot be arbitrary and without due process of law. In most case, even a written notice had not been served. Legitimate grounds for claiming back the accommodation cannot include ‘criticism of the government’. We recommend that for all those cases where no proper grounds have been served, the accommodation should be restored to the original allottees. Further, a clear written policy should be announced to regulate the allotment and return of government accommodation so that it is not dependent on the whims and fancies of government officials.
- Balanced government’s advertising policy needed: The New Media Policy of the J&K government frankly states that “Government advertisement is not intended to provide financial support to any media…” and then goes on to say: “While releasing such advertisements, DIPR shall not take into account the political affiliation or editorial policies of the newspaper, publications and journals…” (emphasis ours) That’s how it should be. However, from the extensive depositions we collected, it is obvious that the volume of advertising released by the J&K government is directly proportional to the extent of support a publication renders to the government’s schemes and policies. This flies in the face of a ‘free media’ guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. In J&K, where there are very few private advertisers, the government’s power to deny advertising can kill a publication as has been demonstrated in the death of several editions of the Kashmir Times, and now the latest casualty Kashmir Images. The J&K government must review this slanted policy. As long as a publication is working within the confines of the laws applicable to publishing, advertising should be released with a ‘neutral’ and unbiased’ approach.
Furthermore, the New Media Policy of the Government, released in May 2020, allows for a process of appeal in case of those publications/news networks who are aggrieved by certain decisions. However, the appellate committees set up within the ‘media policy’ are entirely staffed by government officials. This provision should be revised to include some representatives of media organisations or eminent members of civil society to allow for independent evaluation of appeals.
Since the issue of deployment of government advertising is a big issue of controversy, the government should form an advisory committee involving DIPR officials, media owners/companies as well as journalist representatives to ensure that government advertising is allotted in a fair and unbiased manner. This will increase mutual trust and confidence among the different stakeholders. The Police should not be associated with such a forum unless it is related to a breach of peace or a criminal offence.
Further, since the volume and rate of advertising is dependent on the circulation / viewership of publications and TV/digital channels, there requires an independent body that certifies the readership/viewership numbers of news outlets. The RNI for newspapers and Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) should be approached for independent verification of the numbers.
- Intimidation, arrests and detention under draconian laws should stop: The FFC has recorded numerous cases of journalists being subject to interrogation, threatened and made to fill irrelevant profiling documents. We have listed cases of journalists being summoned to the dreaded ‘Cargo Centre’ for questioning – a location reserved for interrogation for armed militants. Officially, the police have conceded to the FFC that as many as 49 journalists have been arrested and charged since 2016, not a small number considering that J&K has a very small press corps. Of these 8 have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which makes bail almost impossible. The police case is many journalists indulge in ‘anti-national’ activities.
Our conclusion and recommendation is very specific: those indulging in any criminal acts, are not journalists pursuing their profession. If a ‘journalist’ is bearing arms or carrying grenades and other ammunition, he is not a journalist; he is a militant, and should be treated as such. However, the security establishment cannot label writing against government policies, or quoting a family or civilian sources in a story about excesses of the armed forces, or tweeting a point of view as ‘fake news’ or ‘anti-national activity’ and then arresting the journalist for sedition. It is not the business of journalists to support government policies or development work. A journalist’s job is to report the news as it happens, even if it is unpalatable to government officials. The tendency to see all critical reporting and opinions as ‘anti-national’ must stop. A conflict zone has many players and many aspects of events that unfold. A journalist cannot and should not ignore the government version; at the same time, he is not the spokesperson of the government.
It is further observed, that in the guise of information gathering, threats and various forms of intimidation by the police have become part of the new ‘normal’ in the Kashmir valley, particularly after the imposition of central rule since August 2019. It is also a matter of concern that the public relations work of various government departments has been taken over by the Police. This should cease as it is against the letter and spirit of the functioning of the various arms of a democratic government.
- Restore Normal privileges of news gathering: Journalists rely on communication networks like the Internet, and access to events and persons, to gather and transmit news. A government has the power to snuff these out as we have seen in the case of J&K. Restricted internet facilities after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August 2019, the suspension of internet mobile connectivity whenever there is a conflict situation and denying access to journalists to scenes of an armed encounter are all methods that have developed to choke free and fair news gathering in J&K. These policies must be reversed. Journalists must be allowed to go about their work as professionals, as long as they do not hinder normal security operations. It is also noticed that the government establishment has denied normal privileges like ‘accredition’ and freedom to travel locally and abroad. To deny normal access to report and travel is part of the profession and to deny these liberties is humiliating. Accredition and the freedom to travel should be restored forthwith. By choking lines of communication and a free flow of reporting, the government will only encourage the spread of rumours and hearsay, which is in the long run detrimental to everyone.
The government should address the problem of insufficient number of spokespersons for the different departments by appointing additional spokespersons so that journalists have access to the government version easily. These appointments should be made for both Kashmir and Jammu divisions. If the Police requires additional spokespersons, these should be appointed, but they should not represent other departments by default.
- Restore rights and privileges of the Kashmir Press Club: The Kashmir Press Club was a legal, representative body with a membership of over 300 journalists. It was registered under the Societies Act, 1860, and after a 6-month verification process issued a ‘re-registration’ certificate on 29th December 2021. Thereafter, it was ‘de-registered’, and the body’s legal existence held “in abeyance” by an order of 14th January, 2022. The elections, announced on 13th January by the managing committee of the club, and slated to be held on 15 February, were disrupted. The land and building of the KPC at Polo View Area, in Srinagar, was thereafter reclaimed back by the Estates Department.
Representative bodies of journalists such as the Kashmir Press Club should be allowed to function. The FFC has examined the various documents and orders and spoken to a wide cross-section of people, including former Managing Committee members as well as government officials. There is no convincing reason on why the body was superseded and put in cold storage. In a democracy, journalist bodies not only should be allowed to flourish; but their views should be sought and respected. The FFC recommends that the registration of the Kashmir Press Club should be restored, and government officials should not interfere is the election process of what is essentially a private body of news persons.
- Entry norms for digital networks: It is observed that a large number of digital channels and media networks using various social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been sprouting, and there is no entry barrier nor oversight to ensure that they observe the basic norms of journalism. It would therefore be advisable, to carry out a survey and registration process for these news platforms by neutral, autonomous bodies such as the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) and the TV industry’s BARC so that both legal due diligence as well as journalistic ethics are observed.
- Support for Urdu publications: Various government departments are buyers of a spectrum of news publications, which provides some support to a struggling industry. However, the FFC received complaints from many quarters that several important government departments had suspended the purchase of Urdu publications without reason. These subscriptions should be restored. It was also reported that for the allotment of government advertising, the Urdu publications were being handicapped because of a shortage of government officials in the respective DIPR departments. This shortage should be made good and advertising support for Urdu publications restored so that there is a balance with other language publications.
- Insurance and health cover: Jammu and Kashmir is a conflict zone, where the journalists, in pursuing their profession, are risking their life and limb. In 2018, the then elected state government had worked out a scheme for medical and accident cover, to be financed by the state. The current government of the Union Territory should take the initiative ahead and ensure the scheme sees light of day at the earliest.
INPUTS FROM ‘ELIGIBLE’ ORGANISATIONS OF THE PCI:
Since the Fact Finding Committee was nearing the completion of its work, a special meeting of all the eligible organisations was called by the convenor, Shri Prakash Dubey on 7th March, 2022 at the Press Council of India Headquarters, Soochna Bhawan Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110003. This was to elicit their views and inputs in respect of the situation of media in Jammu and Kashmir.
Those who attended included Prof B.R. Gupta (Hindi Samachar Patra Sammellan), Shri D.K. Maithani (Association of Small and medium newspapers of India, Shri Atul Dixit (Association of Small and Medium Newspaper of India), Miss. Vidhi Dhankar (Research Assistant Editors Guild of India), Ashok Kapoor AISNA, Pradeep Bahl from AISNA , C.K. Nayak Press Association, Pawan Sahyogi (India Association of Press N Mediamen), Sanjay Kapoor, (Editors Guild of India).
A few members took objection that since the report was not available and since the FFC was set up before the notification of the new term of the Press Council, it did not have the locus standi to bring out such a report. The convenor pointed that this was not in the ambit of the present meeting which was restricted to expressing members’ views on the subject of the media situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Thereafter, various members gave their views and information on the subject.
Mr. Ashok Kapoor said that the freedom of the press has been completely compromised in the Union Territory. The press has important rights which need to be defended. He specifically referred to the Media Policy of 2020 and said that it had sections where a bad example had been set in respect encouraging a free press. He gave example that one had to send a copy of the advertisement to the DIPR before it was published.
He said that the situation for the industry was so bad in the Kashmir Valley particularly that many of the members were giving up the business of printing newspapers and focussing on other options.
Mr. D.K. Naithani representing Small and Medium Newspaper of India said that since there was no report of the FFC, he had nothing to say.
Mr. B.R. Gupta referred to the cutting off of the internet when in August 2019 at the time of the abrogation of the Article 370 and the conversion of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory. He said that various gateways were created for journalists which proved to be hindrances for the transmission of news. The Media Facilitation Centre offered only restrictive facilities and in many ways it deliberately stopped the free flow of information.
He said retrenchment was a major issue as small and medium newspapers could not circulate their products and therefore, had to let go many of their staffers. He also appealed to the FFC to shed some lights on the revenue and financial position of the newspaper industry in the Union Territory during this period after the abrogation of Article 370.
Mr. Sanjay Kapoor representing the Editors’ Guild of India said the stories emanating out of Jammu and Kashmir are “quite horrifying” and it appears that the UAPA and other state acts are being used to harass journalists and prevent them from speaking.
He also said that the cutting off of the internet was a deliberate act to prevent free flow of information and he would expect that that the FFC shed some light on these issues.
He said that recently the case of Fahad Shah, Editor of the TheKashmirwala digital platform was a serious breach of individual freedom and the rights of the press. He said Fahad Shah was arrested on the third occasion even after he got bail. Journalists had been reduced to stenographers and this situation has deep implications for our democracy. Unfortunately, the Courts had not intervened in favour of press freedom in Kashmir, and that is a big disappointment.
Mr. Pawan Sahyogi pointed out that this was not the first FFC but two other Committees had also gone into the condition of the press and media in both 2017 and 2018 and it brought out detailed reports.
He said we should investigate how much headway had been made in respect of their recommendations and whether the Press Council had any impact in helping provide relief to journalists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Mr. C.K. Nayak of the Press Association said he was part of the Committee which was set up in 2017 and he pointed out that the Media Policy of 2020 goes against the very recommendations of the FFC of 2017. Unfortunately, the Media Policy has given the Government machinery all the powers as both judge and prosecutors.
Mr Nayak added the 2017 recommendations had said that Accreditation for journalists should be extended to the District Level. However, unfortunately not only had this recommendation been ignored but since 1st April, 2020 no Accreditation has been given to any journalist in the Union Territory. This has blocked access for journalists to news coverage. He also criticized the new Media Policy saying that there were no journalist in any of the Committees set up under the policy and it was fully made up of Government officials.
The only positive part of the Media Policy that had diversified advertising revenue to all platforms of media. He also said a Rs. 2 crore fund had been set up for the welfare of the journalists by the Jammu and Kashmir government, but no allotment to any journalist had been made in the last 4 years.
After all the submissions were over, some of the organisations said that they would submit written submissions to the FFC for inclusions in the report.
Gratitude: Finally our report will not be complete without expressing our gratitude to all those people who cooperated and helped the Fact-Finding Committee go about its task. The Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha gave us an audience at the Raj Bhavan and discussed the media situation at length. The Divisional Commissioner for Kashmir, Mr Pandurang Pole, as well as the IG of Police, Mr Vijay Kumar, were very cooperative and spent nearly an hour briefing us and answering questions. We are extremely thankful to all of them. To help us coordinate with the various government departments, Mr Rahul Pandey, Secretary – Information and Public Relations, was always available, and he and his team – Mohammed Aslam Khan, media coordinator Sayyad Geelani Kadri, and deputy media coordinator Mr Yasir Ashraf – rendered all the necessary assistance.
A word of thanks is also due to former Information Commissioner of the J&K Government, Mr Jandiyal as well as former Press Council of India member, Lalit Mangotra, who assisted the FFC. We must also thank Mrs Mehbooba Mufti, who made time to discuss with our delegation, as well as the President of the Jammu Press Club, Mr Ashwini Kumar and his team, who went out of their way to host the sittings and interaction of the Committee in Jammu.
Finally our list of credits will not be complete without mentioning the continuous work put in by the Secretary of the Press Council, Mrs Anupama Bhatnagar, to coordinate the visits and other engagements of the FFC. Most of all, we must thank the 60 or more journalists, NGO activists, media owners and citizen journalists who deposed before us, often at some risk to themselves. Without them this report would not have seen the light of day.
PRAKASH DUBEY SUMAN GUPTA GURBIR SINGH
(Convenor) (Member) (Member)
Date: 8th March, 2022
Place: New Delhi