Local press in Kashmir largely wilt under pressure as dozens have been arrested, interrogated and investigated by India under harsh anti-terror laws.
For five years, Sajad Gul has written about conflict wracking his homeland, a disputed Himalayan territory where a violent armed rebellion and India's brutal counter insurgency have raged for over three decades.
That changed on a snowy Wednesday night in January with a knock at his house. Gul was surrounded by Indian soldiers wielding automatic rifles who bundled him into a vehicle and sped away, plowing through the snow-laden track in Hajin, a quiet village about 20 miles from Srinagar, the region’s main city, said his mother, Gulshana, who only uses one name.
Journalists have long contended with various threats in Indian-administered Kashmir and found themselves caught between warring sides. But their situation has gotten dramatically worse since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, throwing Kashmir under a severe security and communication lockdown and the media in a black hole.
A year later, the government’s new media policy sought to control the press more effectively to censure independent reporting.
Dozens have been arrested, interrogated and investigated under harsh anti-terror laws. Fearing reprisals, local press has largely wilted under pressure.
“Indian authorities appear determined to prevent journalists from doing their jobs,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Gul’s arrest, which the CPJ condemned, underscored the fast-eroding press freedoms and criminalisation of journalists in Kashmir.
Police told Gul’s family that he was arrested for provoking people to “resort to violence and disturb public peace.”
A police statement later described him as “habitual of spreading disinformation” and “false narratives” on social media.
He was detained days after his single tweet linked a video clip of a protest against Indian rule, following a Kashmiri rebel's killing. He spent 11 days locked up before a local court granted him bail.
Instead of freeing Gul, authorities charged him in a new case under the Public Safety Act, which allows officials to imprison anyone for up to two years without trial.
“My son is not a criminal,” said Gulshana. “He only used to write.”
Media has always been tightly controlled in India administrated, Muslim-majority Kashmir. Arm twisting and fear have been extensively used to intimidate the press since 1989, when rebels began fighting Indian soldiers in a bid to establish an independent Kashmir or union with Pakistan.
Pakistan controls Kashmir's other part and the two counties fiercely claim the territory in full.
“Authorities have created a systematic fear and launched a direct assault on free media. There is complete intolerance of even a single critical word,” said Anuradha Bhasin, an editor at Kashmir Times, a prominent English daily that was established in 1954.
Bhasin was among the few who filed a petition with India’s Supreme Court, resulting in partial restoration of communication services after the 2019 blackout, which the government had said was necessary to stall anti-India protests.
But she soon found herself in the crosshairs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
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Bhasin’s legacy newspaper office in Srinagar, operating from a rented government building, was sealed by authorities without any notice. Its staff was not allowed to take out any equipment.
“They are killing local media except those who are willing to become government stenographers,” said Bhasin.
Under Modi, press freedoms in India have steadily shrunk since he was first elected in 2014.
Last year, India was ranked 142nd in the global press freedom index by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, below Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.