A year ago, on 5th August, Narendra Modi’s government in India unilaterally changed the status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, revoking most of Article 370 which had given the region a level of autonomy and protection for 65 years. This single action has led to a year-long lockdown and curtailing of nearly every human right for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The internet was switched off, phone lines were turned off, public gatherings were banned including for prayer, a curfew was instigated and the Indian army was deployed in significant numbers.
The situation on the ground has been devastating and it’s been almost impossible to get information to the Kashmiri diaspora about whether their friends and families are safe. For 213 days, you could not access the internet. And only after an international outcry were the approximately 300 journalists working in Kashmir given access to the internet via just a handful of official computers (in Srinagar, for example, CNN reported that the city’s journalists had to queue for hours to use just one of four computers with an internet connection for less than 15 minutes). Local media has been significantly restricted with huge pressure being placed on media outlets to only print the government line. The situation worsened just weeks ago, when the Indian government introduced a new media policy which has basically given carte blanche to the government to take action against any journalist or media organisation who operate in Kashmir if they don’t like what’s published.
Even in these circumstances journalists have remained in post, adamant to report on what is happening on the ground and the impact on the community – how people are surviving under such harsh circumstances. They have gone to extreme lengths to get news out, such as travelling to Delhi to access the internet. One Kashmiri journalist, Bilal Hussain, revealed in a recent interview with Index that in order to get video interviews to his editor in Paris, he would put them on a memory stick and give them to a friend who was travelling to the USA, and he sent it on from there.
These journalists did what only journalists can do, they shined a light where there was only darkness. They exposed the actions of a government that had moved against its citizens and they tried to tell the world.
This has not been without a huge personal cost though. Journalists have been harassed and in at least three cases arrested by the Indian authorities for doing their job. Masrat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist, Peerzada Ashiq from the Hindu newspaper and Gowhar Geelani, a renowned author and journalist, have all been arrested for crimes related to their journalism.
These journalists, these people, represent the front line in the fight for free speech. Their work, covering one of the most contentious areas of the world, ensures that the actions of government are not without consequence. They have made sure that the world knows and they have given hope to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s our job to make sure that they do not stand alone and we won’t let them down.
The Autumn issue of Index has a dispatch from Kashmir about the challenges of working in the region as a journalist. Click here for information on how to read the magazine.