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Kashmir blackout distorts public discourse in India

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
August 29, 2019

India-administered Kashmir has seen dramatic curbs on people's movement and communication since New Delhi revoked the region's special status this month. This has also had an adverse impact on press freedom.

Indian media reporting on Kashmir
Image: Reuters/A. Dave

In a dramatic move, the Indian government earlier this month revoked the decades-old special constitutional status enjoyed by India-controlled Kashmir — known as Jammu and Kashmir.   

The Himalayan region has been under a strict lockdown since then. To suppress any unrest, authorities have cut all communications, imposed a curfew and deployed thousands of additional troops to a region which is already one of the most militarized in the world.  

Read more: Kashmir: Is the UN Security Council reluctant to get involved?

The suspension of communication services, including the internet and landline phones, has made it difficult for information to trickle out of Kashmir.

In recent days, authorities said they have eased some restrictions on people's movement and restored some landline phone services.

At least 500 incidents of protest have broken out in Kashmir since New Delhi stripped the region of its autonomy, a senior government source told the AFP news agency on Wednesday.

Controlling the narrative

The clampdown means media reporting from Kashmir has proven increasingly difficult. Many mainstream Indian media outlets have published reports and showed footage of Kashmiris praising the decision taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

Some aired videos showing crowds lined up in front of banks and ATMs, and people going about their daily chores. The government also released videos and images to convey the message that the region remains calm and peaceful.  

"What is being shown is a picture of normalcy, to create an impression that life for Kashmiris was back on track, while downplaying the critical reports in some international outlets and a handful of Indian news portals about unrest in the region," Hartosh Singh Bal, a senior journalist and media commentator, told DW.

"This was bound to happen. Clearly, the government is controlling the narrative and a pliant, nationalistic mainstream press is happy to play along," Bal said.

Read more: How far will China go to support Pakistan's position on Kashmir?

Reporting on Kashmir in the Indian media diverged from that in the international media. Outlets like the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera, for instance, have showed videos of protests and published reports of police firing on protesters and using tear gas to disperse them. 

The Indian government denied the reports, saying they were "fabricated and incorrect."

The BBC then released a statement refuting any claims of misrepresenting the situation in Kashmir.

The Indian government also said it had asked the foreign media outlets to provide the unedited footage of the protests. But the BBC's South Asia chief Nicola Careem denied this.

"We were never asked to provide our raw footage to the government," Careem told DW. "Even now there are restrictions in place that prevent us from visiting places like hospitals."

Indian news portal The Wire was one of the first publications to report that several people had been injured after security forces fired pellet guns on protesters. Its editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, said he flew to Kashmir for a day, on August 10, to speak to patients undergoing treatment at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar.

"We were the first to report on this incident and since I could not report from there, I had to come back to Delhi," Varadarajan told DW. 

The Wire filmed footage of injured patients in hospitals, debunking official claims of calm in the region. "When journalists challenge the official narrative and expose the truth, it rubs the authorities up the wrong way," Pamela Philipose, an ombudsman for The Wire, told DW.

Nationalistic press toes government line

Many Indian media organizations, however, have been willing to toe the government's official line. "What we are seeing in the mainstream press is not new. Corporate and political influences have overwhelmed media organizations," said Philipose.

Earlier this month, the Press Council of India (PCI), an institution created to safeguard press freedom, even argued for a media clampdown in the name of "national interest."

The crackdown has forced Jammu and Kashmir's newspapers to fall in line, with their pages resembling government bulletins, reflecting the fear that has gripped the region. The official versions of events receive wide publicity without any questions asked about their credibility.

After the Modi government's move, a group of civil society activists visited the region to observe the situation on the ground there. The team included Jean Dreze, a noted economist, Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women's Association and Vimalbhan of the National Alliance of People's Movements, among others.

They visited different parts of the state such as Srinagar, Sopore, Bandipora, Anantnag, Pulwama and Pampore from August 9 to August 13.

After their return, they claimed that the Press Club of India in New Delhi had barred them from showing visuals they recorded in the region.

"Surely this is a time when we all need to stand up to pressure. If the Press Club cannot allow our footage and pictures to be screened, then who can?" Jean Dreze told DW.

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