The government of Indian Kashmir has a long record of failing to respond to physical attacks on the press. This week, the possibility that websites like YouTube and Facebook were blocked indicated that online freedoms, too, are under threat.
The state’s Home Department issued an order on September 20 that required all telecommunications and Internet service providers to ensure that subscribers in the state be barred from uploading or downloading the controversial film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which has sparked widespread protests, some of them violent, in Asia and the Middle East. Demonstrations in Kashmir were among the largest in Asia, according to international media reports .
The state’s order, which invoked powers conferred under section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 in the interest of public safety and maintaining public order, stipulated that “if necessary,” the telecommunications providers could block Facebook and YouTube completely.
It is unclear whether a blanket ban was put in place. Users within Kashmir contacted by CPJ were able to access both Facebook and YouTube from mobile devices on Tuesday, however local news website Greater Kashmir said both sites were inaccessible to local users as of that day. In any case, while many Kashmiris felt that blocking such a repugnant film was necessary, they also expressed suspicion that the Jammu and Kashmir state government was using the film as justification to block wider Internet access as part of a larger campaign to curtail the flow of information. The state government denied these accusations.
Internet users in the valley have reason to suspect that local authorities might want to interfere with their access to online media. In the past, Jammu and Kashmir’s local cable television stations, as well as pages on social-networking sites and mobile text messages, have been censored during periods of unrest, and editions of local newspapers were unable to print in Srinagar as a result of curfews imposed. Between June and December 2010, all text messages were banned by the state government. It also ordered a telecom company to block an SMS news service with 5000 subscribers.
Journalists in Kashmir continue to face more traditional challenges as well. Last week, Azhar Qadri, a correspondent for The Tribune and The Kashmir Tribune newspaper, told CPJ by email that a police officer named Imtiyaz Ismail Parray struck him while he was covering protests by nursing students. “[When I] disclosed to him that I am a journalist and asked him for the reason why he had hit me, he assaulted me further and was joined by 10-15 other policemen.” Qadri was detained for over an hour and forced to sign a paper on threat of being implicated under false charges, he told CPJ. The local Kashmir Journalists Corps sought action against the police officer, local news reports said. Parray did not respond to repeated calls CPJ made to his mobile phone. A clerk at the Shaheed Ganj police station denied the assault took place in a conversation with CPJ. The man declined to be named.
When asked by local reporters about Qadri’s case, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of the state, prevaricated. “I will look into the matter,” he said. In most cases of assault on journalists, however, the state government has failed to take any concrete action. Last November, three journalists were assaulted by the police and paramilitary forces while covering protests in the state capital of Srinagar. Even more disturbing, of the 27 journalists who have been killed for their work in India since 1992, according to CPJ research, 10 died in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir–a higher concentration than any other state in India.
Journalists also experience pressure from militants who want them to report in a manner that is favorable to the resistance. “There are a number of pressure groups that the media has to manage,” Human Rights Watch South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly, who visited the area last year, told CPJ by email.
Yet the situation could be worse. The climate in Indian Kashmir has been “markedly more stable and peaceful,” according to a recent report by Freedom House. Ganguly added, “On the Indian side, journalists are certainly encouraged to present the government view. But there are no government restrictions to access unless it is related to security concerns particularly at the border. Even at the height of the conflict, journalists both from domestic and foreign media were not stopped from going anywhere, unless for security reasons,” she said.
The traditional media landscape in Jammu and Kashmir is expanding–nearly 900 publications are registered in the state, up from 30 in 1989, according to the Registrar of Newspapers for India. The Internet has also brought reporting opportunities. Many Kashmiris have mobile devices that allow them to capture images and videos, and share information. Hundreds of videos have been uploaded and shared on the Internet by people in the state. While they may lack context and a sense of impartiality, they provide snapshots of a society mired in conflict.