Journalists in Jammu and Kashmir have spent the past eight months navigating an intense crackdown by Indian authorities in the region, including unprecedented restrictions on communications and the longest internet shutdown in a democracy. Now, they have the added challenge on trying to report on the COVID-19 pandemic. India has instituted a strict 21-day national lockdown, in which all commercial, industrial, religious, and cultural activity, aside from a few essential services, and most transport services, have been shut down and residents have been ordered to stay at home, according to news reports. Police have been deployed to enforce the lockdown.
Raihana Maqbool, a reporter with international news journal Global Press Journal who is based in Srinagar, Kashmir, told CPJ that the pandemic, coupled with threats from security forces and a lack of access to information, makes this a particularly difficult period for journalists in the region. Maqbool typically reports on gender, health, and the environment. She has not moved out of her home much due to the pandemic, and has been conducting interviews over the phone or visiting areas nearby.
The irony is that despite the continued restrictions on the internet, which can only be accessed on slow 2G networks in Kashmir, most of the information journalists or the public are receiving is being communicated on Twitter, Maqbool told CPJ.
CPJ reached out to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs for comment via email but did not receive a reply.
CPJ communicated with Maqbool via email on March 31, because she was unable to speak over a secure line due to the slow 2G internet speed in Kashmir. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does this compare to reporting in times that Kashmir has been under lockdowns and to the severe restrictions that have been in place since August?
This time the situation is different. After August 5  we entered one lockdown, mobile phones, internet, and all sorts of communication were down. But journalists travelled to places and produced stories in that situation as well. We saw a lot of media coverage on Kashmir in the international media and some national as well. Reports were coming out, though it was a very difficult situation going out, but journalists would go.
This time it is different kind of lockdown. There is fear not just for one’s life, but for the family as well. The security situation remains the same where you never know if you will be stopped by the police and told to go back.
Why is reporting on the pandemic in Kashmir different from reporting in India or the rest of the world?
First many journalists in Kashmir still have no access to high speed internet. Journalists who work from far flung areas of Kashmir find it difficult to send content or reports on the limited access to internet.
Secondly, we have to get a pass in order to move around or out of the city, which is not faced by the journalists in India and around the world. And then there is a fear that even after I get the press pass, will the security people accept it? We have experiences in Kashmir when journalists were beaten and harassed for reporting facts. And this lockdown has made it more difficult. One fear that I have is getting caught in such a situation. [Security forces] don’t care whether a person is a journalist or not. Sometimes even showing the identity is a risk.
This is a strange situation and I have not heard or seen it in any other part of the world.
What does it tell you that India has refused to lift internet restrictions despite a global pandemic?
It has been over eight months now and high-speed internet still remains banned in Kashmir. People in Kashmir cannot watch the videos shared by the World Health Organization due to the internet speed. Students can’t attend online classes. In such a crisis time, when internet would be a relief to the people, they still don’t say a word on it.
Do you worry that the international attention on the pandemic will allow India to further crack down on Kashmir?
As the world fights the pandemic, India is redefining laws that will change the face of Kashmir. We woke up this morning [April 1] and the news came as a shock that India has redefined the domicile [permanent resident] status of Jammu and Kashmir. The further crackdown on Kashmir has already begun.
Today the government issued a warning to health workers in Kashmir saying that they can land in jail if they criticize the government. They have been warned not to criticize on social media or speak to the media. We have seen how doctors and paramedics are on the forefront fighting against the coronavirus. But in Kashmir, they are threatened for speaking about the problems they are facing due to pandemic. It shows how the administration works in Kashmir and always suppresses voices.
Under such rules how can a journalist get the right information and find what’s really happening?
What are you doing to keep yourself and your sources safe?
In Kashmir we have entered the 13th day of lockdown and during these 13 days I have stepped out of my home just four to five times.
Whenever I move out I make sure that I use a mask, hand gloves and a sanitizer. I avoid going to the places where I see crowds. Even while talking to people I make sure that I maintain a proper distance and don’t go for handshakes.
Do you have any personal concerns?
I feel as a journalist we need to go out and get the stories but not at the cost of one’s health. In Kashmir we have shortage of masks, sanitizers, and PPEs [personal protective equipment] so I think ten times before going to a hospital to cover a story or any other story as well.
Are you seeing misinformation spreading about the virus? Have the internet restrictions impacted this?
There is misinformation and confusion as well. The infodemic is spreading faster than the pandemic. We see a lot of social media posts where the information shared is fake and that spreads fast. This is a crucial time and the public needs to know the right information amid the anxiety, but they are not getting the right information.
The administration here is least bothered to provide the right information and would rather create confusion. This is a time when media can [play a] role in preventing the rumours, but we are not getting the proper information.
Have authorities been transparent in providing information?
The problem is that that there is just one media bulletin that comes from the Department of Information and Public Relations and tweets from the spokesperson. There is no way to clarify or seek more information. The authorities in Kashmir are not holding any media briefings making the work of journalists more difficult.
The spokesperson tweets whenever a new case is reported and leaves the journalists who want to get more information in. One example of misinformation that spread in Kashmir was when a death due to COVID-19 took place. The age of the deceased was reported differently by the media outlets. While states in India are providing information to journalists through many ways, in Kashmir we don’t get to see anything like that.
What do journalists in Kashmir need right now to be able to do their jobs and report on the pandemic?
First high-speed internet should be restored. Administration should communicate transparently with journalists. There should be press briefings to clear confusion and add more information. Journalists should be allowed in the field without any passes from the government. Senior officials should be available for comments as any wrong information can trigger panic and confusion among the public.
Editor’s Note: The text in the second paragraph has been updated to correct the name of Maqbool’s outlet.