Anuradha Bhasin, Kashmir Times: ‘This is a virtual siege’

No news: The Kashmir Times office in Srinagar wears a deserted look following the restrictions on the local media   -  THE HINDU / NISSAR AHMAD

The executive editor has filed a petition seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention to lift the clampdown on the Kashmir Valley’s media ever since Article 370 and 35A of the constitution was repealed last week.

On August 5, the Centre revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir by repealing Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution. The state was subsequently split into two Union Territories — Ladakh and J&K. After the move was okayed by a parliamentary majority, the Centre imposed heavy restrictions on movement, communication and media freedom in the Valley, leading to an information vacuum.

Hopeful: Anuradha Bhasin has moved the SC to intervene in Kashmir and restore communication lines   -  COURTESY: ANURADHA BHASIN

 

BLink caught up with Anuradha Bhasin, the Jammu-based executive editor of Kashmir Times, who has moved a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) seeking intervention to restore communication lines and relax restrictions on the media. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

You have moved a petition seeking the top court’s help for the immediate restoration of communication lines and relaxing restrictions on media. Tell us more.

The situation in Kashmir has been exceptional for many years. Over the last 30 years, we’ve worked through several rough patches. We managed to work in 1992 with disrupted communication channels when a transmission tower was blown by militants. Our reporters would rely on lightning trunk calls and send wires from the post and telegraph office. Even then, something worked.

In recent years, there have been internet bans, and partial restrictions on mobile phones, but never before were landlines disbanded. This is a virtual siege. It’s an information blockage for nine million people, not just of the Valley. This includes people from sensitive border areas such as Rajouri and Poonch, and remote areas in Jammu such as Doda and Kishtwar districts. We hear rumours but there is no means to authenticate them. J&K has a total population of 13 million, but only a very small section of that is visible to us.

We are relying on information from Delhi, reports from Indian and foreign media. J&K’s media business is small and is now battered. There have been attempts in the past to gag media and throttle our finances by pulling back government ads. We are operating on a shoestring budget. Our job in Jammu, other than reporting out of two or three districts which are fairly calm and peaceful, has been reduced to that of a stenographer. We’re just compiling reports that are appearing in other places. Our network of staffers cannot be reached. Our sources on the ground are non-existent now.

The government has been saying that people in Kashmir are happy. But if they are so happy, why not open their phone lines? We are told that the internet is being blocked as the environment is rife with rumours. Professional media is meant to fill this void, which miscreants may misuse otherwise. We want the information blockage to be removed, and communication channels restored.

The petition says the shutdown is fuelling anxiety, panic and fear among the residents of Kashmir. Could you describe the mood in the Valley?

I can’t say with authority what the mood in the Valley is because I’m not in contact with anybody there. But relying on my experience over the past 30 years, during which there have been killings, executions and human rights violations, I can say that what we’re seeing today is different. Tinkering with Article 370 has created an existential crisis for Kashmiris. I fear the mood in the Valley today is something I don’t have a word for. It has gone beyond anger and frustration. If there was a word stronger than anger it would be that.

Have you been able to print Kashmir Times since the shutdown? What hurdles do local news organisations face ?

We have two editions, one in Jammu region and the other in Kashmir valley. The Jammu edition has been printed and circulated as usual, except for a few problems we faced in the first two days after the shutdown. But our Kashmir edition hasn’t been printed since August 5. In the past, there have been instances — in 2010, 2013 and 2016 — when security forces carried out raids on printing presses and intimidated the staff, and we could not publish. It was the case with all the local papers. Yet, the situation was not as bad; information would still trickle down. Today, there is a complete information blockage. Local journalists aren’t getting curfew passes. People from Delhi are. Local reporters are cut off from ground realities. That has never happened before.

India’s news media has been deeply divided on Kashmir. Yet, this is probably the only time where we’ve seen two journalists standing at the same venue and one claims the area to be peaceful while the other reports of simmering rebellion and unrest.

It is worrying what our media has come to. Is is intimidated? Or does it hold other interests? Why is it trying to hide the truth and toe the government line? We’ve turned the media into publicity departments of the government. It becomes difficult for a viewer to judge what is happening when you have two polarised pictures emerging. Then you stop trusting the media and that is not good for a democracy.

What is the most frightening thing at the moment for the people of the Valley?

The siege. It impacts their day-to-day life. Yesterday, I heard that someone with family in Srinagar has lost a long-ailing member. They managed to contact family members outside Kashmir, borrowing telephone lines from someone influential, but there was no way to reach their relatives in Kashmir. I have a feeling that these issues will take priority over larger political questions at the moment.

Are you hopeful that the SC will offer recourse?

I am hopeful. I have faith in the Constitution and democracy. It is very important for all of us to make the effort to strengthen democracy and not let it be weakened; to ensure that the phenomenon we are witnessing in J&K does not become a precedent to gag media elsewhere in India.

Shriya Mohan

Published on August 16, 2019

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