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State monitoring, interference in Kashmir generating chilling effect on journalists, Kashmir Times Editor files Additional Affidavit in SC

State monitoring, interference in Kashmir generating chilling effect on journalists, Kashmir Times Editor files Additional Affidavit in SC

Meera Emmanuel

Kashmir Times Editor, Auradha Bhasin has filed an additional affidavit in the Supreme Court, to support her plea for lifting the communication and movement restrictions imposed in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution.

In the affidavit filed on Tuesday, Bhasin argues,

“…constant monitoring of news reports being sent to bureau offices…disregard for press and movement passes, and the deletion of photos and videos shot by journalists which represent the situation in Kashmir, is causing fear and anxiety amongst journalists.

With the communication and information blackout prevailing in Kashmir, journalists fear that if State authorities or security personnel were to target them for honest reporting, then they will have no avenue to seek protection and justice. This fear is generating a chilling effect on journalists, who have to be very careful not to annoy the authorities and security forces with their reportage, even though the same constitutes honest and impartial reporting.

It is submitted that the affidavit was filed based on a visit undertaken by Prabodh Jamwal, Editor-in-Chief of the Kashmir Times following a visit to Srinagar between August 28-31. Based on Jamwal’s personal account of his visit, Bhasin also challenges government claims of normalcy in the valley. Referring to statements that day-time restrictions and restrictions on vehicles have been lifted in most parts of Kashmir, the affidavit states,

Despite this official statement, the security forces continue to restrict the movement of journalists in the Kashmir valley…

…despite the assurances of normalcy…a debilitating communication blockade continues as mobile and internet services remain shutdown across Kashmir valley, for almost one month now. Landlines too remain dysfunctional across parts of Kashmir. The landline at the Kashmir Times, Srinagar Bureau, is still dysfunctional…”

Security Forces continue to restrict movement of Journalists, Staffers

Inter alia, Bhasin has submitted that the movement of journalists in Srinagar continues to be restricted by security forces. Even journalists who have been given movement passes are not allowed unrestricted movement, more so in certain localities such as Downtown area, which is considered a sensitive locality.

When queried about these restrictions, it is submitted that no answers are given regarding the order or law under which movement is restricted. Particular objections also raised to harassment meted out by security officials to local journalists who travel on private transport. While this is the case, Bhasin argues that the options for public transport are also severely restricted. The additional affidavit states,

“… [there is a ] complete absence of public transport available m Kashmir due to the prevailing restrictions, and the few autos and taxis \that are plying on the roads are. exorbitantly priced, uncertain and lie , infrequent. The seizure of private modes of transport is therefore particularly alarming and disabling for the press, as it does not allow journalists to travel within and outside Srinagar.”

Bhasin goes on to submit that the Srinagar edition of the Kashmir Times cannot be printed since staffers are unable to commute to the printing press and given that the compilation of news for each day is done at night. An additional problem cited is that the inability to maintain two way communication hinders the verification and clarification of information. Further, the restrictions on movement also do not enable the transferring of  information from the Jammu bureau office to the Srinagar bureau office of Kashmir Times. The plea contends that a similarly dire situation prevails for other newspapers in the area as well. It states,

The few newspapers that are functioning presently in Kashmir are largely recycling news telecast on national television and the newspapers have reduced their publication from the usual 12-16 pages to 2-4 pages per issue of the newspaper. Local news reportage by on-ground staffers of Kashmir based newspapers is almost next to nil.” 

Censorship and Interference by the State in Media activities interferes with independence of the Press

The affidavit also raises particular objection to the alleged interference of the state in media activities. In this regard, Bhasin argues that the makeshift media centre set up by the government in Srinagar is inadequate and set up in such a manner that it infringes media independence.

“This media centre only has four computer systems, and a single mobile phone without internet facility for the use of all the press and media personnel…

… Alarmingly, at this media centre, government officials are scrutinising the e-mail communication of journalists. Every journalist is expected to furnish information about the person being called on the phone and the information to be sent as news item. Thus the news being reported is constantly monitored, and journalists are working under constant fear of being marked and retaliated against if their news report is found unfavourable.”

Even otherwise, Bhasin has submitted that journalists are often made to delete information found objectionable by security forces. The affidavit states,

The photo-journalists and video-graphers have reported to being frequently hauled up by either the police or security forces and in several instances the photographs and videos shot by them have been forcefully deleted… Photo-journalists and video-graphers are frequently required to show their recorded footage of the situation to those manning the security check-points in the city and its outskirts, in order to be able to carry the footage to their homes/offices. Thus videos and photographs are often subject to censorship and clearance by security forces.

To buttress claims of information censorship, the affidavit also cites a Telegraph report of August 27 concerning a medical doctor who was reported to have stood holding a placard stating that he was making a “request and not a protest.” Referring to this report, the affidavit notes, that the Doctor was detained and taken to an undisclosed location minutes after he addressed the media about the medical and humanitarian crisis that is resulting from the shutdown in Kashmir.

In this backdrop, Bhasin goes on to re-assert that the “local press and media personnel in Kashmir have a right and a duty to ensure that the people of Kashmir know about the factual position on the ground in Kashmir.”

The prayers made by Bhasin in her main plea include the following:

  • Quash all order(s), notification(s), direction(s) and/or circular(s) issued to shutdown/suspend communication, including Internet, mobile and fixed-line telecommunication services in Jammu and Kashmir as unconstitutional;
  • Direct the Government to immediately restore all modes of communication including mobile, internet and landline services throughout Jammu and Kashmir in order to provide an enabling environment for the media to practice its profession;
  • Direct the Government to take any and all steps necessary to ensure free and safe movement of reporters, journalists and other media personnel
  • Frame guidelines ensuring that the right and means of media personnel to report and publish news is not unreasonably curtailed though the issuance of orders by any authority to suspend telecom and/or internet services.

As special five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court is due to hear a batch of petitions challenging the abrogation of Article 370. Bhasin’s plea has also been tagged along with these petitions.

[Read the Additional Affidavit below]