Kashmir: ‘If Senior Journalists Can Speak in One Voice, It Can Change a Lot’

Anuradha Bhasin, editor of Kashmir Times during a discussion on the implications of Kashmir’s Media and Communication blackout, organised by Mumbai Press at Azad Maidan, on September 19, 2019 in Mumbai, India. Credit– getty images/Hindustan Times

INTERVIEW

It is shocking but it is part of what is happening to the media in Jammu and Kashmir in general. The state intimidates and threatens. They are pressing charges against the journalists

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Nayeem Rather | Clarion India

SRINAGAR — On October 4, Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin alleged that the brother of former National Conference legislator Shehnaz Ganie, along with some more people, barged into her government allotted house in Jammu, and vandalised her house. According to Bhasin, the accused and his men ‘acted in connivance with the estates department and some police personnel’. She claims that the men assaulted her and her family and that she had to fight back in self-defence.

Bhasin sees this attack on her as a larger conspiracy to silence the free press in the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir. A week after the attack, Bhasin talked to Clarion India via phone about the attack and the state of press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.

Excerpts

Clarion India (CI): How do you see the recent high-handedness and harassment that happened to you?

Anuradha Bhasin (AB): If it was just the high-handiness of some people or the officers from the department, I would not have been shocked that much. I see the attack on me as a part of the larger conspiracy to silence my voice and the voice of the journalists in Jammu Kashmir. I see a pattern in the attack; a month ago before the attack, I have been hearing rumours that we will be evicted from the Srinagar office, too. Similarly, the same thing was talked about the Jammu offices, as well.  Someone from my office approached the estates department to verify the rumours which they denied; they said no such notice has been served by them. That fateful day, the goons barged into my apartment and pushed me and my family. They tried to strangle my husband but we were both roughed up.

It is shocking but it is part of what is happening to the media in Jammu and Kashmir in general. The state intimidates and threatens. They are pressing charges against the journalists. Last year, three journalists, too, were asked to vacate the government apartments because the journalists were not toeing the state’s line. This year, the government came up with a brazen media policy that is aimed at silencing the journalists and destroying the institutions of media in Jammu and Kashmir.

CI: You have been working for the last 31 years as a journalist, and as you are aware, the media was harassed in the past, too. What do you think is the difference between the past and the present nature of censorship in Jammu and Kashmir?

AB: I am also trying to understand it and have not yet reached a conclusion. I worked through the turbulent era of the nineties. That time, personally, I didn’t fear as much as one assumes. Maybe I was young. Despite the presence of the gun culture all around you, and the consequent fear of physical violation by the security forces, we journalists still managed to work effectively. There were militants who would ask you to run a particular story. And worse, there were government-sponsored militia—Ikhwanis—who were the greatest threat. In that situation, the job of a journalist was to maintain balance, give voice to all, without losing one’s life.  Many journalists were detained, beaten, and killed. However in 2000, there was relative ease to work as a journalist in Kashmir.   In that period, many new journalists and newspapers began to mushroom all over the region. But that relative ease was short-lived; since 2008, a new trend of censorship began, which was sophisticated. The state arm-twisted the media by new tactics; either by slapping criminal cases or by withdrawing advertisements to the newspapers. From 2014, that policy became more effective and more lethal. They are aiming at silencing and having total control over the media. That is immensely worrying.

This time, I feel, the nature of censorship is different in the sense that you don’t know what the government won’t like about your work or what kind of laws you must be breaking without knowing. It is a Kafkaesque atmosphere. Right now, we go through a new phase which is aimed at destroying journalism. Due to that, we had to stop publication of many editions of Kashmir Times. We have been pushed to the brink. They have tightened the grip on local media and are dictating how the media should work. It means we will have to give some concessions to the government or they will destroy us.

CI: Connected with what you said is another question. Do you think that the lack of sustained campaign and support for each other has emboldened the state to come heavily on press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir? 

AB: This is a profession of risks. Right from the word go, one works in lots of pressure; journalists are vulnerable. That is why unity is important. I remember in 1995, the state came up with Press Bill—aimed at censoring the press—and immediately, the press fraternity came out to protest. The protests happened in Srinagar as well as in Jammu.  Eventually, the government had to back off with the policy. To be united and to stand up as a collective makes a huge difference. It safeguards one’s rights. When you are united, even the dictatorships find it difficult to gag the press. India is a democratic country and there are democratic rights. It might be relatively easier to snatch our rights but as media professionals, if we are united and speak up, we can find a way.

CI: You recently wrote critically about the big media houses of Jammu and Kashmir and the ill state of media in Jammu and Kashmir. Do you think the incident was motivated by that—to punish you?

AB: The government doesn’t like anything critical. That is a yardstick of success of a journalist. This particular article was addressed to my own fraternity but some took it in a wrong way. Lots of things were misinterpreted. Somewhere we need to be united and rise above our individual gains. If there is unity among journalists in the Valley and Jammu region, and if we strive to reclaim space together, we need to ask tough questions at how we work.  We need to speak up. If we are not able to do that, we must shut our shops. To revive journalism in the region, as I said earlier, unity is important. While there is fear in the Valley, the Jammu media has started feeling like they have an obligation to carry the burden of national interest—which often means anti-Kashmir and pro-BJP– on their shoulders.

On October 4, Kashmir Times executive editor Anuradha Bhasin alleged that the brother of former National Conference legislator Shehnaz Ganie, along with some more people, barged into her government allotted house in Jammu, and vandalised her house. Credit: Facebook

CI: Do you think the media is embedded (attached to an organisation) all over India and particularly in Jammu and Kashmir?

AB: They always were embedded journalists in India and in Jammu and Kashmir. Now, it has reached the level of shamelessness in the Indian television news channels. It is an example of non-journalism. You have no news but fiction—that distorts the truth and flares up hate. It is akin to a Khap Panchayat discussion, where you brand people. It is worrying. It affects viewership and unfortunately lots of people in India are watching it and liking it. In Jammu and Kashmir, of late, this trend has begun to go exponential. Facts are distorted and truth, it seems, doesn’t matter anymore.

CI: The way press freedoms are curtailed, are we living under authoritarianism?

AB: There is authoritarianism in every aspect of life now. It is like a disease. Look at the government institutions; they are being systematically degraded. In Kashmir, for the last one year, to get official information on anything has been made difficult. During the covid-19, the data has been hidden. The hospitals, medical centers don’t give you information. It is a total gag; with this atmosphere, one cannot work; there is always a lack of information. Besides there is a lack of thinking independently; you can’t write critically; you will be easily branded as anti-national.

CI: In this atmosphere, what do you think is the chance for independent media to flourish in Jammu and Kashmir?

AB: There is a chance, always is.  And it is heartening that alternative media is growing or at least trying to make a mark. At the same time, it is much more difficult to survive as an independent media in Kashmir. The challenges are multi-faceted; the state pressure and intimidation, the lack of funding, among others.

We have been working for many years to create a vibrant  media but it didn’t work, really. When you come up with an idea, and it has a name of Kashmir on, no one is willing to support it. The organisations in the rest of India don’t support and funding becomes impossible.

Despite all these challenges, there are many young Kashmiris who have come up with many platforms where they try to write about truth and create sustained spaces.

CI: Do you think big newspapers and media houses are doing their job properly?

AB: I am afraid none of us is doing what we are supposed to do. We have failed the people and are failing them every day. I would not like to be censored at all but the problem is that we are cautious with the words we use because of the brazen media policy. Since we have limited finances, we are vulnerable, and hence we lose professionalism somewhere. There is censorship by default. I don’t want to generalise; there is a self-imposed silence that comes from fear, particularly among those who are living in the Valley. I do acknowledge that fear exists, and the national media is demonising the Kashmir media. But at the same time, it can’t be an excuse for bad journalism.  There has to be some willingness to take risks; otherwise, we are not doing justice. Journalism in Jammu is more disappointing. Journalism started to thrive in Jammu very late, and since 2008, is in a deplorable condition. It is divisive and has descended into rut. It has become noisy, communal, and bizarre. Everyone needs a punching bag. People write opinionated news—I don’t know it can be called an opinion even—to divide, to flare up communal tension under one pretext or another. The Jammu media was in decline for a long time, and Kashmir media has now begun to derail irrevocably, I fear.

CI: Do you feel the future of Journalism is bleak in Kashmir?

It is not that all the media have surrendered in Kashmir. There are journalists, who, despite being intimidated—summoned to torture centre Cargo or slapped with UAPA—are still braving it all and reporting truth. The young journalists are doing great work; they have not been cowed down yet.  I think if the senior journalists can speak in one voice, it can change a lot and journalism can survive and be better in Kashmir. There is huge respect for journalists in Kashmir and people are in dire need of quality journalism.  Despite everything, I am hopeful.

CI: There is huge pressure on journalism in Kashmir; what do you think does the government want exactly?

AB: They want to silence some journalists, and they want to embed the majority. But they would be happier if they could do that. The government will want the journalists to project government narratives on everything. They want the media to project a narrative of normalcy.  If we willingly agree to be silent, we will hasten the destruction of journalism.

As long as you are speaking, you are going to be intimidated.

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