For three decades, Mehraj-ud-Din, a senior journalist who started his career at a newspaper, covered the Republic Day function in Kashmir, without fail. Mehraj has unforgettable memories from previous functions, including those during the hey-day of the insurgency in the early 1990s when merely carrying a camera invited a threat to life. "It was like living on a razor's edge," he said.
Just like every year, Mehraj was leaving office on Saturday morning with a camera and car keys when his phone rang. Tauseef Mustafa, a senior photographer for AFP, called to say they had been stopped from covering the Republic Day function at the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. He told Mehraj there was some "adverse report" because of which the security team had denied entry to several journalists. Mustafa told Mehraj his name was also on the list.
"In the past 30 years, it has never happened with me," said Mehraj, 60, who works for The Associated Press.
Several veteran journalists, some of whom work with top international media organisations like AFP, AP, Reuters and ANI, were denied entry into the stadium in the region's summer capital of Srinagar, where a top officer of the state administration, Khursheed Ganai, unfurled the National Flag and saluted it.
The Editors Guild of India on Monday condemned the action of the state government. Describing it as an "unprecedented state-sponsored attack on the freedom of press", the guild urged the government to set up a fool-proof and non discriminatory system of issuing entry passes to journalists.
Mustafa, a short man with an unkempt beard, said he was "shocked" when members of the Jammu and Kashmir Police stopped him from entering the venue. Others who were denied entry include Umer Mehraj, another AP employee, Danish Ismail, a photographer with Reuters, Bilal Bhat of ANI and Habib Naqash of Greater Kashmir, the state's most prominent English daily.
"There is a history of a bitter relationship between government and media in Kashmir. This is not the first incident in which Kashmiri journalists have been barred from attending government events. The act is structural in nature and falls within the bracket of censorship. The very nature of this 'adverse' report is not clear and it has only strained the government-media relationship," Rouf Bhat, a communication scholar, who is researching media censorship, said.
Muneer Khan, ADGP (Law and Order), refused to comment on the issue. "I will not talk about this issue. The prime minister's visit is coming up," he said before ending the phone conversation with this correspondent.
Following the denial, the journalist community in Srinagar took to streets and almost all the prominent journalist associations condemned the government action. Recently, during Home Minister Rajnath Singh's visit to the Valley, many journalists were barred from attending the press conference by Singh, despite the Jammu and Kashmir publicity department issuing entry passes to the journalists.
In recent years, the freedom of the press has come under immense stress in Kashmir. After visibly failing to control growing discontent on the streets using military force, authorities in Kashmir seem to have launched a calibrated strategy to control a seemingly anti-state narrative.
The 'adverse' reports against these journalists seem to have popped up despite the fact that they were issued security passes by the government's information department. These passes should have enabled their entry into the venue without hassle. Other reports suggest that several Kashmiri journalists were outright denied security passes for the event by the authorities without any intimation.
Naqash, a veteran photojournalist, who has worked in Kashmir for almost three decades, said that for the past few months, the government has removed him from the mailing list of journalists who receive press releases from information department about the day-to-day activities of the government.
"Even at the peak of militancy, journalists in Kashmir were not targeted the way it's been happening for the past four years," said Naqash, "It is unprecedented and not just frustrating but humiliating too."
The official muzzling of the media comes days after security forces prevented several Kashmiri journalists from covering the funerals of three Lashkar-e-Taiba militants who were gunned down in an encounter in north Kashmir's Baramulla district last week. Earlier this month, four photojournalists, one of whom works with Hindustan Times, were targeted with pellets by security forces during an encounter with militants in the restive south Kashmir.
These brazen actions reveal a pattern of official muscle-flexing to control the narrative in Kashmir where, despite a massive and sweeping crackdown on separatists and militants, anger against the state has only multiplied in recent months and years. In the war of contesting narratives, gagging the media is not uncommon for authorities.
In 2016, when an uprising broke out in the region following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, English daily Kashmir Reader that is published out of Srinagar, was banned for nearly three months for publishing stories that were not liked by the authorities.
It was an unprecedented decision that sparked uproar across the globe. Days after banning Kashmir Reader, as the region continued to reel under protests and shutdowns, a photojournalist, Kamran Yusuf, was jailed by the National Investigation Agency for his alleged role in the so-called terror funding case in which several separatist leaders have been arrested.
Of the many accusations that were levelled against Kamran, the agency, defending his arrest, said he didn't give enough coverage to the developmental activities of the government which 'proved' that he was involved in 'anti-national' activities.
Last year, another local journalist, Aquib Javeed, was called by the agency to its head office in New Delhi and questioned for doing an interview for weekly Kashmir Ink with Aasiya Andrabi, a prominent woman Hurriyat leader. Although Aquib was released, the state seems to be slowly and steadily tightening the grip on the media in Kashmir. And while the pressure faced by journalists in Kashmir is neither new nor unique, it seems the state government — that is directly run by New Delhi — wants to scare journalists by preventing them from doing their professional duties.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 19:49:55 IST