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Modi’s Final Assault on India’s Press Freedom Has Begun

The police standing guard outside the office building where Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s office in New Delhi last month.Credit...Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Anuradha Bhasin

Ms. Bhasin is the executive editor of The Kashmir Times.

On the evening of Oct. 19, 2020, as reporters and photographers for The Kashmir Times rushed to meet deadlines, government officials and the police swept into the newspaper’s offices in the city of Srinagar, chased out the staff, and put a lock on the door that remains to this day.

To me, the raid was punishment for daring to question the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. The newspaper, for which I am the executive editor, has been an independent voice in the state of Jammu and Kashmir since it was founded by my father in 1954, weathering several tumultuous decades of war and military occupation. But it may not survive Mr. Modi. His repressive media policies are destroying Kashmiri journalism, intimidating media outlets into serving as government mouthpieces and creating an information vacuum in our region of about 13 million people.

Now Mr. Modi is taking steps that could replicate this disturbing model on a national scale. His Hindu-chauvinist movement, which has normalized intolerance and violence against Indian Muslims, has already put severe pressure on India’s once-rambunctious press, with journalists surveilled and jailed and the government using strong-arm tactics against media outlets to ensure favorable coverage. But in January, draft amendments to digital media guidelines were introduced that would essentially allow the government to block any content it doesn’t like.

In other words, the rest of India may end up looking a lot like Kashmir.

In 2019, Mr. Modi’s government abruptly revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status without public input from the territory’s people, sent in thousands of troops and shut down internet access. The shutdown lasted nearly six months, forcing hundreds of journalists to line up for hours to file their stories via a single designated site that had internet access. Each had 15 minutes to do so. Internet speeds have been excruciatingly slow since.

The next year new rules were introduced that empowered officials to label media content in Kashmir as “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national” and to punish journalists and publications. The rules stated — ironically — that the goal was to “promote the highest standard of journalism.”

Journalists are routinely summoned by the police, interrogated and threatened with charges such as income tax violations or terrorism or separatism. Several prominent journalists have been detained or sentenced to jail terms.

We work under a cloud of fear. In late 2021, I spoke to a young journalist, Sajad Gul, who was being harassed for his reporting. Fearing arrest, he told me that he slept fully dressed each night and kept his shoes at his bedside — unusual in Kashmir, where shoes are customarily removed before entering a home — in case he had to make a quick getaway. He was arrested in January of last year and remains in custody. Many journalists self-censor or have simply quit. Fearing arrest, some have fled into exile overseas. The Indian government has put at least 20 others on no-fly lists to prevent them from leaving the country.

Journalism has always been hazardous in Kashmir. India and Pakistan both claim the mountainous region, which has been plagued by war and a separatist insurgency for decades. Journalists have been caught in the middle, threatened and intimidated by Indian security forces and militants, both of whom have wanted to control how the story is being told. At least 19 journalists were killed in Kashmir between 1990 and 2018.

A protest against the continuous detention of a local journalist in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, in 2018.Credit...Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images — LightRocket, via Getty Images

Still, Kashmiri journalism flowered. Newspapers and news websites proliferated, and a new generation of talented young investigative journalists brought a fresh eye to Kashmir’s problems with well-researched public-interest reporting that often boldly took on the government.

All of that has disappeared under Mr. Modi, whose government aims to silence any separatist voices or those advocating conciliation or a negotiated settlement in Kashmir. Kashmiri newspapers are heavily reliant on government advertising and media subsidies, and the government uses that leverage to ensure that those newspapers tell the officially approved version of the truth. Today, few Kashmir news outlets dare to question official policy, and many have become blatant government mouthpieces just to stay in business.

My own newspaper is barely surviving. In 2019, I filed a lawsuit challenging the internet shutdown. In apparent retaliation, the government sealed our Srinagar office. Many of our journalists have left and our operations have been crippled. Today, when I suggest that we report aggressively on public issues, I encounter resistance from my wary, skeletal staff.

An information vacuum hangs over Kashmir, with the public under-informed — or misinformed — about what’s going on in the region. Important news is suppressed, downplayed or twisted to suit government ends.

When Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a towering figure in the separatist movement, died in 2021, the news was either blacked out in Kashmir or mentioned only briefly. Last month, the government began a drive to bulldoze thousands of homes that authorities said were illegally built on state land. A leading Kashmir outlet portrayed it as a bold stroke against unnamed “influential land-grabbers.” There was no word about the poor Kashmiris suddenly left homeless or residents who claim to have valid documents proving ownership.

An ignorant public and a government free of scrutiny and accountability are threats to democracy. But Mr. Modi appears intent on replicating this across India. The proposed amendments to national guidelines for digital media that were unveiled in January are strikingly similar to those imposed on Kashmir, empowering government fact-checkers to label online content as “fake or false.” Days after those changes were announced, the government ordered online platforms to block links to “India: The Modi Question,” a BBC documentary critical of the prime minister. Indian tax agents later raided the British broadcaster’s offices in India. Such raids have been used repeatedly to pressure critical voices in the media.

Since he took power in 2014, Mr. Modi has systematically debased India’s democratic ideals, bending courts and other government machinery to his will.

The media stands as one of the last remaining institutions capable of preventing India’s descent into authoritarianism. But if Mr. Modi succeeds in introducing the Kashmir model of information control to the rest of the country, it won’t just be press freedom that is at risk, but Indian democracy itself.

Anuradha Bhasin (@AnuradhaBhasin_) is the executive editor of the Kashmir Times and author of “A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir After 370.” A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2023, Section A, Page 17 of the New York edition with the headline: Modi’s Final Assault on India’s Press Freedom.

© 2023 The New York Times Company

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