The editor of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times newspaper accused the Narendra Modi administration of stifling press freedom in Kashmir and the rest of India in an opinion piece that was published in The New York Times, angering the Centre.
Anuradha Bhasin, the owner and executive editor of the Kashmir Times, claimed in the piece that Prime Minister Modi would mimic the “disturbing model” used in Jammu and Kashmir “on a national scale”.
“His Hindu-chauvinist movement, which has normalised 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 favourable coverage,” she said the op-ed article under the headline “Modi’s final assault on India’s press freedom has begun”.
Anurag Thakur, the union minister for information and broadcasting, criticised The New York Times on Friday but omitted to name the author, whose publication was one of the few to protest the government crackdown on Jammu and Kashmir after Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019. The 2019 communication blockade that was enforced in the area was contested by Bhasin in the Supreme Court.
“New York Times had long back dropped all pretensions of neutrality while publishing anything about India.” “NYT’s so called opinion piece on freedom of press in Kashmir is mischievous & fictitious, published with a sole motive to spread propaganda about India and its democratic institutions and values,” said the Union Minister in a tweet.
“This is in continuation with what NYT and a few other link-minded (sic) foreign media have been spreading lies about India and our democratically elected Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modiji. “Such lies can’t last long. Some foreign media nourishing a grudge against India and our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi have long been systematically trying to peddle lies about our democracy and pleuritic (sic) society.” Thakur said that in India, media freedom was “as sacrosanct as other fundamental rights”.
“Democracy in India and We the people are very matured and we don’t need to learn grammar of democracy from such agenda driven media. Blatant lies spread by NYT abt press freedom in Kashmir is condemnable. Indians will not allow such mindsets to run their decisive agenda on India soil,” he tweeted.
Bhasin in the article said “An ignorant public and a government free of scrutiny and accountability are threats to democracy. But 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.”
Bhasin charged Modi with systematic undermining of India’s democratic values and subjugation of courts and other institutions in her opinion post.
“The media stands as one of the last remaining institutions capable of preventing India’s descent into authoritarianism. But if Modi succeeds in introducing the Kashmir model of information control to the rest of the country, it won’t be just press freedom that is at risk, but Indian democracy itself,” she said.
The difficulties that journalists in Jammu and Kashmir encountered once restrictions on movement and internet access went into effect in August 2019 are described in Bhasin’s NYT article.
“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 article said.
“Journalists are routinely summoned by 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.”
“In late 2021, I spoke to a journalist, Sajad Gul, who was being harassed for his reporting. Fearing arrest, he told me 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 last year and remains in custody,” the article said.
“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.”
The right-wing ecosystem has viciously attacked Bhasin over the article and has not spared her late father Ved Bhasin, a renowned journalist who backed Kashmiri independence.
The oldest English-language newspaper in Jammu and Kashmir, Kashmir Times, has its main office in Jammu but also published from Srinagar. It was forced to close its Srinagar edition, however, a few months after the August 2019 crackdown due to financial difficulties after being deprived of government ads in what appeared to be retaliatory action.
The authorities closed the newspaper’s Srinagar office in October 2020. The office had been housed in government space that had been given to the daily in 1993 along with a few other publications and journalists.
Bhasin had referred to it as a vendetta against her choice to file a case with the Supreme Court as well as for persistently bringing up Kashmir’s lack of democratic space and restrictions on civil freedoms.
“Government officials and police swept into the offices in Srinagar, chased out the staff and locked the door that remains to this day,” it says. “The raid was punishment for daring to question the policies of PM Modi. The newspaper has been an independent voice in J&K since it was founded by my father in 1954, weathering tumultuous decades of war and military occupation. 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,” she said in the article.