RSF Calls For Removal Of Jammu And Kashmir’s “Orwellian” New Media Policy

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the Jammu and Kashmir’s administration’s new media policy, “Media-Policy 2020,” as “Orwellian” and “prior censorship.” The majority-Muslim union territory—formerly a state with special autonomous status until 2019—has seen substantial unrest in recent years.

Notably, on June 21st, three separatist militants were killed in Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir union territory, two days after eight militants were killed in the Shopian and Pampore areas of Kashmir. Internet services in Srinagar are currently suspended “as a precaution,” per The Kashmir Monitor. Human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned India’s treatment of the region, where the government shut down internet services for 213 days and arbitrarily detained 4,000 people in 2019. RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranked India 142nd out of 180 countries and territories.

The government maintains that the new media policy’s purpose is to combat misinformation and “fake news.” According to the statement released by the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) the policy’s goal is to “create a solid foundation” for media to “build public trust, pay attention to grievances of people projected by the media and strengthen the relationship between the various stakeholders.”

In reality, the policy requires media outlets to allow the DIPR to run background checks on every reporter, editor, and publisher in order to gain official approval or “empanelment.” An outlet or staff member found “indulging in fake news, unethical or anti-national activities or in plagiarism” will be “de-empaneled” (lose official approval) and risks legal repercussions under the Indian penal code and cyber laws. Moreover, the Kashmir Observer notes, advertising in Jammu and Kashmir is controlled by the state—meaning outlets that are “de-empaneled” will lose all ad revenue.

Additionally, as the RSF points out, the new media policy offers no clear definition of “fake news” or “anti-national activities.”  Journalists and activists worry that the lack of set perimeters could lead to overreach, particularly considering the government’s track record in the region. Aliya Iftikhar, the Center to Protect Journalists’ Senior Asia Researcher, told the Kashmir Walla that with India’s history of “targeting critical journalists with legal and criminal cases, particularly in Kashmir, there is little reason to believe this policy will not be misused.”

Kashmiri journalist and author Gowhar Geelani described the policy to the RSF as “simply [officializing] previous actions designed to control the media and freedom of expression, and to impose a single narrative.” Notably, the Jammu and Kashmir Cyber Police filed a case against Geelani in April for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley” and potentially disrupting “public tranquility and the security of the state.”

Additionally, the Indian government has already limited the dissemination of information through frequent internet service suspensions as a means of “preventing civil unrest.” The Software Freedom Law Centre’s Internet Shutdown Tracker project found 20 other instances of suspended internet service in 2020 so far, not including the mobile internet service shutdown reported by the Kashmir Monitor on June 21st. The government previously explained internet shutdowns as a response to “provocative and instigating material [posted to] Twitter handles and other social media sites.” Their justification of internet shutdowns echoes the new media policy’s stated purpose to curb “fake news” and “anti-national activities”—both allegedly protect state security, but human rights activists argue the policies infringe upon freedom of expression and the dissemination of information.

There are legitimate security concerns in Kashmir and Jammu, over which India has fought two wars with Pakistan. The region, which borders Pakistan, is Muslim-majority but historically governed by a Hindu king; a dynamic that caused confusion during the 1947 partition. Many in the region expected the state to join Pakistan. However, while a referendum on Kashmir’s status (i.e. whether it would join Pakistan, India, or attain independence) was often promised, it was never delivered. That is, Kashmiris have never had any say in the matter which, coupled with reported human rights abuses by the Indian army, has created substantial unrest.

Conflict with insurgent groups has claimed the lives of over 40,000 people, including at least 14,000 civilians, since the insurgency started in 1989. And though militant groups are much less active now than in the 1990s, violence related to the conflict has increased since 2014, per the Hindustan Times. In 2016, Doctors Without Borders found that nearly one in five Kashmiris experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The national government’s actions toward the region—such as revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status, curbing press freedoms, and cutting internet services—do not make Kashmiris safer. Nor do such policies address separatist sentiments in the region. Particularly given Jammu and Kashmir’s complex history and relationship with the national government, dialogue is essential to peacebuilding efforts.  The “prior censorship” created by the new media policy, along with other oppressive actions, will only further stifle Kashmiris’ voices.

Alexa Grunow