It was the evening of June 14, 2018. An evening before the night of Eid-ul-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. The newspaper staff at Rising Kashmir was already short-staffed, ready to make the final edits before the reporters go home and celebrate with their families. The sun had gone down, the shopkeepers around the Press enclave were finishing their work when he heard the sound of machine guns – in Srinagar, the sounds of firing are common but this time, it was the Founder of Rising Kashmir, who was shot by three gunmen in the corner of the street which was adjacent to the market crowded with people. With the sun going down, the tall leader of Rising Kashmir, Mr. Shujaat Bukhari was silenced. Three years have gone by, it is still unclear that who was behind the murder but the intention was clear: Behave or you shall be shot!
Muffled Freedom of Speech
The above incident isn’t something of a new phenomenon in Union Territory of J&K – terrorists and people living in Kashmir will speak gauging the environment and who is asking the questions with a clear distinction, “ya aap humare hain ya unke” (You are either one of us or them). Many question the freedom of the press among the reporters, as they have been the longest under pressure to publish biased agendas and high tension over which language the papers should be published in? With the advent of the high-speed internet in the valley, there have been few activities that are already alarming to the extent of muzzling voices in the Valley through various means of disruptions.
In one of the recent instances, Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone headquartered at Srinagar registered the report of The Real Kashmir News, one of the prominent names among the Kashmiri’s and voices that advocate resolution to the conflict, had a viewership of 2,50,000 people on YouTube – lost all their followers as someone hacked in their email, uploaded a particular video which was bound to be flagged leading to the removal of their page from YouTube. On registering a complaint, there couldn’t be much which could have been done as this attempt to nullify the hard work of the news agency is more strategic, operational, and tactical in level.l1. War of Narratives
In recent years, information warfare has been high and targeted in the areas of J&K, especially after the abrogation of Article 370, the Inter-Service Intelligence has been on the forefront and has been playing an important role in the execution of proxy war against India. With the COVID-19, people are forced to sit at home, spend more time at home with social media as the only escape, this pandemic has confronted us to a whole new different set of difficult and sensitive challenges to function with as they affect the trust of the public and the legitimacy of the government.
The media, both Indian and foreign pick-up stories that emerge from the narratives, and in this age of social media, it is clear, you get an influencer to share a story and these things go ‘viral’. Nowadays, it matters when a story has a heart, mind, thus, making the story win is more important, and due to the advancement of information technology – circulation of misinformation, propaganda, rumour mongering, narrative building and sabotaging of claims are becoming the new battlespace.
In India, the premeditated dislike for BJP led National Democratic Alliance in some quarters has added to the global narratives encouraged by a negative perception that appears in the Indian Press as quite often, it is seen that one-sided stories about discrimination against minorities start from within India and they go unchallenged. It is often seen that opinions are thrown around as facts and the objectivity of fairness and reporting goes to the toss. Political interests and vested interests have led to selective biases which are further being used by adversaries sitting across the borders. Whenever a narrative against a particular country starts, it’s usually the ‘why’, the systemic inadequacies of the region and most importantly, the ideas which they stand for are challenged to the core in a narrative.
The Real Kashmir News had been one of the forefront voices which worked for busting fake propaganda, social media troll rackets through their tweets, conducting sting operations and exposing the narrative waged by ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) which is the public relation wing of Pakistan Armed Forces. They were known to expose the various stories from Balochistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Sindh and Waziristan which happened to be where Pakistan ruled with an iron hand. The daily news bulletin was in the vernacular languages which were Kashmiri and Urdu, thus becoming an instant hit among the locals.
In conversation with a youth leader and lawyer from Jammu, Rahul Aggarwal, he states, “The assassination of Shujaat Bukhari wasn’t the first time a person is threatened for their opinions or peaceful solution of the Kashmir issue; in the past, Abdul Ghani Bhat and Moulvi Mirwaiz Farooq were also killed because they have been equivocal about their issues. These campaigns usually start as ‘betraying the Kashmiri struggle’, this leads to separatist movements funded by Pakistan and dead militants are celebrated in public as a martyr, drawing thousands of spectators.”
The report named ‘Annual Pakistan Media Legal Review 2020’ which was launched by IRADA showed that the Islamabad-led government has resorted to political blocking of social and cultural websites, as well as increased practices of coercive censorship and muted dissent is diminishing the freedom of speech in Pakistan. ISPR propagates the carefully crafted message of ‘Islam is in danger, thus, in a way increases its virtual environment and influence on social media through disinformation and manipulator of information. One of the most interesting things to notice is ISPR’s YouTube pages glorifying the ‘fight’ of Kashmir as a noble one and documentaries directly made to propagate their views to a targeted group of people and these videos rake quite a large number of views.
Thus, India is becoming a victim of a bruised target of Information Warfare, not because of the invincibility of our adversaries but our owns and calibrated campaigns of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ and the narrative of ‘majoritarianism’, however, it is to be seen that India has been more embracing than the British, American or German variety of nationalism. Moreover, if we look into it, several faiths were born in India such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism; India is secular because the majority is secular and the whole narrative of appeasement never fits in the concept of Secularism in the first place.
In a vacuum of critical information and local voices getting diluted, democracy falls at risk. In the months to come, the administration in UT of J&K needs to understand the important role of media and the commitment to protecting press freedom as the incidents which happened to The Real Kashmir News is disheartening and a tragedy for press freedom and peace advocacy.