On January 6, a group of journalists from Kashmir held a protest at the Press Club in Srinagar. They stood with laptops in hand, calling for a lift on the internet shutdown that has lasted more than 150 days.
There has been a communication blockade in the state since Aug. 5, when the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special constitutional status, which gave it the right to semi-autonomous rule when it joined India 72 years ago. Since the status was revoked, local leaders from the state have been under house arrest, tourism has suffered and people have been unable to get online.
Even though some mobile connections have been restored since October, broadband and wireless internet remain blocked, marking the longest internet shutdown in a democracy. Most journalists have been working out of the media facilitation center set up by the government, which provides access to the internet in a conference room in a hotel in Srinagar.
Kashmir has been in a state of insurgency for 30 years, and even before the shutdown, news gathering and reporting have been extremely challenging for many different reasons. For one, most Kashmiris have a deeply ingrained distrust of the media, especially broadcast, which maintains a hyperbolic and nationalist pitch, and has been reporting that everything is “normal” since August.
I have reported from Kashmir twice since August and found there were multiple challenges on the ground, including the propensity for rumors and fake news to take root in a conflict-ridden society. The ongoing insurgency also brings the very real fear for personal safety, and the threat of terrorism.
We spoke with journalists who have been reporting from Kashmir for print and online outlets to understand how they continue to work despite the many challenges they face.
Take time to build trust with sources
“There is an acute mistrust in Kashmir that is mostly aimed at TV channels for the fear and war-mongering they have committed themselves to. That makes a journalist's job difficult,” says Rahul Pandita, who is based out of Delhi and was one of the first reporters on the ground in August. “Go and speak to people with an open mind, and if you are sincere, people do open up to you and show you around. But it takes time.”
In the midst of all this distrust, there is no substitute for spending time with sources, says Srinagar-based independent journalist Rayan Naqash: “It is difficult to establish trust in a place where everyone suspects the other, but an honest, empathetic approach and a willingness to listen to people's stories helps.”
In the initial days after the blockade, it was impossible to connect to sources. Most people in Kashmir are afraid of real or perceived consequences of talking to the press, and they generally want to take precautions and use encrypted messaging services. However, since Aug. 5, that has been out of the question. Most journalists have been working around that challenge by showing up at the homes of people they want to interview.
Verify every bit of information
In a conflict situation, information is always in demand. “Many people tend to give the impression that they know the facts to a situation when they actually don't," says Naqash. In one instance, when he was reporting an army shootout that killed four Kashmiri civilians, a crowd had gathered at the spot of the incident, and one person volunteered play-by-play details of the previous night's incident. After Naqash prodded a little, the person confessed that he had heard so, and wasn't actually an eyewitness.
"Over the years, I have met several such volunteers, and it’s all the more important to confirm accounts of incidents from as many different sources as possible," Naqash says.
Not surprisingly, a lack of reliable media inside the country means that there has been a fake news overdrive about what’s happening. This news has made its way to social media, especially in the rest of India.
“Don’t believe everything that’s on social media because it’s the place where most of the rumors spread like fire,” says Srinagar-based journalist Raihana Maqbool who covers Kashmir for Global Press Journal. “People share those stories further without checking whether it’s true or not, so verification is very important.”
Pool resources to ensure personal safety
It is not easy to get around in Kashmir because of a large security presence, the threat of terrorism and a lack of public transportation. This is exacerbated by the lack of reliable information. “I didn’t travel alone to farther places but traveled in a group of two or three because we never know what situation we would face, and we couldn’t check as everything was down,” Maqbool says.
Traveling in a group made the trip safer, but it also made her more comfortable stopping to talk with locals in areas less commonly visited by reporters.
Find ways to adapt
Journalists in Kashmir have found ways to work around the communication clampdown. Before the media facilitation center was set up, journalists in Srinagar would wait outside the airport and send stories printed on paper or saved on USB drives with passengers traveling outside the region.
Aliya Bashir, who works with Global Press Journal, says working for an international organization is even more challenging since she has no option but to submit her stories online: “On the ground, snapping communication felt like someone put us in a time machine and we had gone back to an era where there is no concept of technology, and communication is only confined to physical presence.”
Bashir wrote her stories in Kashmir, and then traveled to Delhi to file them, and to communicate with her editors in the U.S. “We had to adapt according to the environment, do the work that is possible and navigate in between all the difficult circumstances,” says Bashir.