Reports by India’s national media and the international media have varied widely on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir since the region’s constitutional status was scrapped by the Narendra Modi government on August 5.
On one side was the foreign media, led by the BBC, and on the other was the largely mainstream Indian media, which supports the government’s nationalistic stance. Meanwhile, the Kashmiris remained completely shut-off with their voices not heard.
The differing coverage started with the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Reuters showing videos of a large-scale protest in the Soura region of Srinagar. Their reports said police opened fire on the crowd and used tear gas to disperse them.
However, these reports were quickly denied by the government, who accused the BBC and others of fabricating the video. Many people took to social media and accused the British media organization of bias and criticized the terminology it used to describe Jammu and Kashmir, which was “Indian-administered Kashmir.”
Many preferred the government’s narrative of the Srinagar protest being “fake news.” The BBC then released a statement and refuted any claims of misrepresenting events in Kashmir.
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) August 11, 2019
Al-Jazeera also showed video footage of protesters carrying black flags and placards saying “We want freedom” and “Abrogation of Article 370 is not acceptable.” The New York Times, Reuters and Associated Press also published reports of unrest, which challenged the government’s claims of peace and calm in the valley.
Photos taken by Associated Press showed Kashmiri women protesting against the scrapping of Article 370, which was contrary to the government’s claims.
However, the government denied the reports of unrest and said it had asked the international media organizations for the unedited footage of the protests. It also said it had asked for evidence to prove the authenticity of the Srinagar protest.
But BBC South Asia chief Nicola Careem told Asia Times: “We haven’t received any government request for our original footage, and standing by our journalism includes standing by the time and place highlighted on our report.’’
The Indian government has maintained the stance that no incidents of violence had occurred and that life for Kashmiris was returning to normal. The Ministry of Home Affairs also denied a Reuters’ report claiming police used tear gas and pellets against a crowd of 10,000 people in Srinagar.
The ministry claimed in a tweet that the report was “completely fabricated and incorrect” and that “there have been a few stray protests in Srinagar/Baramulla but none involved a crowd of more than 20 people.”
But on August 13, the government reversed its stance. The ministry admitted in a tweet that there was a stone-throwing incident in Srinagar on August 9, contrary to its earlier statement.
Stories in media on a said incident in Soura region of #Srinagar.
On 09/08, miscreants mingled with people returning home after prayers at a local mosque. They resorted to unprovoked stone pelting against law enforcement forces to cause widespread unrest.@diprjk @JmuKmrPolice
— Spokesperson, Ministry of Home Affairs (@PIBHomeAffairs) August 13, 2019
Asia Times contacted Reuters’ India bureau chief Sanjeev Miglani, but he declined to comment.
On August 14, ANI reported that Jammu and Kashmir’s Additional Director General of Police Munir Khan also admitting “there have been a few pellet injuries.”
It was the first time since the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status that the authorities admitted that pellets were used in the valley. ThePrint also published a report on pellet injuries, despite the government’s earlier claim that there were no pellets fired.
Indian media blackout?
The Indian government appears to have attempted to control information on the tense situation in Kashmir. The state is under an unprecedented lockdown and all communications have been suspended for the past nine days.
Many Indian media organizations showed footage of Kashmiris praising the government’s decision. In sharp contrast to claims by the international media, ANI aired footage of crowded ATMs and people going about their daily chores.
Jammu and Kashmir: Latest visuals from Srinagar as people move about for their daily chores. pic.twitter.com/sVrmaxK8gz
— ANI (@ANI) August 9, 2019
Some TV channels also reported that life for Kashmiri’s was “back on track” while downplaying the opposition’s claims of unrest in the valley.
— Republic (@republic) August 10, 2019
These claims were also supported by the government and the Jammu and Kashmir administration, which released videos and images of people shopping for the Eid celebrations on August 10. But people on social media were quick to notice the repetition in the images and called it propaganda.
People busy in Eid shopping. pic.twitter.com/YiFNEIar3u
— J&K Police (@JmuKmrPolice) August 10, 2019
One of the first major insights on what has been happening in Kashmir from a source other than journalists came from Jean Dreze, a noted economist and an Indian citizen of Belgian descent.
A team consisting of Dreze, Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Maimoona Mollah of the All India Democratic Women’s Association and Vimalbhai of the National Alliance of People’s Movements had returned from extensive travels in Kashmir and released a report on August 14.
They found the situation in Kashmir was very different from the way it had been portrayed in the Indian media.
Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of the Kashmir Times and daughter of prominent journalist Ved Bhasin, had filed an urgent listing in the Supreme Court. She sought the removal of restrictions imposed on journalists in the region. Bhasin also sought directions for the restoration of all modes of communication, including mobile internet and landline services, in Kashmir.
In an interview with the Quint, she questioned the implications of the restrictions in the valley against the government’s claims of peace and normalcy. “We are willing to buy the propaganda that people in the valley are happy. If the people in the valley are indeed happy, then why the restrictions? Why are the telephone lines restricted? What are the reasons for the internet still being banned?”
The government said the communication restrictions were temporary and aimed at ensuring law and order. But the Editors’ Guild of India said it was concerned that the situation was making it difficult to identify accurate information from the region.
Journalists have also been restricted from shooting videos or taking photographs. However, they are putting stories on pen-drives and sending them to their offices via travelers. But there was a spurt of fake news and misinformation amid the communication blackout.
On August 13, four Twitter accounts were suspended after the government told Twitter to remove some accounts linked to people from outside Jammu and Kashmir. It alleged that the accounts were spreading malicious rumors.
A senior home ministry official, on condition of anonymity, told News18 that eight Twitter accounts had been spreading fake news and misinformation to disturb the peace and calm in the valley.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization, condemned the situation in Kashmir and said: ” This is a critical time for Kashmir and all journalists should be able to move and report freely so that citizens and the world have an accurate understanding of what is happening in the region, regardless of whether or not its’s favorable for the Indian government.”
The organization also said the restrictions put in place stifle press freedom: ”Kashmir is a conflict zone and CPJ’s research over the years has shown that India attempts to control the narrative coming out of Kashmir by stifling press freedom and attempting to control the media through various means of intimidation and harassment.”
The Kashmir problem is a complex issue for India, but restricting or cutting off communication may not be the ideal solution.