Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – For decades, local media has documented the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir but recently, stories critical of the Indian government have seemingly disappeared from digital archives.
Several Kashmiri journalists have told Al Jazeera their work is among thousands of news reports, many highlighting human rights abuses by Indian security forces, that have gone missing from the digital archives of local newspapers.
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Scope for media freedom has been eroded rapidly in Kashmir, where journalists have been criminalised and newspaper advertising funding has been cut since the disputed region was stripped of its special status by India’s Hindu nationalist government in 2019.
Some local newspaper owners call what is happening a “technical issue”, and many are silent about it, but journalists Al Jazeera spoke to say it is a deliberate pattern “to twist history” and project everything as “hunky-dory” in Kashmir – a border region disputed by India and Pakistan.
Mudasir Ali, 37, was a well-known reporter at Greater Kashmir, a popular newspaper in the region, established in 1987. Ali, who comes from central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was a staffer there from 2007 to November 2020 when he suffered a heart attack and died.
He was known for his groundbreaking news reports, but most of his work is missing from the newspaper archives. A search shows just four stories filed by Ali between 2017 and 2020.
“He had done exceptionally great work in some sectors, including power generation, water resources in Kashmir,” lamented one of his journalist friends who did not wish to be identified.
“We will be in very uncertain times and I see erasing of archives as a part of a larger pattern to silence not only the spoken word but the writings, too,” the journalist said.
Forced into self-censorship
In the last two years, the local newspapers, which have been a window to the conflict in Kashmir for the outside world, have been forced into self-censorship as proprietors and editors have been hounded by Indian agencies.
Fayaz Kaloo, editor and owner of Greater Kashmir newspaper has been summoned by India’s top “anti-terror” agency – National Investigation Agency (NIA) – multiple times.
Since the local newspapers in the region are solely dependent on the government advertisements for the revenue – which has often been stopped by the government at will – many say it is easier for the government to pull the strings.
Al Jazeera spoke to at least 15 journalists in the region whose years of reporting have been partially or completely erased from the digital archives. Many termed it as a deliberate attempt of “war on memory”.
Junaid Kathju, a journalist based in the main city of Srinagar, also worked as a reporter at Rising Kashmir newspaper for five years until 2021. He too has lost all his work at the paper except for the few newspaper cuttings that he used to save initially.
“As a reporter, you work for by-lines. It is the oxygen for your work. We took up the issue with the organization and they said it will be uploaded back but more than a year has passed, there is nothing,” Kathju told Al Jazeera.
“Our work has been undone and erased like we did not exist.”
Like Kathju, Ahmad, who only gave his last name to conceal his identity, found his work missing from the online edition of the newspaper. Decades of his work, including with Rising Kashmir, have been wiped out, he says.
“If I have to apply for a job or a scholarship, they ask for the links to my previous work, but I have nothing. It has become difficult for me to prove that I am a journalist.”
Ahmad says he is getting calls from people who wrote opinions for the papers as they cannot find their write-ups any more.
“It is like what Russia did to the Chechens,” he said. “First dismantle them then build a narrative that fits them.”
‘Journalism is literature’
Sameena Jan (name changed), 27, worked at another local newspaper Kashmir Reader, which was launched in 2012 and had initially been highly critical of the government. She joined the paper in 2016. The paper, she says, has deleted all her stories that appeared until 2018.
During the 2016 uprising that was followed by the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani, Kashmir Reader was banned for three months for being “critical of the Indian government”.
“Sometimes I need to follow up an old story and there is nothing in the archives. I initially believed it might be a technical issue as reasoned by the paper but then I understood it was much more than that,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Journalism is literature in a hurry but it’s literature.”
Local newspapers in the region highlighted the armed rebellion that erupted in the 1990s, human rights issues such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, becoming the main source for human rights groups and researchers to chronicle the events unfolding in the region.
But for the last two years, the newspapers are mostly filled with government handouts and press releases. The stories that are critical of the government and its policies hardly find a place in the papers amid a growing climate of fear for journalists.
Last week, Fahad Shah, the editor of Kashmir Walla website, was arrested for posting so-called anti-national content online. A contributor to the website, Sajad Ahmad Dar was earlier booked under a controversial law – Public Safety Act (PSA), under which a person can be jailed up to six months without a trial.
Earlier this month, the authorities also shuttered the Kashmir Press Club, the largest independent media body with more than 300 journalist members.
‘Erased the record of Kashmir’s bloody past’
A 31-year-old media research scholar, who has done his work on the local newspapers, said that “they [local papers] have successfully erased the record of Kashmir’s bloody past with one fell swoop.
“It is a blow to the small yet strong press corps of Kashmir who has battled odds to chronicle the worst human rights abuses caused by the state and other non-state actors on the people of Kashmir, sometimes at the cost of their lives.”
He said that for researchers relying on media archives to analyse the conflict situation in Kashmir, the wiping out of archives has rendered “them handicapped”.
“This would result in skewed research and a twisted history,” he added.
Al Jazeera reached out to the owners and editors of the three newspapers – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and Kashmir Reader – about the issue, but they declined to comment.
One of the administrators in Kashmir Reader, however, termed the erasure of the archives a “technical issue”.
Geeta Seshu, a senior journalist and co-founder of Free Speech Collective, an organization that advocates for press freedom in India, told Al Jazeera: “The deletion of reports that may be unpalatable to the current dispensation is undemocratic and, if done in stealth, takes on disturbingly sinister connotations.”
She added that in the context of conflict areas like Kashmir, “ominous state censorship is ever-present and media houses are constantly called upon to prove their loyalty to the present dispensation. Important past records are an obstacle in the creation of this ‘Naya [new] Kashmir’.”
Geeta said that media houses have a primary commitment to the public.
“Journalists bear witness and the media as a whole serve as record-keepers for society. They are repositories of public information. If this responsibility to society is abrogated, the importance of truth-telling and memory in the shaping of narratives is at stake”.