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Hilal Her

The Chimera of Freedom of Speech: India’s Suppression of Women Journalists in IIOJK

February 2024

The state of affairs in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) has deteriorated significantly since August 5, 2019. The voices of Kashmiris have now been virtually completely muffled by the Indian government, which had previously hushed them with a maze of harsh legislation. One way this has been done is by muzzling the various news outlets and persecution of journalists, female journalists being no exception. This article clarifies how India has increased its persecution of journalists working in the conflict-ridden area, specifically female journalists and photojournalists. However, it is crucial to first analyze the larger context of how India handles female journalists inside its borders to appreciate the seriousness of the issue in IIOJK fully.
India, which was formerly hailed as a model of thriving democracy, has seen a concerning decline in the freedom of speech during the recent years. Every year, Reporters Without Borders carefully compiles the Press Freedom Index, a barometer that provides information about the condition of journalism in different countries. The most recent statistics available show a concerning picture of India's position declining steadily. This oversight highlights the deteriorating circumstances facing journalists around the nation. The deterioration of democratic ideals and the capacity of journalists to work without fear or undue influence are major issues raised by the compromised state of India’s once-prized reputation as a country with a strong and independent media landscape. The declining Press Freedom Index rating is a clear sign of the difficulties facing Indian media and calls for a thorough analysis of the causes behind this alarming trend.
How India treats its journalists has drawn attention from all across the world. The case of Supriya Sharma is a heartbreaking illustration. As a distinguished journalist covering the COVID-19 epidemic on the ground, she encountered intimidation and harassment. The authorities singled out Sharma even though her reporting had no malice in it. Her detention was stopped by the Allahabad High Court’s intervention, underscoring the difficulties encountered by journalists who dare to speak truth to power. Another concerning event occurred in Tripura when two young female journalists were detained by the police on charges of inciting enmity and disseminating ‘fake news’. The challenging climate in which journalists operate in India is highlighted by similar examples, such as the incarceration of female journalists reporting on riots in Delhi. The Hathras gangrape case from 2021 made clear how badly journalists are handled when they try to find hard facts. Not only were the phone communications of a female television journalist tracked, but they were also made public, endangering her safety and impeding her case. 
With the context above, we will move on to the state of freedom of speech and press freedom in IIOJK, particularly for female journalists. There is a lengthy history of violence against journalists in IIOJK. The media has been silenced as a result of IIOJK’s loss of autonomy, and the area is seeing major political upheaval, the closure of Kashmir Press Club being the most glaring example, which was done to stop the local journalists from telling the world about the situation on the ground at a time when foreign journalists find it very hard to enter IIOJK. Social media sites have been linked to removing information and suspending critical accounts to control news from IIOJK. Because of the government’s strategy of linking journalism to terrorism, journalists now operate in a scared and oppressive atmosphere.
Nineteen journalists have lost their lives in target killings and kidnappings since 1990. There is a climate of fear and intimidation since the police and armed forces frequently use violence against journalists. Due in large part to the broad impunity granted by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the region is highly militarized, and very often, journalists come face to face with what this entails as far as the freedom of speech is concerned. Female journalists face significant difficulties in addition to those that the journalistic community in IIOJK have to deal with; the experience of female journalists is also frequently marred by gendered harassment, which is especially concerning given they hail from a society that already dissuades women from pursuing professions in media because of perceived risks. In a report published by Al Jazeera in October 2022, this was echoed by a woman journalist who wished her identity to be kept confidential for fear of reprisal: “This career comes with expected vulnerabilities and situations like these [the closure of Kashmir Press Club] make it more difficult for us to work freely, which makes our families reassess our career choices. Hence the impression ‘this is not a safe field for a woman’.” 
There is a long history of repression of women journalists in IIOJK that persists to this day. However, the brave women journalists of IIOJK stand steadfast in defiance of Indian repression and continue to illuminate the world about the brutality that the people of IIOJK endure. Aasiya Jeelani was one such hero who did breakthrough work within the context of human rights violations in IIOJK. Aasiya worked for the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) in fact-finding and research and was part of the team responsible for publishing reports on human rights violations and the disappeared people in Kashmir in collaboration with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).
Her voice was deemed too loud by the Indian occupying forces, and so on April 20, 2004, Aasiya was killed by an IED planted in her car, thus silencing her voice. She was headed to Kupwara district as a member of the election monitoring team of the then parliamentary elections. 
Quratulain Rehbar, a freelance journalist from IIOJK, is one of the few women journalists still working in the region. She is quoted as saying, “Working in Kashmir is really challenging. Security, surveillance, and intimidation have long been a concern, and now online trolling has added to our worries.”
Rehbar was “summoned” by the police on June 4, 2012, after she sent out a tweet that dared to question the occupying forces’ propensity to consider every situation as a matter of law and order by highlighting an event in which the police in South Kashmir allegedly trashed shops. She was questioned by the police, who threatened to file an FIR. This episode serves as a metaphor for the difficulties journalists in the area experience. She also had to quit working on a story for Al Jazeera on Kashmiri women booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) because she was afraid that the police might take action against her. More recently, she was put up for a fake online “auction” of vocal Muslim women journalists and activists through the Bulli Bai App along with more than 100 Muslim women “for sale as maids”.
With the present authoritarian setting in India, harsh anti-terror legislation like the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the UAPA are being used more and more against journalists in IIOJK. Photojournalist Masrat Zahra, on August 20, 2020, was accused of violating the UAPA for sharing ‘anti-national’ information on social media. In a piece she wrote for Al Jazeera in January 2020, Zahra said that her work was driven by a desire to document the conflict in Kashmir through a woman’s perspective – her own and that of the women around her.
Similarly, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, had several instances of obstruction to her career. She was prohibited by immigration officials at the airport in New Delhi on July 2, 2022, from going to a photography event in Paris. Then, on October 17, 2022, she encountered still another obstacle when she planned to travel to New York to accept her Pulitzer Prize. These incidents highlight the extent to which the government uses intimidation and harassment to stifle dissenting opinions, forcing journalists to violate their professional obligations and engage in self-censorship.
In IIOJK, the right to free speech and expression is being threatened by this hostile atmosphere. The combination of censorship, police and military abuse of power, and the inability to hold the government responsible create an environment in which journalists are struggling to survive. To avoid retaliation, many journalists choose to anonymize their sources or avoid disclosing their own names in bylines. These examples also shed light on the difficulties and barriers journalists encounter in IIOJK’s complicated and politically volatile environment.
There has never been a more important time for a free and independent press to ensure accountability is maintained and the voices of the people in IIOJK are heard. The basic right to freedom of speech protects journalism’s vital role in a democratic society, including the vital job done by journalists and the media. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and other human rights treaties all expressly recognize this right. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) outlines the circumstances under which the state may restrict this right. These conditions comprise three interconnected requirements: necessity and proportionality, which states that any restriction must be necessary, proportionate within a democratic society, and the least restrictive means to achieve a legitimate aim; legality, which requires that restrictions be based on a clear and accessible law; and legitimacy, which requires that the restriction serves a legitimate aim as stated in Article 19.3 of the ICCPR. These standards highlight the careful balancing act necessary to preserve a just and orderly society while allowing for the right to free speech.
The continued attacks on journalistic freedom in IIOJK by India must not go unnoticed by the world community, particularly when it comes to the situation of female journalists in IIOJK. The world may use diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and public censure as effective instruments to force India to uphold human rights and journalistic freedoms.
The international community must act now and push India to respect free press principles and defend those who dare to speak out against the existing situation in IIOJK. To prevent repressive governments from undermining journalists’ crucial role in keeping the powerful responsible, the world must take immediate action.

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