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The Blocking Of ‘The Kashmir Walla’ And Clampdown On Free Press In Kashmir

Following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, ‘The Kashmir Walla’ had emerged as one of the leading media organisations in the Kashmir Valley.

The landlord has also told The Kashmir Walla to vacate the office, as per the statement.
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A staffer at ‘The Kashmir Walla’ learnt on August 21 that the Government of India has banned their website after he was unable to access the website.

Following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, ‘The Kashmir Walla’ emerged as one of the leading media organisations in the Kashmir Valley. The digital magazine was launched by incarcerated Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah in 2009 but it has gained fame in the recent past.
‘The Kashmir Walla’ had been under extreme pressure for the last few years — especially after Shah’s arrest. 

After Shah’s arrest in 2022, ‘The Kashmir Walla’ was looked after by Interim Editor Yashraj Sharma, who himself is facing an FIR for a report he did on the portal. The action was taken by the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under the Information Technology Act, of 2000.

However, a Srinagar-based lawyer requesting anonymity told Outlook that if a website is being blocked, there should be transcription to justify the blockade. On the other hand, if IT laws have been violated, there should be a certificate issued under section 65B to that respect in order to justify the contravention with regard to said violation. He said the website can be blocked if it contravenes any of the provisions of the IT Act.

The lawyer said that the Section 69A of the IT Act supports the Centre to order the blocking of any online content or website. It can only be issued on the grounds of the interest of India’s sovereignty and integrity, national security, defense, international relations, public order, or for preventing the incitement to commit a crime. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the Indian government's move. 

“Blocking of The Kashmir Walla’s website and social media accounts is the latest move to stifle the press in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where dozens of journalists have been attacked, imprisoned, and forced to flee as the government has tightened its control following the repeal in 2019 of the region’s constitutional autonomy,” said CPJ in a statement. 

In a statement, ‘The Kashmir Walla’ claimed it was unaware of the circumstances relating to why its website was blocked in India, why its Facebook page was deleted, and why its Twitter account was disabled. 

“Neither a notice nor an official order relating these acts have been served on us,” said ‘The Kashmir Walla’, referring to the action as “gut-wrenching censorship”.  

“We are at a loss for words at this point. We watched as we were being torn apart piece by piece, and ‘The Kashmir Walla’ has worked tirelessly since 2011 to remain an independent, credible, and brave voice of the area in the face of incredible pressure from the authorities,” said the statement. 

Why was ‘The Kashmir Walla’ blocked? 

The foundation of ‘The Kashmir Walla’ was laid down in 2009 by Shah, who is currently facing Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) charges and is languishing in jail for a year and half. He is presently facing four FIRs and he has received bail in all the cases except the one registered in April in Jammu being investigated by the J&K State Investigation Agency (SIA).

The FIR registered in April 2022 is about a “seditious” and “highly provocative” article published by ‘The Kashmir Walla’ in 2011. Authorities alleged that the article titled ‘The shackles of slavery will break’ was intended to create unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, to abet the gullible youth to take the path of violence, and create communal unrest which led  to an increase in terrorism and unlawful activities across J&K. 

On 15 July 2022, while rejecting the bail application of Fahad Shah, the NIA Court in Jammu said that blue penciling of news articles by anyone other than the editor is not welcome in the polity. Editors are responsible; they have to take responsibility for everything they publish and to maintain the integrity of the published record. It can cause far-reaching consequences in an individual and country’s life. Because news items have the potentiality of bringing doomsday for an individual.

The allegations made against Shah in the SIA case is that ‘The Kashmir Walla’ published  about 40 “seditious” and “anti-India” articles over the years. Shah has been granted  bail in three cases but he is yet to get any relief in the UAPA case registered by SIA. 

Before the team of ‘The Kashmir Walla’ would have come out of this shock, they received an eviction notice from the landlord that forced them to vacate their office in Srinagar.

“We are not aware of the specifics of why our website has been blocked in India; why our Facebook page has been removed; and why our Twitter account has been withheld. We have not been served any notice nor is there any official order regarding these actions that is in the public domain so far,” read the statement by ‘The Kashmir Walla’.

It said that they have lost everything except their readers. It is beyond thankful that we were read avidly for 12 years by millions, said the statement.
Reporters left jobless 

A former staffer of ‘The Kashmir Walla’ told Outlook that the organisation was not just a magazine, it was a home for them. 

“Our home has been snatched from us. The impact of this closure, however, goes way beyond our personal loss. Its impact will be apparent for the upcoming generation, who will not be able to visit and read the Kashmir story anymore. A Kashmiri newspaper has been wiped off the Indian internet. It is a warfare against the collective memory of Kashmiris," said the staffer.

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A Srinagar-based independent journalist, requesting anonymity, told Outlook that he failed to understand what message the authorities are trying to convey by taking such a step. He said, “Do they think that the world will believe their normalcy claims by using such harsh tactics to silence the voice of common Kashmiri?”

India’s position in the 180-country World Press Freedom Index has dropped from 140 to 150 since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister in 2014. After the abrogation of Article 370, ‘The Kashmir Walla’ became the first blocked media outlet in Kashmir.

Geeta Seshu, the founding editor of the Free Speech Collective, who defends the freedom of speech in India, said that ‘The Kashmir Walla’ was targeted by the government for questioning the official narrative in the region. She said that the media in Kashmir has essentially vanished. Despite all obstacles, the young journalists at ‘The Kashmir Walla’ persisted in attempting to publish their stories despite extreme pressure from authorities.

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Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Altaf Thakur told the Outlook that ‘The Kashmir Walla’ was promoting anti-Indian narratives in Kashmir. 

“What kind of reporting they were doing? Their reportage was intolerable, how can we accept this?” Said Thakur.

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