The Kashmir Walla, an emerging independent media house, also known for doing its critical journalism in Kashmir has remained under extreme pressure for the last few years. Staffers working with Kashmir Walla along with founder Fahad Shah have been facing several FIRs for their reporting on Kashmir.
Shah has been in jail since February 2022.
The Srinagar-based digital media outlet, a 12 years old with its office in Srinagar, claimed that the Union government has blocked its website and removed all of its social media accounts, terming it "opaque censorship" to its operations in Jammu and Kashmir.
On 21 August, when a staffer working at TKW tried to open the website, he found access to their website and social media accounts blocked. "We were unable to access the website. When contacting their server provider, we were shocked to learn that the website had been blocked by authorities in India," The Kashmir Walla said in a statement.
While the editor and founder of TKW Fahad Shah remained incarcerated, the news of website blockage was a massive setback for the small team of journalists.The staff of the Srinagar-based news portal were seen vacating their office after receiving an eviction notice from the house owner at Rajbagh Srinagar.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), in accordance with the IT Act of 2000, disabled the news portal's website and social media accounts in India, according to a statement released on Sunday by the interim editor YashRaj on his Twitter. YashRaj Sharma took over the news website after the arrest of Fahad Shah.
The law enacted in October 2000 deals with cybercrime and electronic commerce.
This development comes after the State Investigation Agency (SIA) of the J&K Police conducted a raid on the TKW office and Shah's Srinagar residence in April 2022 to look into an opinion piece written and published in 2011. The opinion piece, published on November 6, 2011, was described by the SIA as “highly provocative, seditious and intended to create unrest in Jammu and Kashmir".
On the condition of anonymity, a staff member at the Kashmir Walla told Decode that most of their gadgets were confiscated during the raid, and reporters were questioned. “The SIA has repeatedly called our interim editor since then and questioned him,” they said.
Prior to Shah's detention, Sajad Gul, a young man who worked for TKW as a trainee reporter, was detained in January 2022 and has since been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and imprisoned in Uttar Pradesh.
Why was Kashmir Walla withheld in India?
The Kashmir Walla was the name of a blog that Fahad Shah created in 2011 and eventually registered it as a news website.
The news portal's founder and editor, Fahad Shah, was detained in February 2022 as a result of a report on an encounter in Pulwama. Later, he was detained in accordance with the terms of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Shah is still incarcerated under the Public Safety Act (PSA).
The statement reads that the government has also shut the new portal’s accounts on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter. The Kashmir Walla called the government's action "opaque censorship" and "gut-wrenching."
Press freedom in the area has reached a new low, according to Beh Lih Yi, Asia programme coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who was speaking in Kuala Lumpur. "The Indian government's arbitrary ban on The Kashmir Walla's website and social media accounts marks a new low for press freedom in the region," she said. "The Indian government must immediately restore Kashmir Walla if it wants to be taken seriously as a democracy," she added.
Taking to X, formerly Twitter, Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti called it a “shame”. “One of the few portals that dared to speak truth to power stands silenced… Fahad Shah continues to be incarcerated for his truthful reportage highlighting ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir. Only Godi media parroting Government of India's narrative and propaganda is allowed to function and flourish," she tweeted.
Will the other Independent media houses in Kashmir face the same action?
Since the national government led by Narendra Modi abruptly revoked the region's autonomy in August 2019 and stripped it of statehood, there has been an increasing crackdown on independent journalists in Kashmir.
Journalists in the area who report critical stories have experienced intimidation, harassment, and drawn-out, tiresome investigations. In the previous two years, more than 40 people have been exposed to raids, police questioning, or have been added to no-fly lists, barring them from leaving the country.
Decode contacted Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Altaf Thakur to know why the Indian Government withheld Kashmir Walla social media accounts. “They were promoting anti Indian narratives in Kashmir. Their reportage was intolerable, how can we accept that?" Thakur told Decode.
However, the spokesperson for Jammu and Kashmir Awami Tehreek, (JKAT), a newly formed political party of renowned social activists in Kashmir, Angad Singh Khalsa told Decode that they see The Kashmir Walla as one of the best professional & vocal voices of people in Jammu and Kashmir. “Kashmir Walla always reported in a very professional manner and investigated the detailed stories with facts, in a democracy press freedom is very important and it's considered as the strongest pillar of democracy,” he said.
A senior independent journalist from Kashmir told Decode that the media landscape has changed in Kashmir making it a nightmarish situation. “Blocking Kashmir Walla simply means there is no space for independent journalism in Kashmir, " the journalist told Decode.
The Kashmir Walla said that they are not aware of the specifics of why their website has been blocked in India and why their Facebook page and Twitter account have 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,” they said.
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