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In Kashmir, Tehelka takes on press freedom abuses

The latest issue of India's Tehelka weekly magazine carries some great reporting on press freedom issues, an effort supported by CPJ and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The article, by Pragya Tiwari, includes many examples of journalists being harassed and assaulted while reporting on clashes between security and separatist groups in Jammu and Kashmir. It begins with a veteran journalist who was beaten to unconsciousness while going through a security checkpoint--despite having all the right paperwork. But the author also outlines systemic problems that are eroding media freedom even on issues beyond the conflict.  

It is clear from the article that whoever is responsible for attacking the media--police, security forces, government officials, or separatists--Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's state administration is either failing to address the issue or is actively involved. Conditions have worsened since Abdullah took office following 2008 elections, journalists told Tehelka. 

Curfew passes are meant to allow journalists to operate even during times of high security, but in practice "there is not a single journalist Tehelka met whose curfew pass has not arbitrarily been torn or declined." Journalists can't report and often can't even get to their offices. Police respond that curfew passes are being faked.

The local administration's Home Department, which operates under the chief minister, ordered a telecom company to block a news SMS service with 5,000 subscribers. While all text messages were banned in June 2010, they were allowed to resume by December. The news service was still blocked, though, without explanation.

Newspapers are largely dependent on politically controlled ads, Tiwari writes. In 2009, the chairman of a state-run bank withheld advertising payments from the parent company of the publisher behind an investigative magazine. He had objected to one of magazine's stories, according to the Tehelka report. Media outlets are frequently accused of corruption, or at least lack of objectivity, due to their reliance on state advertising.

The administration's behavior has serious implications. Twenty-seven journalists have been confirmed as being killed for their work in India since 1992, according to CPJ research, and 10 of those deaths took place in Jammu and Kashmir, a higher concentration than any other state. India ranked eighth on CPJ's Impunity Index in 2010. That index lists countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to investigate. It calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country's population.

Abdullah must take responsibility for allowing the media to operate freely in Jammu and Kashmir, and for protecting them as they perform their essential work. A culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish in the state, allowing both everyday harassment and killing of journalists to continue unchecked. The whole of India has a stake in reversing that trend. 

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