Michael De Dora is Washington advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization. Aliya Iftikhar is CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher. The opinions in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
(CNN)Imagine for a moment that nearly all residents of the US state of Virginia — population roughly 8.5 million — were blocked from communicating with each other or the outside world. Imagine that their movements within their neighborhoods were highly restricted due to military-enforced curfews and checkpoints. And imagine they could not access reliable information because, due to the clampdown, journalists were largely prevented from reporting or publishing the news.
This may sound like the plot of a dystopian novel, but it is almost exactly what’s happening in the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley right now.
Fortunately, senior US officials will have a golden opportunity to address this human rights crisis this week when Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells visit India for diplomatic meetings. They must take advantage.
The communications blackout in Kashmir has accompanied the Indian government’s announcement of plans to revoke a constitutional provision that granted Jammu and Kashmir’s governing autonomy and change it from a state to a union territory, essentially bringing it under federal control.
As a result of the blackout, many Kashmiris were kept in the dark about a major news story impacting their lives — and unable to make their opinions known outside the borders of Kashmir — leaving the rest of the world to debate the measures without insights from the people it would affect.
India has the world’s highest rate of government Internet shutdowns, most of them concentrated in Kashmir.
Locally, the impact has been severe. CPJ has been able to document that Indian security forces have restricted journalists’ movements and prevented them from taking photographs or videos. Further, the blackout has made it nearly impossible for news organizations to produce and publish content. Journalists have had to transfer stories and photographs onto flash drives and hand them to people flying out of the region in order to get information out to the rest of the world. The few papers that have managed to publish in Kashmir are merely pages long.
As if a communications blackout and restrictions on movements were not enough, news reports indicate there have been hundreds of political arrests, and that at least one journalist — Qazi Shibli, editor of news website The Kashmiriyat — has been detained, according to The Kashmir Walla. Shibli was taken in for questioning for leaking an official order regarding additional troop deployments to the region.
CPJ has called for his release, but since the communication blackout we have been unable to confirm whether he is still being detained, or if any other journalists have been arrested.
The blackout has left the rest of the world in the dark, too. Human rights organizations trying to track potential violations have struggled to reach or maintain contact with local sources; the Committee to Protect Journalists has only been able to reach one source currently in the region, and international news organizations have had difficulty accessing Kashmir. Most information has come from journalists and others who have been able to leave.
That means the world is being kept largely in the dark about the state of affairs of millions of people.
This is especially important for the US, given that India is a key ally. Kashmir, a disputed region caught between India, Pakistan, and its own fight for self-determination, is a nuclear flash point. Stability in Kashmir and the region is important to both US and global interests. While Indian officials have maintained that the region is an internal matter and has been relatively calm, there have been news reports of protests, injuries, and one casualty that are now trickling out of Kashmir. This only increases the environment of uncertainty.
Getting accurate and verified information from Kashmir is crucial at this time. Journalists must be able to report freely, and citizens have a right to information from a free press.
Who else is imprisoned in Kashmir right now? What other tactics are security forces using to suppress information? How else has this blackout impacted the region’s population? How do Kashmiris feel about recent developments? Or about the future of their region?
We really don’t know. That must change.
As India celebrates 73 years of independence, Deputy Secretary Sullivan and Acting Secretary Wells must make clear that a communications blackout is unacceptable for the world’s largest democracy. India should be a leader in promoting press freedom globally, not suppressing it. Sullivan and Wells must urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government to lift communications blocks in Jammu and Kashmir and allow journalists to work freely. And journalists covering their trip should ask if these issues have been raised.
Kashmiris have displayed admirable courage in the face of this crisis, and their voices should be heard. As India celebrates 73 years of independence on Thursday, it should uphold its democratic values for all of its citizens and end the blackout.