For over a decade, The Kashmir Walla has provided weekly political insight and news from Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Founded by Fahad Shah when he was 22 and still in college, the news portal strives to give young audiences a better understanding of life in the disputed territory.
“The idea was to cut through the filters of national and international lenses. Shah believed that the story of Kashmir should be told by Kashmiris based in Kashmir,” said Yashraj Sharma, the site’s interim editor.
But those plans are now on hold. Shah is currently in prison after being accused of terrorism and secession.
Shah was first summoned by police in Pulwama district on February 4 and questioned about The Kashmir Walla’s coverage of a gunfight in the south Kashmir area on January 29.
Police charged Shah with sedition, public mischief, and unlawful activities. He was detained for 22 days before a special court released him on bail.
His freedom was short-lived.
Police in the district of Shopian had opened a separate case and that same day, February 26, Shah was detained again.
A Shopian magistrate on March 5 freed Shah but again that night, police in Srinagar detained him. On March 14—one day before the bail hearing in that case—he was ordered detained under the public safety act.
“Everything has changed since February,” said Sharma, “We don’t know whether Shah will come back or not.”
Accusations of terrorism and repeat arrests are not uncommon for Kashmiri journalists. Media have been under increased pressure since India revoked the disputed territory’s special autonomous status in 2019.
“It has become a thing that this happens in Kashmir,” Sharma said, referring to the media arrests and police summonses. “Now, I don’t remember how many times [Shah] had been summoned."
The current situation for The Kashmir Walla is a far cry from the optimism with which it was founded.
When Shah founded it in 2011, based on a blog he had started under the same name a few years earlier, it was an innovative product: “the first digital magazine to come out of Kashmir,” said Sharma.
“At that time there were not many professional digital news websites in the valley. Even established media outlets were not focused on online versions,” he told VOA.
Shah had wanted to provide an alternative voice to the youth. “A lot of young journalists were joining Shah and contributing to The Kashmir Walla on contributory and voluntary basis,” Sharma said.
For the first few years, the news website was not updated regularly, while Shah attended university in London on a scholarship.
But when he returned in 2018, Shah rented an office in Srinagar, bought equipment, and hired staff.
Audiences in the region were just getting used to internet access and the digital age when The Kashmir Walla started out, Sharma said.
The audience is mostly “young Kashmiris and that entire generation has grown up with us,” Sharma said.
Independent media like The Kashmir Walla are important, particularly in conflict regions, where many sides are trying to prioritize their take on events, said U.S.-based journalist Amelia Newcomb.
Newcomb, the managing editor of The Christian Science Monitor, told VOA via email that Shah reported for her publication for several years.
“He's been very attentive to the kind of journalism the Monitor does,” Newcomb said. “While most of his stories for The Christian Science have been from Kashmir, he has also written from elsewhere in India and has supported visiting Monitor writers in their work.”
Newcomb said The Kashmir Walla is objective in its reporting—including in the article that led to Shah’s arrest.
The Kashmir Walla had interviewed the family of a teenager killed in a gunfight between authorities and suspected militants.
“The story was balanced, including comments from the police and the army, in addition to the family. Yet it was categorized by police as part of a body of work glorifying terrorist activities,” Newcomb said.
“Without balanced reporting, people have little opportunity to judge events fairly,” Newcomb added, “And the lack of such work undermines democracy, which thrives only when independent media can provide accurate information and hold officials accountable.”
Shah is not the only Kashmir Walla journalist detained this year. Police in January detained one of its contributors, Sajad Gul. A police statement said that the 26-year-old had “uploaded objectionable videos with anti-national slogans.”
In an interview with VOA at the time, Shah described the arrest as a “brazen violation of freedom of press [that] threatens the very core of people's rights.”
Gul, like Shah, remains in detention.
Police in April also raided the news website’s offices and Shah’s home in Srinagar, confiscating laptops and phones.
But arrests and raids are not the only challenges.
When the Indian government shut down internet access in August 2019, after revoking Kashmir’s autonomy, the website was forced offline.
Steady revenue is another issue. The website operates on donations and advertising revenue. But frequent disturbances in the region and the coronavirus pandemic lockdown hit revenue.
“That is where we came up with the idea of crowdsource funding, but that too is not sustainable,” Sharma said.
“The major challenge,” Sharma said, “is we can’t focus on the one things. We are short of funds, facing legal challenges and reporters are always off the track,” meaning they are often too distracted to report.
The founder’s predicament has taken a toll on The Kashmir Walla and its team.
“The people who are supposed to manage [the] newsroom are juggling between the court and police stations,” Sharma said.
Shah’s presence in the newsroom is missed, Sharma said. “He was a mentor for all of us. He taught us journalism. It is a big void for all of us at [The Kashmir Walla]. You can’t do anything to fill it and it is a gutting feeling at the same time.”