Srinagar/New Delhi: Threat to life is a part of life itself for journalists working in Indian-administered Kashmir. It can, at any moment, exhibit its mortality — as it did for renowned editor Shujaat Bukhari who was gunned down outside his office at the twilight hour of June 14, just a day ahead of Eidul Fitr.
The small, intrepid community of Kashmiri journalists has long been exposed to death and injury and, yet, those who are a part of it say they cannot and will not be frightened into submission. "For journalists in Kashmir, exposure to physical harm and other hazards has always been present. This has been the case for the last 30 years of the conflict," says Sajjad Haider, founding editor of Kashmir Observer, a well-known English daily based in Srinagar.
At least 13 journalists have lost their lives in Indian-administered Kashmir, one of the world’s most militarised zones, since 1989. These include Lassa Kaul, director of Doordarshan Kendra, who was shot dead on February 13, 1990, and Ghulam Mohammad Lone, a freelance journalist, who fell to spraying bullets on August 29, 1994. Doordarshan reporter Saidan Shafi and Parvaz Mohammed Sultan, editor of an independent news wire, met the same fate at the hands of “unidentified gunmen” in 1997 and 2003, respectively.
The threats, however, are not always of a physical nature. Several reporters and editors who spoke to the Herald said there were other impediments to their work such as unsaid censorship, arrests, raids, and a palpable distrust among locals who often view journalists as the state’s collaborators.
"When we travel to villages for ground reports, there is always the fear of being viewed with suspicion by locals," says Khalid Gul, the South Kashmir bureau chief of Greater Kashmir, the valley’s largest selling English newspaper. The trigger could be anything, including the choice of vocabulary. Gul has often encountered angry villagers questioning on him using the word ‘militant’ or ‘terrorist’, not ‘mujahideen’, to describe a rebel.
For photojournalists, the police and locals harbour equal animosity. Muneeb-ul-Islam, a photojournalist from Anantnag, claims it is common for the police to abuse them. "If we try to photograph them while they are cracking down on locals, they threaten to break our cameras. On June 27, while we were covering an encounter in Kulgam, a few men in uniform threatened us saying they would shoot us if we did not leave."
“At the same time,” he adds, “If we are trapped on the side of stone pelters, they also show aggression. They are more resentful of journalists working for national television, complaining that the narrative built in New Delhi’s newsrooms does not justify the visuals. Civilian casualties are downplayed and protesters demonised they rightly allege."
Muneeb, who freelances for renowned news agencies and wire services, told the Herald that while covering a protest in 2017, some stone pelters broke his camera which cost him 30,000 Indian rupees to get repaired.
Asim Shah, a young reporter from North Kashmir who works for Kashmir Reader, an English daily with a considerable readership, shares an incident which left him bedridden for two months. “I was detained in Langet in Handwara tehsil of Kupwara district in April 2016 while covering a protest. The police beat me mercilessly even though I showed them my press card." He says an FIR was out of the question: “Why would they book their own men?”
Muneeb says him and his colleagues have spoken to higher authorities about the police’s behaviour on several occasions, but there has not been any intervention. Raids and arrests are a common occurrence for Kashmir’s media. The September 2017 detention of freelance journalist Kamran Yousuf by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is just one reminder of this practice. Besides listing him as a stone pelter, the NIA also accused Yousuf of neglecting his ‘moral duty’ of covering the government’s development schemes.
When the Herald contacted Yousuf, who was released on bail in March 2018, the 24-year-old declined to comment. “I’m on bail and I cannot talk about this matter,” he says in haste. He neither confirmed nor denied that the administration had barred him from talking to the media.
Following the encounter of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, a period marked by protests reminiscent of the pre-militancy years, there was an attempt at a news blackout in the valley. Many newspaper offices were raided and their printed copies seized on the intervening night of July 15-16, 2016. The media gag followed for the next three days; Bukhari’s Rising Kashmir was one of them.
Kashmir’s then education minister Naeem Akhtar had justified the three-day ban as a “temporary measure to address an extraordinary situation”. In a statement issued to a national daily at the time, he had said: “In our opinion, there is an emotional lot, very young, out in the field, who get surcharged due to certain projections in the media, which results in multiplication of tragedies."
Bukhari described the experience as “not surprising” in a column he wrote for the BBC. “When Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted over the 2001 Indian parliament attack was hanged in 2013, copies of newspapers were seized from the press and the stands. I remember my newspaper ceased publication for four days. During the 2010 agitation, we were forced to stop publishing for 10 days,” he wrote.
The same year, Kashmir Reader was banned for three months, from September 30 till December 28. However, the government, in its 20-page dossier ordering the ban, did not point at any specific story that was deemed inflammatory.
A couple of Kashmir Reader journalists told the Herald requesting anonymity that the ban was “arbitrary”. “The government never explained what had led it to conclude that the newspaper was inciting violence. It did not specify a single story where facts had been manipulated,” said one of them.
Khalid Gul says “psychological coercion” is also used to make journalists fall in line. “When we report on the excesses committed by the police and the army, the administration boycotts us. We may need their quotes or some other information for another story, but they refuse to cooperate. This is nothing short of psychological pressure on us to tone down reports critical of them."
He says it is a risky adventure to work on stories of injustices that authorities would want to remain untold. “The state wants to build a certain narrative during encounters and crackdown. They do not want us to highlight the aggression done by the forces. But if one is reporting about houses razed down or civilians shot indiscriminately, there is always a fear of reprisal."
When asked if there have been any such reprisals from state actors, Gul says: “Your mind is in fear. Once you have done stories detailing violence done by the forces, you become apprehensive of visiting another encounter site. What if someone targets you and then call it ‘crossfire’?”
In the face of all this, Sajjad Haider says one of the shields available to journalists is to “stick to the profession and be objective”. But he cautions that being objective is nothing short of an art in a conflict-ridden society. “When we talk about objectivity, it is a double-edged sword. When you are running a newspaper, you are dependent on government ads. They want you to accommodate their views. At the same time, there is the other side — people with issues. You have to address their aspirations as well and, importantly, maintain your own perspective. You need balance."
But Kashmir’s star political commentator Gowhar Geelani thinks differently. He feels it is “natural” to have a political voice when one has grown up witnessing conflict and when one identifies with one or the other party to the conflict. “In a hotly contested region, being opinionated is natural,” he points out, adding there ought to be “diversity in narrative, tolerance for new ideas and competing ideologies as these are the signs of progress and evolution of society.”
“But in Bukhari’s killing there was a massive message on multiple levels. Not only was this an attack on the freedom of press, free speech and free thinking, it also telegraphed a message that journalists in Kashmir are vulnerable on multiple counts,” says Gowhar, who regularly appears on prime-time television debates. According to him, “credible journalists often find themselves vulnerable to the violence perpetrated by both state and non-state actors and are sitting ducks for both”.
The late Rising Kashmir editor had become an easy target for many groups. "The late editor was under fire from the rabid members of a particular community who routinely accused him of being a jihadi sympathiser (Bukhari had sued right-wing academic Madhu Kishwar after she alleged that he had been following an ISI script). The previous government at the centre had curtailed government ads in his newspaper. On home turf, a section of Kashmiris accused him of being a collaborator of the Indian state while [in Pakistan] an online portal took such gossip to a bigger audience.”
Haider warns that journalists involved in political processes should exercise caution. Shujaat Bukhari, widely believed to be involved in Track II diplomacy, occupied an influential space in India, Kashmir and Pakistan. He actively participated in conflict resolution summits across the globe. His participation at a Dubai conclave in July 2017 had attracted condemnation from two militant outfits, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.
Haider offers some parting advice: “When one tries to reshape or change the course of an event, then one invariably becomes a party to the conflict. One should make an assessment of the challenges that would encounter and the defensive mechanism available to surmount them.”
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has been reporting from Kashmir since 2011.
An earlier version of the article inadvertently stated the number of journalists killed to be 113. We apologise for the error.