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On razor’s edge

Majid Maqbool | Updated on July 13, 2018

Daily fix: There are 370 listed publications in J&K, including several national dailies and online portals, but the region’s media industry is far from thriving. Photo: Nissar Ahmad   -  The Hindu

Under pressure from authorities and militants alike, risking life and limb, journalists in Kashmir Valley not just cover the region’s ongoing conflict but also end up ensnared in it

The tiny neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar that was once called Press Enclave was renamed Mushtaq Ali Enclave over two decades ago as a small tribute to a photojournalist who was killed by a letter bomb.

On September 7, 1995, a woman in a burqa delivered a parcel to the office of Yusuf Jameel, a Kashmiri journalist who had become a household name in the Valley as a BBC correspondent reporting on and from the region through its turbulent years. The bomb in the parcel exploded when Ali — Jameel’s colleague and AFP photojournalist — opened it, killing him and injuring Jameel and another photojournalist, Habib Naqash.

Twenty-three years later, little has changed in Kashmir — just last month, senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, chief editor of the daily Rising Kashmir, was shot dead outside his office by unidentified gunmen.

The attacks illustrate the pressures that Kashmiri journalists work under in a conflict zone where they have to walk on a razor’s edge, keeping a distance from the government as well as militants, often battling the wrath of both State and non-State actors.

They not only have to cover the conflict but are also a part of it. “It is like finding oneself suspended between a rock and a hard place, as each player wants you to toe their line,” says senior journalist and political commentator Gowhar Geelani.

Bukhari’s killing, he asserts, was a statement. “Not only was this an attack on the freedom of press, free speech and free thinking, it also telegraphed the message that journalists in Kashmir are vulnerable on multiple counts,” Geelani says.

Yet, journalists in Kashmir have been unflinchingly carrying out the difficult task of truth-telling at a time when facts are not palatable to the warring sides, points out Bengaluru-based journalist and researcher Laxmi Murthy, the author of a report titled ‘Kashmir’s media in peril’, issued by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Murthy held extensive meetings in the Valley before drafting the detailed report. “At risk from several sides, they are surviving onslaughts on a daily basis — whether intimidation and physical threats, or online vilification and abuse,” she says, adding that women journalists in particular face multiple barriers.

A violent train

What exactly does the Kashmiri mediaperson go through while reporting in the Valley, which has since the ’90s been in the grip of an armed insurgency, intense militarisation and arbitrary use of harsh laws?

One of the first attacks on a journalist was in 1991, when unidentified men gunned down Mohammad Shaban Vakil, editor of the once-popular local Urdu daily Alsafa, in his office. This was seen as an attempt to muzzle the press at a time when both militant groups and government agencies were vying for space in local newspapers.

“In the early 1990s, militants would regularly dictate to journalists what they should write. They would also threaten journalists — sometimes even kidnap, assault or shoot them,” Valley-based journalist and editor Hilal Mir wrote in The Caravan last December.

On June 14, a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) report, ‘Situation of Human Rights in Kashmir’, highlighted the dangers that journalists face in the Valley. It says that in 2016 the authorities “imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, targeting media and journalists”. The Central government rejected the report, calling it “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”, and the mainstream press largely ignored it.

The IFJ, too, flagged the grave situation, pointing out that 21 journalists have been killed in Kashmir — either directly targeted or caught in the cross-fire. It highlights the “threats — both visible and invisible — and pressures from various quarters”.

Kamran Yousuf, a 23-year-old freelance photojournalist from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, knows that all too well. He was arrested by J&K police in September last year and handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which described him as a “stone-pelter” and not a “true journalist” in its 13,000-page charge sheet, accusing him of “carrying out terrorist and secessionist activities”. His family and colleagues consistently denied the charges and he was finally released on bail in March.

Precarious line of duty: A photojournalist who was riddled by pellets while covering a protest in Srinagar in September 2016. Photo: Nissar Ahmad   -  The Hindu

 

The IFJ report highlights the “precarious” working conditions of journalists, including low wages, and the lack of job security, benefits, and medical, life or risk insurance.

The government exercises control by regulating advertisement revenue — there is pressure to toe the official line or face financial insecurity, the report says.

“In a state with a population of just over 12 million, with 370 publications listed on the Department of Information and Communications of the Government of J&K, several national dailies and online portals, it would seem as though the media industry is thriving… Yet, most of the credible newspapers are struggling to survive. Journalism as a profession is not yet institutionalised in Kashmir. Structures of recruitment, wages, promotions and benefits are not uniform in any media house,” the IFJ states.

Media in the crossfire

Curfews and widespread protests restrict the movement of journalists, some of whom have been injured by security forces.

In the wake of demonstrations and shutdowns following the killing of Burhan Wani, commander of militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, in July 2016, policemen barged into the premises of the Valley’s largest circulated newspaper, Greater Kashmir, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The authorities seized all the printed copies of the paper and its sister publication, the Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma. The offices of other dailies were raided too. In October 2016, the State government banned English daily Kashmir Reader for “inciting violence”. The ban was lifted after three months.

Gun vs pen: In July 2016, in the wake of protests sparked by the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, the police raided several media houses in Srinagar and stopped the distribution of printed copies of newspapers. Photo: Nissar Ahmad   -  The Hindu

 

The Press Council of India (PCI) in its October report ‘Media and Media Scenario of J&K’, stresses that journalists walk a “tightrope amidst the threats of gun and political arm-twisting”. It notes the lack of welfare measures for mediapersons, though it lauds the erstwhile state government for coming out with a policy for the creation of a journalists’ welfare fund. The report calls for safety precautions, including providing journalists with bulletproof jackets and helmets.

The Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG), however, took a dim view of the PCI report, accusing the council of “doing too little too late”, especially given that the Valley had lost 13 journalists in the past few decades.

“The PCI has never bothered to issue even a one-liner in this regard, asking authorities to investigate these murders (of media people),” the KEG, an umbrella body of newspaper editors and owners, said in a statement.

Self-censorship for survival

A survey earlier this year by media website The Hoot found J&K had the “worst free speech and media freedom record in 2017” among all States. There were 57 violations reported in a State whose population is “chronically affected by internet shutdowns” and whose journalists work “in difficult, conflict-ridden conditions which included attacks, police actions and threats,” it says.

Given such tough working conditions and challenges, as highlighted by several independent reports, it’s certainly not easy to practise independent journalism without fear in the Valley.

Though the pressure is from both militant groups and the administration, the State has greater power over the media as the latter depends on it for advertisements, Mir writes in his Caravan report.

“A fledgling journalist has to make a career in this restrictive, stifling and weakening media environment, in which a reporter risks a boycott of sorts by the government if she breaches the limits of what can be said,” he says. “Thus, very early in a journalist’s career, self-censorship becomes a survival tool.”

Geelani, however, stresses that in a region such as Kashmir, there will always be differences of opinion. The diversity in the narrative, tolerance for new ideas and competing ideologies are all a sign of progress and evolution of society.

“A journalist can’t make everyone happy,” he says.

Refusing to be cowed down by Bukhari’s assassination, the KEG reiterated that the killing of journalists will not further the cause of any side but will only perpetuate the crisis further.

“Kashmir media has survived the worst situations and will survive this dastardly murder as well,” it says.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar

Published on July 13, 2018

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