In Kashmir, Doing Journalism Is Dangerous and Unforgiving

“You always have to be prepared," said one reporter, "just in case something goes wrong."
July 31, 2020, 3:57pm
A Kashmiri female photojournalist, Sanna Irshad Mattoo.
Photo: Bhat Burhan/VICE News

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir—Last August, independent multimedia journalist Adnan Bhat had to walk more than 18 kilometers to reach the Srinagar airport. He was headed to Delhi to file a story. While Bhat managed to navigate dozens of barricades and troops manning the streets of Srinagar, he could not tell the story in the city, where there was no phone connectivity, Internet, or any other means of communication linking him to the outside world. Indian-administered Kashmir had been forced into a stone age.

Just three days before, on August 5, India’s central government had scrapped the special status of the region where Srinagar is located, known as Jammu and Kashmir, or J&K. India had previously granted a degree of autonomy to the disputed region, which was divided between and claimed by two nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan. The move to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution and downgrade the region into two federally controlled territories was unprecedented. In anticipation of a strong reaction from the people there, the government of India, headed by the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party, imposed a curfew and cut off all forms of communication in the region, including landline telephones.

For journalists like Bhat, the abrogation was the biggest news event. But while there were stories galore, the conundrum was how to report and file them amid a media blackout.

At first on that August day, Bhat rode his father’s 2003 model Hero Honda motorcycle toward the airport until it ran out of petrol. Because everything around him had shut down, he dropped the motorcycle in one of the alleyways of Srinagar and walked on instead.

“A boy from our locality had been critically injured after being hit by a tear gas shell. I took out the bike to straightaway head to hospital to collect details of the incident. Then I headed towards the airport, which is about 18 kilometers from the hospital, as moving to New Delhi was the only way I could have filed the story. However, the motorcycle betrayed me and I had no choice but to keep the motorcycle there,” said the 28-year-old journalist from Srinagar’s Buchpora area.

Desperate to file their stories amid a gag order that did not allow them to even travel freely in the region, journalists smuggled their memory cards and pen drives in attempts to bypass security check passes.

No curfew passes were issued by the administration, so the journalists often moved in the dead of the night to avoid confrontation with both protesters and security forces. Many even used water routes to reach their destinations in and around the city. While some sent their photographs and stories through passengers traveling to other states, a few of them had to travel themselves to file their stories.

Bhat made eight trips to Delhi in a span of three months to file his own stories. While headed to the airport one day, he found a vendor selling petrol. His father’s  motorcycle, which had lay dead in one of the streets of Srinagar for days, roared again as Bhat rode it across the lengths and breadths of the conflict-ridden Valley.

Days after the abrogation, a media center was set up by the government for journalists at a posh hotel in Srinagar, but many had apprehensions about privacy. The Internet speed was very slow, and there were just four computers for over 300 journalists. “We did not want to log in to our emails through that network, as it did not seem safe,” said Bhat, who reported 16 stories for international media outlets during the communication blockade.

For one of Kashmir’s senior most journalists, 61-year-old Yusuf Jameel, the challenge was to commute from his residence in downtown Srinagar. “I could not do any work for almost one week. I tried to go out but I was not allowed because I was not carrying any curfew pass because no curfew pass had been issued till then,” said Jameel, a recipient of many awards, including the prestigious International Press Freedom Award.

Safwat Zargar, the journalist in Kashmir who broke the story of the first civilian killing after the abrogation of Article 370, said that he came to know about the death of the boy through a friend he met during the lockdown. “There was no way to verify it except by going to the area where it happened. On August 6 evening, I along with another journalist friend played a gamble," said Zargar. "We headed towards a hospital in Srinagar and met the chief medical officer. But the officer declined to give us any details citing government advisory about not talking to media. However, we were lucky when a paramedical staff member in the emergency ward told us about the area from where the slain boy hailed.”

Even though it was barely seven kilometers from the hospital, the journey towards the slain boy’s home was filled with anxiety. The place was deserted and the road was littered with stones and burnt tires. “At around 10:30 in the night, we reached the family of Altaf Ahmad Marazi. Even they were taken by surprise by our visit. They could not believe some reporters had managed to reach their place,” Zargar said.

The next challenge after writing the report was to file it. Zargar handed over the story in a removable device along with the email IDs to someone who was traveling outside the state.

“I remember I had written a note in my story addressing my editor that—I have no idea from which ID this story will reach you,” said Zargar.

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Kashmiri journalists hold placards and protest against the harassment of their colleagues in Srinagar. Photo: Bhat Burhan/VICE News

There was no way to know whether the story had reached the editor or not, Zargar said. “For almost four, five days I had no idea if my story had been published. Fortunately, a Delhi-based reporter had arrived in Srinagar to cover the situation and he had saved all the Kashmir reports published after August 5 on his phone. He showed me the story had been published days back. It was such a relief,” Zargar said with a smile.

On top of facing hurdles of security and communication, Kashmiri journalists had to face the wrath of locals, too, who accused them of not showing the reality of the on-the-ground situation. Recalling one such incident, Imran Ali, an independent multimedia journalist, said  he was beaten up near the Nowshera locality of Srinagar by a group of protesters who were about to damage his equipment. “People were very angry with how the Indian news channels were covering the situation. A scared local media was not covering anything.  The notion of return of normalcy shown by the national media was definitely fake but it was the local journalists who had to be at the receiving end. It made our job very hard and it took a lot of effort to convince them that we were from credible media outlets who are there to report ground situation,” Ali said.

During the clampdown, Kashmiri women journalists reported shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues— a significant departure from the past, when overwhelming armed violence and conservative social norms offered very few career choices to women. The women not only excelled in their new field, fighting both patriarchy and the curbs—they also gave voice to women during a particularly brutal period in Kashmir's history.

“Reporting after August 5 was a new experience for me. I have been working in the field for two-three years now. But it was for the first time, I was experiencing things on the ground with my own eyes,” said 26-year-old Quratulain Rehbar, an independent female journalist from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, a militant hotbed.

Rehbar said she was stuck in Srinagar in the aftermath of abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 and decided to stay put. “I could not go back home because there was so much to report. Very few people were able to report on women even when a thing like harassment was very common. My focus was to report on things related to women. I had to push myself to work.” said Rehbar, who often had to walk kilometers as she did not own a vehicle. “It was suffocating.”

This struggle to portray the truth, however, won Kashmiri journalists accolades, including one of the highest awards in the profession. In May, three Associated Press journalists from Jammu and Kashmir were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

“This honor continues AP’s great tradition of award-winning photography,” said AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt. “Thanks to the team inside Kashmir, the world was able to witness a dramatic escalation of the long struggle over the region’s independence. Their work was important and superb.”

According to Amnesty International India, more than a dozen journalists have been either harassed or physically attacked for their professional work across the region since August 5, 2019. Two journalists, Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Indian Penal Code, India's main anti-terror law, which can carry sentences of up to seven years.. The police said Zahra’s Facebook post could "provoke the public to disturb law and order"and glorified "anti-national activities."

Geelani has been accused of unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media, “which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.” Only recently, Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, a weekly newspaper where one of this story's reporters is news editor, was summoned for his coverage of a Srinagar gunfight in which 19 houses were damaged by security forces.

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Jammu and Kashmir policemen spray pepper spray during clashes with protesters in Srinagar. Photo: Bhat Burhan/VICE News

Geelani said the case against him feels like a punishment. “Psychological pressures are immense. There is [a] physical threat too. Moreover, the process is the punishment. But I draw inspiration from a book, As Long As Sarajevo Exists. It is about a newspaper in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The newspaper faced unimaginable challenges but made sure that it never stops its publication,” said Geelani, who was prevented from boarding a flight to Germany at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport last year after August 5. Geelani was on his way to Germany to participate in editors’ training program at Deutsche Welle, where he has served as editor for several years.

Jameel, who reported in the tumultuous 1990s, when journalists were often attacked by both militants and security agencies, said the situation for the media in Kashmir has drastically changed.  “Back then journalists were killed, got kidnapped and we lost more than half a dozen journalists in violence from militants, security forces, and unknown gunmen. The situation has changed in many ways, but it has worsened also in many ways,” he added.

Jameel was referring to the challenges journalists faced during the communication blockade in Kashmir, which lasted for 70 days, as the government restored cellular service only in October 2019. The Internet was restored only in January this year, with high speed internet still banned in the Valley.

An academic who teaches journalism at a college in Kashmir, and wished to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals from the authorities, said this year has been the worst for journalists in Kashmir that he can remember. “Even by its own armed conflict standards, this year has been most depressing for journalists and disheartening for the local media audience. The way news has been censored this time around has no parallels in Kashmir's troubled history for sheer prolonged and intense pressure from New Delhi,” the academic said.

Such censorship, the academic said, has hit the credibility of local newspapers in Kashmir. “People believe the newsmen have meekly surrendered before [the] Modi government,” said the teacher.

In May of this year, the government introduced a 53-page policy prepared by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR). The policy not only outlines what journalism is, but also the circumstances under which journalists could be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code and cyber laws for what the administration would deem as “fake news.”

The media policy, in the absence of clear guidelines, gives the authorities “an infinite space for interpretation” to adjudge truth and falsehood.

Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times newspaper, said that the new media policy was highly undemocratic. “It is a way not just to censor media but to completely stop it from saying anything. Other than amplifying the official hand outs or what the officials are saying, the main motive behind this is to bring the positive narrative of government, but that is not the media's job,” she said.

Geelani said the policy was a brazen assault on the freedom of press and free speech: “This policy has been framed with the aim to kill independent journalism and criminalize legitimate opinions in Kashmir. DIPR will be the judge, jury and executioner to decide what is ‘fake’, ‘unethical’, ‘sedition’ or ‘anti-national.’ The policy seems to draw inspiration straight from the Nazi manual."

Moazzam Mohammad, who is vice president of Kashmir Press Club, said that the state does not want journalism—a claim backed up by a recently instituted media policy that allows a government official to determine what is “fake news” and what is not. “The indication is clear: that they don't want journalism to be pursued. If tomorrow a journalist writes a story and an official calls it a fake report, how can a journalist defend himself?” he asked.

Amidst all the pressures, Kashmiri journalists remain unrelenting in telling their stories. Zargar said while all these things remain in the back of the mind, a conscientious journalist never compromises on truth and the public interest. “Reporting the actual ground situation with facts is an honourable service to the people. We cannot be blind to what is happening to people, their fears and anxieties, and their brutalization. Things need to be brought before the public at large. It is their right,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bhat has ensured that his motorcycle is in good condition, always making sure its fuel tank is full. “Kashmir is a land of uncertainties, you never know what happens next,” he said. “You always have to be prepared just in case something goes wrong. Our job as journalists is to report the truth, so stories should be written and told no matter what the situation demands.”

Bhat Burhan is an independent multimedia journalist and can be followed on Twitter at @bhattburhan02. Saqib Mugloo is a journalist who works with The Kashmir Walla, a weekly newspaper, and can be followed on Twitter at @Saqibmugloo.