On the evening of 4 September 2016, Zuhaib Maqbool, a freelance photo-journalist based in Srinagar, got a call from a fellow photo-journalist informing him about stone-pelting in the Rainawari neighbourhood of downtown Srinagar.
Over the previous two months—as violent protests broke out in the Kashmir Valley after the killing of the popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, by security forces—this had almost become routine. He would get a call, pick up his camera, start his bike, and ride to the spot of the incident.
To click pictures. “To show the world the truth,” he says.
That evening was “quite routine”, Zuhaib later said. “A group of young boys on one side were throwing stones, and the police on the other side were firing tear gas and pellet guns.”
Zuhaib and other photo-journalists were snaking around, clicking pictures, then looking for cover, and then clicking pictures. “Suddenly, we saw a masked policeman pointing his pellet gun at us and moving towards us. He was about 20 feet away. I took out my press card, held aloft my camera and screamed PRESS, PRESS,” Zuhaib said.
Sharp lead pellets fired from a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun—known as the pellet gun—hit Zuhaib in his eyes, face, skull, chest and legs. “I felt searing pain in my body and the next second fell down in a pool of my own blood,” he said.
Zuhaib received several injuries over his body, including a shattered left eye with severe damage to the retina. Over the last 11 months, Zuhaib has undergone three surgeries to his eye, without regaining useful vision. “I can only see faint shadows,” he said.
Syed Shahriyar Hussainy, a freelancer who was with Zuhaib that fateful evening, said: “Being a photo-journalist in Kashmir is fraught with risk, especially in times of unrest. The police has often targeted us—beaten us and broken our cameras. There is this constant tension with the police while doing our jobs.”
In recent times, journalists in the Valley have also been targeted by the people on the street—by fellow Kashmiris.
Danish Bin Nabi, an editor with the local English language daily Rising Kashmir, encountered a hostile crowd on a visit to the Shri Maharaj Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar on 10 July 2016—a day after widespread protests broke out, and hospitals were teeming with the injured, the dead, their families, their grief, and their rage.
As he entered the general ward and started talking to the families of the injured, he was grabbed by the collar when onlookers discovered that he was a journalist.
The crowd started punching Danish, as they “accused” him of “being with the Indian TV media”.
“I was shell-shocked. I could not have imagined this situation, even in my wildest dreams,” Danish said. “I was bruised physically, and scarred mentally. It was the first time that I was looked at with suspicion by my own people.”
Bashir Manzar, senior journalist and editor-in-chief of Kashmir Images, is of the view—like many journalists in the Valley—that the “aggressive militant nationalism of mainstream Indian media outlets” is to blame for the anger of the people on the street. “Indian TV channels have made every reporter a suspect in Kashmir,” he said.
“All Kashmiris have been painted as villains by the TV media. When a Kashmiri faces pellets, tear gas, and bullets throughout the day and then, in the evening, sees national TV anchors calling him all sorts of names, he feels angry. He can’t find that anchor to vent his anger. He can only find a local journalist, and we have to face the wrath of the people. For no fault of our own,” Manzar said.
The situation has reached a point where journalists in the Valley often pretend not to be journalists, to avoid the anger of the people. Anees Zargar, a freelance journalist, has stopped using the “Press” sticker on his car while on assignment.
“Earlier, the sticker was much coveted as it would allow us easy access. Now, it has become a risk because people attack you if they find out you are a journalist,” Zargar said.
Last year, when Zargar was on a reporting assignment for Zee News, he was attacked by angry protesters. “I was in an OB (outdoor broadcasting) van and suddenly these people started throwing stones. One stone hit my elbow, fracturing it,” he said.
“All the anger against us (journalists) is because of the way that the Indian TV media has reported in Kashmir,” Zargar said.
Abhishek Saha, correspondent for Hindustan Times’s Kashmir bureau, has faced the ire of the Kashmiri people on many occasions.
“I can’t speak the language, and worse, I don’t even remotely look like a Kashmiri. That has made matters worse for me as I am constantly looked at with suspicion by the people. For them, I represent that anchor on TV who calls them terrorists,” he said.
The risks that reporters face on the streets—from security personnel and the local populace—has meant that on-the-ground reporting has suffered. “During last year’s (2016) unrest, we could not report from large parts of Kashmir. There were parts of South Kashmir—where the unrest was at its most violent—which went unreported because our correspondents could simply not reach there. It was too dangerous,” the editor of a leading local English daily said, preferring to remain anonymous.
Even while reporting, journalists have to tread carefully, to not “displease one side or the other”, according to Manzar. Journalists are frequently branded as “anti-India” or “pro-India” or “Indian agent” or “ISI agent” by the Indian agencies, the Hurriyat and militant organizations.
The branding is not always mutually exclusive. “If you have been called all sorts of names by all sides, then you know you have done a good job of remaining neutral,” Manzar said with a laugh.
Often, for journalists in the Valley, the situation has been more severe than just the “branding”. Although things have moved beyond the situation of the 1990s, when journalists would be kidnapped by militants and the Ikhwan (the government-backed counter-insurgent group that operated in the 1990s), a lingering threat remains.
“We still get calls from all parties involved in the conflict and their attempt is to influence our reporting. We still receive veiled threats,” Manzar said.
In Kashmir, newspapers generate little revenue from private advertising as there are few corporations and private businesses in the Valley. As a result, they are almost entirely dependent on government advertising for revenue generation.
“The fact that the government has this power over newspapers makes it extremely tricky for them. They can cut off advertising at any point, if they don’t like the reporting,” Khurshid Wani, a senior journalist from the Valley, said.
“For instance, the government wants us to use the term ‘terrorist’ to refer to militants. As an editor, I may be forced to do that on occasions, even when I don’t agree with it. Left to myself, I would prefer to use the term ‘militant,” the editor of a local English language daily told me, wishing to remain anonymous.
He added that when a member of the security forces is killed, the government wants journalists to use the term “martyred”. “Well, if Burhan Wani is not a martyr, then the soldier is also not a martyr. Both were killed.”
The tussle between newspapers and the government in the Valley makes life difficult for the newspapers, especially in times of unrest. “It cripples us financially. As the government reduces advertisements, we suffer heavy losses. We cannot afford to pay our staff,” said Shujat Bukhari, editor of the English language daily Rising Kashmir.
During the 2016 unrest, due to a drastic fall in government advertising, all newspapers in the Valley were forced to cut costs. They reduced the number of pages, with some cutting down to half their original number of pages.
In addition to cutting down advertising revenue for newspapers, the government has also resorted to more direct measures such as the ban in 2016 on Kashmir Reader, a local English daily.
On 2 October 2016, Kashmir Reader received an order from the district magistrate of Srinagar, directing it to “abstain from printing and publishing the newspaper till further orders so that disturbance of public tranquillity is prevented”.
The order stated that the “contents” of the newspaper were of “such nature that can easily cause incitement of acts of violence and disturbance of public tranquillity in the state”. It, however, stayed clear of mentioning any specific content that had the authorities concerned.
“Kashmir Reader reported extensively on the atrocities committed by security forces. They did profiles of victims and tried to report on the suffering of the people. That is what irked the government. They also wanted to send out a message to other newspapers in the Valley to fall in line,” said Khurshid Wani.
The newspaper was not given an opportunity to respond to the ambiguous charges in the order. A 20-page dossier against the newspaper existed but was shown only briefly to the editor of the newspaper.
“In the brief glimpse that I was allowed, I could see some editorials, news reports and a column of American-Palestinian columnist Ramzy Baroud, who never even mentioned Kashmir in any of his articles. The general sense of the dossier and the word that we got from officials was that the paper is anti-establishment,” said Hilal Mir, editor of Kashmir Reader at the time. “All we did was report the truth. Is that not the purpose of a newspaper?” asked Mir.
The newspaper was banned for a period of almost three months, and the ban was lifted on 28 December 2016.
Earlier during the 2016 unrest, on the morning of 16 July, the Jammu and Kashmir police raided all major printing presses in the city, seizing all printed copies of newspapers for the day, and taking away the printing plates to ensure that no more copies can be printed.
“Kashmir has been virtually brought under press emergency… This is unprecedented and reprehensible as the government sees the media also as a threat to peace,” Bukhari wrote the next day in the Hindustan Times.
“It was a complete blackout for three days. It was an attempt to completely thwart any kind of democratic process which remains in the Valley,” Manzar said.
In Kashmir, the government’s first response to a semblance of crisis is to cut off internet services. During the 2016 unrest, all mobile connectivity in the Valley was cut off on 9 July, a day after Burhan Wani was killed. Only BSNL landlines and postpaid mobile connections (without internet) worked intermittently.
The suspension of prepaid telephone services continued till 15 October, and mobile internet on postpaid connections continued to be banned till 18 November, while internet on prepaid mobile connections was restored only on 31 January 2017. Thus, for a period of over six months, a complete or partial ban on mobile internet services was in place.
The ban on internet complicated matters further for journalists, as filing stories was made complex. “Stories have timeliness, and most stories cannot be delayed. With phones and internet not working, I could often not upload stories. Reporting was affected immensely, and that is exactly why the ban was imposed so that the truth wouldn’t go out from Kashmir,” said Fahad Shah, founder of the online magazine The Kashmir Walla.
Shah would use the broadband connection (when it worked) at offices of newspapers and media agencies in Srinagar to upload his stories. “That is how we managed to report. People helped each other out,” said Shah.
Over the years, through several different kinds of obstacles, journalists in Kashmir have learnt “the art of walking the tightrope”, according to Khurshid Wani. “It is a daily challenge. But, we have learnt—due to sheer necessity—how to walk the tight, perilous rope that reporting in Kashmir is. It is often said that if you can report from Kashmir, you can report from anywhere in the world,” he said.
Adding complexity to the scenario is the fact that journalists in the Valley are reporting their own conflict. “The conflict has impacted us as well. We have lost our near and dear ones. We have been targeted. The conflict has shaped who we are—as humans beings, and as journalists,” said Wani.
Kabir Agarwal is a freelance journalist
His Twitter handle is @kabira_tweeting
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