It is said that conflict serves as a ‘green pasture’ for journalists. That may be true to some extent. Yet, when a society is threatened by violent conflicts, journalism too comes under fire. Junaid Katju tries to find as to how free is the Press in the conflict-ridden Kashmir
In the strife-torn State of Jammu and Kashmir media has always been the causality of narratives emerging from both India and Pakistan. This is often tailored to suit the interests of one country or the other.
The border State has been reeling under conflict for the past 68 years. And in the midst of the bitterly fought battle between New Delhi and Islamabad, Kashmir-based press has been literally sandwiched.
It is a fact that the ever persistent turmoil at home has created a breeding ground for journalists in Kashmir. Many journalists who are today big names in the profession started their careers as reporters covering the Kashmir conflict.There are scores of young journalists who have travelled across oceans to international universities after bagging prestigious fellowships.
But it is nothing less than a trial by fire that journalists worth their salt cut their teeth in the profession. Journalists in Kashmir face consistent threats both from the State and non-State actors. Opposing sides seek to control the media and life is often at peril in an atmosphere where information is largely either unreliable or censored.
According to Kashmir Media Service, ten journalists have been killed while performing their duties since 1989.
The journalists in the Kashmir valley have learnt to live with routine manhandling, death threats and even murder attempts both by the Indian agencies and Pakistan-backed political groups. The concept of a free press is hardly anything but lip service in such a scenario.
On September 1995, Yousuf Jameela former BBC correspondent in Srinagar had a narrow escape when a parcel bomb was delivered to his office. Jameel was injured in the blast but his cameraman Mushtaq Ali who opened the package was killed in the incident.
“In a conflict zone this is but natural. I was lucky to survive but my colleague lost his life,” recalls Jameel while alleging that the attack was carried by the Ikhwan, a pro-government militia in Jammu and Kashmir, composed of surrendered Kashmiri militants.
Jameel who had survived two assassination attempts during his 34 years of challenging career said that at times the curfew passes which are meant to allow journalists to operate even during times of high security are not entertained.
In December 1995, Zafar Meraj, veteran journalist and editor of the English daily Kashmir Monitor, and now a Peoples Democratic Party member, was abducted by renegades. He was shot and critically wounded hours after he had interviewed their leader Muhammad Yusuf Parray alias Kukka Parray in Hajan area of Baramulla district.
In 2002, NDTV Correspondent Zafar Iqbal who was then working as a sub-editor for local daily Kashmir Images was shot at from a point-blank range by two unidentified gunmen in his office. Two bullets hit him on the neck and one his leg. But he somehow survived the attack.
There are many incidents where Kashmiri journalists have been roughed up, injured or detained, Photojournalists suffer the most as often they find themselves caught between the protesters and the police. On the eve of World Press Freedom Day more than a dozen lensmen were harassed by police while covering demonstrations in the downtown area.
Farooq Javed, president of Kashmir Press Photographers Association (KPPA), claims it has become a routine for photojournalists to get beaten or harassed by the forces while performing their duties.
“We are always in the line of fire. There have been many incidents where news photographers have been ruthlessly beaten or mauled by the police. They even damage our cameras that cost a fortune,” Javed said.
The extent of curbs on the fourth estate in Jammu and Kashmir can be better understood in context of the 2008 agitation when the State Government put a blanket ban even on the Srinagar-based local cable news network.
Local cable television channels were barred from broadcasting news independently. All the news units were sealed and dissenting journalists were threatened with dire consequences. The ban is yet to be lifted.
Sheikh Saleem, Executive Editor of English daily Kashmir Convener informs that every now and then the Central Government stops the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) advertisements to the newspapers in Kashmir for allegedly ‘promoting secessionism’. The economic sanctions often compel small media houses to toe the Government line in order to stay in business.
While fighting to ensure their freedom of press, journalists in Kashmir also have to watch their back as separatists keep a close watch on reportage. Many a times, local newspapers have had to capitulate to the pressure from separatist camps too. In one of the incidents, a militant turned separatist politician ransacked the office of the leading newspaper in Kashmir after they published a report which was not exactly flattering for him.
Media houses often have to adhere to the diktats from these leaders and maintain cordial relationship in order to function without more troubles.
Yet, it would be pertinent to mention that the media in Kashmir do not face as much interference from the separatist groups as they do from the Government and its agencies.The reason behind this is that the newspapers in Kashmir largely are more sympathetic towards the free-Kashmir cause, which suits the aspirations of the separatist leaders and prick the Indian establishment.
Lately, the State Government has been keeping internet service in the valley on the crosshairs, with the establishment reacting to any agitation by blocking internet connectivity across Kashmir in the name of maintaining ‘peace’ in the region.
In September 2015, when millions of countrymen were watching their Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Silicon Valley unveiling his Digital India initiative with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Kashmir was reeling under an e-curfew for three consecutive days following a beef -ban row.
The discomfiture of the Fourth Estate is clear in the difference in terminology in the Kashmir press from that used by the media in the rest of the country.
A case in point- - newspapers in the valley instead of using the terms ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighters’ like in the mainstream media (both India and Pakistan) use the word ‘militants’. Similarly, while it is Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) for the mainstream media, the Kashmir media prefers Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) to refer to the same region.
Faisul Yaseen, a Kashmiri journalist, says the real challenge is to stick to the facts despite coercions. He feels while journalists succumb to pressure, the media houses too at times take sides for their vested interest.
“Long back when I was reporting for a local newspaper, the Regional Engineering College had a head who was from outside J&K and was communal to the core. I had all the details about his communal agenda and I filed my story. But the newspaper editors did not use it for over a year. Then when the controversy got out of hand and other newspapers reported it, the editor went ahead with the story too. So that way some editors know how to kill a story that is against the New Delhi's policy,” he said.
Today there might be a less interference of the State Government or threat by the militants but there is always a red line drawn which journalists in Kashmir cannot cross.