If Charles Dickens’ words “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” were to be given a physical shape and form, Kashmir’s media scene during the 1990s comes to mind. With the eruption of armed insurgency in the Valley in 1989, Kashmiri journalists had a huge responsibility on their shoulders: to convey the happenings of those dark times to outside world. They had to report massacres, rapes, and tortures by government forces, innocent killings by militants, and the condition of a helpless population trampled under the jackboot.
Yet, at the same time, they had to stop themselves from becoming emotionally involved while discharging their professional duties. They had to, virtually, live on the razor’s edge.
As first casualty in any conflict is the truth, journalists in Kashmir had to go against the tide to save the truth from becoming a casualty. While outside journalists would parachute into Kashmir, report and leave, Kashmiri journalists had to stay put. They had to live through the conflict as it unfolded its brutality one after the other.
The State viewed most of the Kashmiri journalists as its adversaries and did not want to see its ugly picture reflected by the local press. For example, there is only one on-the-spot photograph of the infamous Bijbehara massacre (22 October 1993) in which 51 people were mowed down by the BSF in cold blood; the paramilitary forces had closed the town for the media. Journalists endured threats, attacks, arrests, and a few were killed. Yet they continued their job. One photojournalist Mushtaq Ali lost his life while performing his professional duties.
In this debate, most of the journalists who spoke to Kashmir Narrator were satisfied with the job performed by the local journalists during the insurgency. A participant quoted an official saying that unlike Punjab, the media in Kashmir was not fully on the side of the government, thus the job of eliminating insurgency did not succeed.
Another participant makes a valid point when he says that the cardinal principle of reporting in a conflict zone is: to stick to facts no matter who the characters of the story are. That is, indeed, a golden rule of reporting when things get murkier.
There is a raging debate about the very concept of ‘objectivity’ while reporting a conflict, particularly the one happening in your backyard. Can journalists be truly objective? Can a journalist be an activist at the same time? The participants in our debate, some of whom are veterans in the field, have answered these and other important questions. Let’s hear them:
J&K Bureau Chief, The Asian Age, Voice of America
When you look at other places caught in political conflicts, like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and compare journalism practiced there with that in Kashmir, you would find majority of the members of my tribe here have only told the truth. Even at the peak of the insurgency, they did not deviate from what you call objective journalism and did try to tell all sides of the story. There has been no deliberate suppression of information on their part.
No doubt, we report our own conflict; our own people falling prey to violence on daily basis. In such situations, you may get emotionally involved and that may come in the way of your discharging your duty with impartiality and objectivity. But there are hardly any examples of biased reporting by Kashmiri journalists working for outside media organisations.
None of us has ignored even the facts which were uncomfortable. I do recall late George Joseph of the Indian Express cautioning me of “dangerous corollary” after I candidly reported the first inter-group clash involving the cadres of JKLF and Hizbul Mujahideen way back in early 1990s for the BBC, Reuters and The Asian Age. He called up to say “Yusuf, what are you doing? This can be dangerous.” I thanked him for caring for me, but I told him: “This is a major development. If I fail to report it, I will cease to be a journalist.”
Most of the colleagues being local Kashmiris may have been influenced by certain awful situations unfolding around, but I can vouch they were equally dispassionate when it came to go in print or air. There are a number of glaring examples of this courageous journalism. And we should never forget that many of them paid with their lives for reporting truth.
It becomes an altogether different issue when you talk about the choice or editorial discretion of your editors sitting in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata…some of the newspapers and editors have drawn a ‘Lakshman rekha’ when it comes to reporting on certain areas and issues, Kashmir being paramount.
So if you are working as a correspondent for an outside newspaper, you may face many pulls and pressures. I consider myself lucky for I was during my career spread over nearly four decades, destined to work only with the editors who were truly professional and disinterested. But I also know that situation for some friends working in the same or similar position has not been any encouraging.
Coming to terminology, we have been taught that one person’s terrorist can be another person’s freedom fighter. The stylebook of almost every media organisation mentions that. But the 9/11 changed the entire scenario and almost all impartial reporters have gone through difficult times. Even prior to that, one may have had to fight odds. I will give you a small example. When insurgency erupted at my beat, I was working for The Telegraph and my copy would refer to the Kashmiri youth who had turned to the gun as militants. That because you, in order to maintain impartiality, have to take on the middle path. You could not call them freedom fighters or terrorists. Those days my News Editor was Shekhar Bhatia, a thorough gentleman and an endowed writer who had done a great deal in terms of journalism and later became Hindustan Times editor. One morning, I was surprised to see that ‘militant’ in my copy filed the previous evening changed to ‘terrorist’. It was something unusual. I spoke to Shekhar on phone. Replying to my query, he said, “Look Yusuf, a terrorist is a terrorist.” I then asked “what about me?” Shekhar said, “What happened to you?” I knew we were deviating from the rule but in order to persuade my editor I drew his attention towards another aspect of it. I told him that I was reporting Kashmir in a difficult situation and mentioning gunmen as ‘terrorists’ instead of ‘militants’ may cause trouble. He endorsed my view and no second attempt was made to change terminology in my copy.
I shifted to The Asian Age from The Telegraph. Both these newspapers were the brainchild of MJ Akbar. On two occasions, the sub had fiddled with my copy making them somewhat iniquitous. One was on a young boy from Srinagar’s Annd Masjid, Khanyar taking an explosive-laden car to the main entrance to the Army’s 15 Corps headquarters and other being a press conference addressed by Mehbooba Mufti when she was in opposition. On both occasions, I spoke straight to my editor and he was kind enough to tell the news desk unequivocally that such fiddling would not be tolerated in future. What treatment your copy should get is the editor’s discretion. I must also say that if your editor trusts you such a situation will not arise.
Coming to your question about self-censorship. Yes, sometimes you have to go for it. A good reporter ought to be a responsible person and a good citizen as well. He or she must desist from reporting an event taking place at his or her beat in such manner that could prove detrimental to human life or can create hatred among various sections of the society.
Do we really enjoy press freedom fully in Kashmir? I would say we do and we do not. There is no official censorship in force in J&K but we still do face censorship at times. The authorities often create situations wherein it becomes difficult and, in some cases, even impossible for us to work freely. They often withdraw internet facility and it becomes impossible for people like me to work. They impose curfews but do not issue curfew passes to media persons, and even if they do, these passes are not honoured by uniformed men on the streets. I think in recent years the only example of formal and direct censorship imposed on a newspaper in J&K was that of Kashmir Reader.
We have also seen that reporters and photographers are beaten and humiliated while covering events and incidents and despite reassurances coming from the top the situation remains gloomy. Further, the advertisement support from the government is sometimes used as a tool for forcible compliance. There are a number of examples wherein due advertisement support to newspapers was stopped because they refused to toe the official line. All this is indirect censorship.
Bureau head J&K, Associated Press Television
In my four-decade-long career, I have tried my best to remain neutral while covering news events. Impartiality is of paramount importance while covering any conflict. Taking sides during an armed conflict will not only dent a person’s journalistic reputation, it will land him or her in a deep trouble. Things get tougher when you are covering a conflict in your homeland, your own place.
It is extremely difficult to cover a conflict where your own people are involved. How much you try to detach yourself from it, it gets under your skin. I vividly remember the day when I along with my colleague went to Police Control Room Srinagar to take pictures of dead bodies of Kashmiris killed in Gaw Kadal massacre (21 January 1990). I broke down when I saw government forces trampling the dead bodies under their jackboots. Yet, I had to perform my duty even as my heart cried for the dead. On the contrary, foreign journalists do not get emotionally attached towards the bereaved as the local journalists do. They do feel the pain, though.
As far as the local media’s portrayal of the conflict is concerned, I would say that they have done justice with their profession. The local media’s coverage was fair, balanced and accurate. When the armed rebellion broke out in the ‘90s, our top journalists hurdled to coin a word for those who took arms to fight the Indian rule here. They neither called them “terrorists”, nor “freedom fighters.” A neutral term “militants.”
Whatever little documentation has taken place of the turbulent ‘90s, all credit goes to vibrant and fearless journalists and photojournalists of those times. And they are continuing to do so. Despite losing many of our colleagues and facing harassment from all sides, we continued to do our job diligently.
We lost a photojournalist Mushtaq Ali to the conflict. Jameel Sahib was attacked, arrested and harassed a number of times. It is very cheap to harass a journalist here and yet go scot-free. At the peak of the conflict, while covering an event in Narbal area of Srinagar, my colleagues and I were attacked by the BSF personnel and were badly injured. The area was virtually under the command of Mumma Kanna [the notorious government gunman]. We filed a case against him. To our utter amazement, Kanna was later honoured with Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award in India). This is how cheap a journalist’s life is in a conflict zone. However, it must be admitted that unlike the ‘90s, media in Kashmir is a vibrant force these days. State knows it.
One thing that we as local journalists and media owners have failed is to build institutions. This should not have happened. During these years, we had great names like Aftab, Srinagar Times, Kashmir Times. Unfortunately, these were individual achievements rather than collective achievements. As a result, these endeavours ended with the deaths of those individuals who started them.
We have an army of journalists now. They are all talented. They have already proven their mettle in different parts of the world. Our local journalists here, after getting well acquainted with conflict coverage, have covered Iraq, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Libya.
Senior Special Correspondent, The Week
We are reporting our own conflict. There are emotions involved. Yet, our journalists have been very objective in reporting the unfolding events in Kashmir. They have maintained objectivity as compared to those who come from mainland India to report on Kashmir.
When you talk of the conflict in Kashmir and the conflict in Palestinian, it’s not the same. The two places do not get the same attention and coverage. West is more inclined towards the Palestinian conflict because of the players involved – Israel, the US, and the Middle Eastern countries. The conflict in Kashmir is mainly seen as an India-Pakistan affair. It has now been further localised as a nuclear flashpoint in South Asia. The Kashmir dateline is no more juicy as it used to be for the international media before 9/11.
Talking about emotions involved while covering the tragic events in Kashmir, I am reminded of the BBC reporter, Barbara Plett, who burst into tears when Yasir Arafat died. She was later transferred to Pakistan where the situation in Tribal areas, FATA, was getting very dangerous. Barbra can become emotional about a man who led his oppressed people. Call it the Stockholm syndrome, it’s only natural for us to feel the same about the happenings in Kashmir. We belong to this place. Maintaining sanity and objectivity in such situations becomes difficult at times.
In my 20 years of reporting career, I have come across three types of reporters: First, those who would never compromise on objectivity. Second, those who get swayed by the situation at times, though it does not happen always. Third, those who try to align their reporting in line with the official narrative on Kashmir to climb the editorial rungs faster for some other motivation. The cardinal principle of reporting in a conflict zone is to stick to facts no matter who the characters of the story are. That will not only earn you respect from all the players involved in the conflict in the long run but also alleviates the possibility of your copy getting manipulated at the desk. Lastly, we criticise the security forces for their wrongdoings. I guess the same yardstick needs to be applied to the militants, always.
Senior Editor, Greater Kashmir
The big question that always hovers over the mind of a reporter reporting any conflict is how to be objective. Can we be objective while reporting Kashmir conflict? Objective from my point of view and objective from the Indian point of view.
There are many narratives on Kashmir, and every narrative looks objective from its point of view. There is a Pakistani narrative, there is a Kashmiri narrative, and there is an Indian narrative. All of them overlap here, all of them conflict, and all of them clash here. So it is like how do you negotiate objectivity in this. Then it depends on a journalists’ ideological makeup, how they look at Kashmir issue as a whole. They look it united from Indian perspective, and otherwise from Kashmiri perspective and Pakistani perspective.
So that also determines the choices of their stories—what should they omit and what should they pursue. Yes, as other journalists in this debate here say that it is a very complex situation. But at the end of the day the kind of journalism we do generally is not about nuances. If local media has represented Kashmir in mostly “Six killed, two injured” kind of journalism largely, it is not the case when we see the larger picture. There has been lot of sufferings. Around one lakh, we say one lakh, even if it is 80 thousand or 70 thousand– 70 thousand lives lost! It is a huge humanitarian fallout. Have we been able to articulate this suffering, the deeper articulation of this suffering? No, that has not happened. We may have skimmed the surface but we have not done that deeper reporting that is needed to create a narrative, to create a discourse, and to sell it to outside world.
We talk among ourselves; the world does not know anything about it. What happened, for example, in my hometown in Baramulla for the last many years. Stone-throwing had become a normal affair there, a part of our lives. But nobody knows. Even local media did not reflect it, let alone Indian media or international media. But if a stone is thrown in Palestine it becomes a CNN news. That is the problem with us.
Then the other question that comes to the mind is what about this structure of conflict? The structure in which we operate. All of us–small people, ordinary people, journalists. Is not that glorified? Someone who will stand up to India. Somebody as ordinary as me, as my colleagues doing their jobs, finding stories and writing them. Doing our daily work. Is it that kind of situation for us?
I would like to do any story if my editor publishes it at the end of the day. Because I do the day’s work. I was with the Indian Express for seven years and I used to do the stories. Some stories they did not carry at all. I felt really upset at the end of the day. The message that came across to me was that you have to do particular kind of stories. For example, if a militant did a rape somewhere and I did story on it, I would not be asked to go and get a quote from this militant. I would never be asked. They would carry it, put it on the front page, play it up. But if I did a story, same story about army men, I would be asked questions: first go to GOC; ask the witness; get police version, and many other questions.
This is how stories were barred. There are people who have biases, prejudices, have their ideological leanings. I do not doubt that. Everybody has his slants here or there. But a person who does not have a bias, tends to be objective, wants to do his daily job and his stories are not carried, he gets a certain kind of message from the management, from the editorial department, that you have to follow particular kind of stories, only they will be carried. I am talking about the structure in which we operate. What about that structure? We are a part of that structure.
The problem is that even if you negotiate things with the editors and they will not be able to make the deeper articulation of the suffering, would they be able to carry in-depth pieces that reflect the reality of Kashmir? That does not happen because they lack that skills and education. There are no biases on their part, rather they are incompetent. They cannot write nuanced stories.
Senior Editor, Greater Kashmir
I agree partly with the assertion that Kashmiri journalists are reporting the conflict objectively. It has been layered. Kashmiri journalists have been working for international organisations where it is sanitised repetition of facts, if we go by what wire services have been doing. Then there is the case of reporting for the Indian media where the problem mainly rests. Even if you objectively report a story, there are hundreds of stories which they omit. I am not saying that they are not being published in the Indian media. So, there is a kind of predetermined set up as far as reportage on Kashmir in the Indian media is concerned. While working in Greater Kashmir we reported many stories which never saw the light of the day even in local media even as they were equally good stories for the Indian media had they wished to report those stores. The truth is that it is very complicated in that sense. There have been honest journalists whose integrity has never been questioned. People like Yusuf Sahib, Riyaz Wani, but there are many people whose credibility has been openly questioned. I think it has been many layered.
By and large Kashmiri reporters who are working for the Indian media, international media or local media have tried to be as objective as possible. But then there is the problem of objectivity itself. Is it enough? Have we ever gone deep into stories? If you call someone a terrorist who is revered by millions, are you objective?
Objectivity is sometimes used as a bogey to evade reporting issues and events because reporting such events would not reflect well in CV or appraisals. There are many journalists who say since we have not been reporting militants’ atrocities we should also not be doing the Indian side. Their main aim is to be on the other side. I would not be naming them. That is why objectivity has become an easy escape route.
As far as the growth of media industry in Kashmir is concerned, then I must say that there is no question of ‘growth’ in a qualitative sense. It is tightly being controlled. Where will the growth come from? In militarised governance, where an elected Chief Minister has been reduced to being a puppet, the curbs on media will persist.
Some say that the recent Ministry of Home Affairs’ direction to stop ads to newspapers publishing “anti-national articles” and asking the local government to deal strictly with such newspapers here is a disturbing trend. But, in my view, it is not disturbing in any way to me. What can we expect from a government where the government spokesman announced the ban on newspapers over the phone.
J&K Bureau Chief, BBC
Compared to India’s other regions, Kashmir’s media stands out in terms of impact, reach and vibrancy. The armed uprising in 1990 affected Kashmiri media in both positive as well as negative ways. The situation widened the audiences as well as the marketplace for Kashmir press because everybody wanted to know what was happening around; youngsters started looking at English language press as a preferred career choice. Yet, the downside of it was that both state and non-state actors of Kashmir conflict tried to control this new media space, causing trouble for the media practitioners.
In the 1990s, the state would openly order gags and censor the newspaper contents, but that gradually changed. Since the local press is organically linked to the state by way of accommodation and adverts, the state, later, found new ways to control the media.
Nevertheless, the local press largely reflected the ground situation through a fair amount of reportage regarding human rights violations and other atrocities. In post-2000 Kashmir, the media here expanded into different other streams. Besides the local newspapers, journalists who report for India’s national newspapers and TV channels have extensively covered the conflict. The third and fast-growing stream is social media. Numerous news outlets practice ‘breaking news journalism’ on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. Although much of social media journalism cannot be considered credible, Kashmiri youngsters are trying hard to make this new genre of storytelling more effective and trustworthy.
But, as the practice of journalism in Kashmir flourishes into newer forms of storytelling the state measures to control it have also grown sterner. In 2016, Kashmir Reader was officially banned for several months. Kamran Yusuf, a freelancer, was jailed for months. Many youngsters were booked for expressing themselves on Facebook and now even officials are not spared if they resort to criticism of state policies. Of late, the central government’s Department of Advertisement and Visual Publicity (DAVP) has stopped adverts, which have been funding a large part of production costs for newspapers. Although there is no official censorship, the threat of being booked, economically squeezed or banned hovers over the media outlets as well as media practitioners in Kashmir. One can say, from the labyrinthine state systems the media here has all along been stealing gaps for truth-telling.
Kashmir Correspondent, The Pioneer
The eruption of armed insurgency in Kashmir in 1989 overlapped with the beginning of media growth. As the guns began roaring, few fledgling English newspapers hit the stands and new Urdu titles apart from Aftab and Srinagar Times were catching the reader’s eye. The armed rebellion brought Kashmir into focus, disturbed the population make-up, and threw a new set of reporters to practice. Kashmir was one of the world’s major datelines and for local journalists, reporting their own conflict was a tough challenge.
There are countless instances when militants, government forces, pro-freedom political groups and the state government attempted to mould or silence the media. Many journalists were killed. Some escaped miraculously.
A former police chief told a senior journalist, years after his innings in Kashmir, that unlike Punjab, the media in Kashmir was not fully on the side of the government forces, thus, the job of eliminating insurgency did not succeed. At a CRPF function in 1999, I heard the then Governor Gen (retd) KV Krishna Rao pleading with media persons to forget the past and refrain from revisiting the atrocities committed by the soldiers in early 1990s. The media, however, refused to toe the state line.
In a close-knit Kashmir society, it is impossible for media persons to obfuscate facts or twist them to suit the state narrative. People know the facts, media attest them. Any attempt to twist the facts discredits the reporter. Mixing facts with fiction is easily pointed out.
During three anti-India public uprisings in 2008, 2010 and 2016, the media by and large reported the ground situation. This led to unprecedented curbs on the media and periodic clampdowns. The authorities were compelled to fast-track a process to exponentially expand the media institution and divide it into many groups. The process was already there to promote a counter-narrative. At one point, an Urdu newspaper published from Delhi was being airlifted and distributed free of cost. At another point, a former army brigadier, who was appointed media advisor to the state government, facilitated new newspapers to set-up offices, buy furniture and computers.
The group of three interlocutors led by late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar in their report cast aspersions on media. They pointed fingers on source of funding to newspapers and recommended thorough investigation carried out by Press Council of India. Interestingly, the interlocutors suggested that state newspaper editors should be encouraged to participate in the activities of Editors Guild of India and other national and south Asian professional bodies. They also suggested national media houses to be encouraged to publish Jammu and Kashmir editions.
International attention on Kashmir diminished when bigger conflicts across the world took the center stage. This situation had its impact on journalism in Kashmir. The efforts to manage the situation and the media became more localised. Many newspapers are now facing acute financial crises. If the situation does not improve, many of them would be constrained to shut their shop. Many promising journalists have left Kashmir to pursue careers outside. Those who have stayed put have little promise to grow under prevailing circumstances. The media industry requires deep introspection to remain afloat.
This debate appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s April issue. To subscribe to print edition of Kashmir Narrator, please mail here: KashmirNarrator@Gmail.com