Two weeks after the Handwara protests in which five civilians lost their lives, Majid (name changed upon request), a journalist working with a local daily, is yet to resume duty. Reason: A day after the protests, Majid was severely beaten up by the security forces while covering the news.
Majid’s ordeal is a common story of the journalists working in the conflict zone that is Kashmir. But the incident seems to have left longlasting scars. Terrified, he repeatedly requested this reporter to keep his identity anonymous.
Narrating his ordeal, Majid said that on the second day of the Handwara incident when locals alleged molestation by an army soldier, resulting in protests, he along with his colleagues had gone to Langate. The area had been tense after the death of an old lady, Raja Begum, who as per witnesses was killed by a bullet fired by the security forces. Sensing trouble, the authorities had barred the press from entering the area. Despite those restrictions, the journalists met the deceased’ family.
While they were leaving, they saw a posse of police approaching, forcing the journalists to take refuge in a nearby house. However, the police had already cordoned the area. “As we started leaving the house, the police started running towards us. We showed them our identity cards. Despite that, they began beating us ruthlessly. It was horrible,” Majid told Tehelka on phone. He said that they were beaten by rifle butts and “They didn’t listen to us even after our injuries were clearly visible.”
Majid’s beating is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is part of a trend of putting curbs on the media, which become most apparent since the 2008 protests, when violent agitations broke out against the state government’s decision to transfer land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board for the annual pilgrimage. Many journalists, while covering the subsequent protests, were beaten up as the authorities sought to block access to the venue of protests.
The story continued in 2009, when again anti-India protests rocked the Valley over the double rape and murder case in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. This time, in order to block access to information and ground reporting, cable news operators were asked by the local authorities to reduce airtime for news from approximately three hours to a mere 15 minutes. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the violators and the local journalists were threatened with severe consequences. Left with no choice, the channels and the journalists complied. They found themselves back on air after the crisis was over.
But again in 2010, as protests gathered steam in the summer months, authorities issued advisories to the cable news channels and in turn the journalists to tone down the coverage given to street protests and funerals of local youth who were killed at the hands of security forces. Subsequently, they were asked to completely stop news broadcasts, as the number of those killed at the hands of the security forces began to pile up. This was accompanied by the restrictions on and denial of curfew passes to the local journalists, due to which many newspapers could not publish their daily editions for a few days.
However, the blocking of cable news proved to be a temporary measure as local journalists took to emerging social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to report on the ground situation. This frustrated the authorities, as the wide reach of the social media attracted international attention.
In an eerie reminder of Majid’s tale, Showkat Shafi, a photojournalist working with Al Jazeera, was beaten up by the Jammu and Kashmir police and Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) in 2011. Showkat told Tehelka, “Whenever I recapitulate the incident, it sends shivers down my spine.” He had gone to shoot the gathering of worshippers after Friday prayers at Srinagar’s Jamia mosque, which is the main venue where local youth hold protests and chant anti-India, pro-freedom slogans. However as soon as he started taking photos of the protests, the soldiers grabbed and beat him ruthlessly. “Around 15 of them started kicking and punching me. They were beating me with rifle butts also,” Showkat told Tehelka while summarising the incident. Terming incidents such as these clear violations of freedom of speech, he said, “Reporters in the Valley are harassed on a daily basis to restrain them from reporting on the ground situation.”
With the emergence of social media networking sites, the government has kept a hawk’s eye on social media networking sites, even booking a journalist for “offensive” and “inflammable” Facebook posts. Many have termed it sheer violation of the freedom of speech.
Since 2013, the government has found another tool to prevent the flow of information: internet blackout, dubbed ‘e-curfew’ locally. It was extensively implemented in the aftermath of the flux security situation arising out of the execution of the 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Since then, it has been routinely utilised by the authorities whenever there is any law and order situation. It was ironic that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘Digital India’ campaign for spreading internet connectivity to the whole of India in September last year, Kashmir was reeling under a three-day ‘e-curfew’. Criticising the insensitive attitude of the administration, Masood Hussain, editor of a local weekly says, “Free speech is beneficial for the society. It is blockade of information.”
The latest of these measures came last week when a circular was issued by North Kashmir’s Kupwara District Magistrate calling on every WhatsApp group to be registered with the District Magistrate. “It is impressed upon all the Admins of WhatsApp news groups of the district to get the registration of their WhatsApp news groups in the office of undersigned within 10 days,” the advisory read. As per reports, the WhatsApp group administrators will be held accountable for any such conduct resulting in law and order incidents. While the authorities’ intention may have been to protect the spread of rumours and fake news, many Kashmiris have termed it as another form of media censorship.
“There were instances where people were blackmailed and rumours were circulated. There has to be check on it, but government has taken the extreme step. Instead of suddenly issuing this advisory, they should have thought or debated with the representatives from the media that whether this was the only option at this point of time. I can simply say, it’s debatable,” veteran journalist Yousuf Jameel told Tehelka in reaction to the advisory. All these professional hazards for the Kashmiri journalists along with the obstinate attitude of the administration have not gone unnoticed. A report titled “World Press Freedom Index, 2016” brought out last week by the international media watchdog “Reporters Without Borders” noted that it is hard for journalists to cover traditional conflict zones such as Jammu and Kashmir and that in such situations, journalists often become collateral victims of clashes.
The report’s assertion pans out quite violently on the ground as the security forces and administration clamp down on media in an attempt to ‘shoot the messenger’.