The photojournalists in Kashmir, unlike their reporter colleagues, are supposed to be as close to the theatre faction as situation permits. This has its own costs. There have been a series of incidents in which the lens-men died while covering Kashmir as they get routinely injured. No incident has so far been investigated despite the UN declaring November 2, as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, reports Faisal Ahmed Fazeel
At the entrance of Srinagar’s Press Enclave, an armoured personnel carrier (APC) rests round the clock, almost blocking an epitaph bearing slain photojournalist Mushtaq Ali. It has been there since June 2018, when the veteran editor Shujaat Bukhari was assassinated almost on the same spot.
Mushtaq Ali, then with ANI, died in SMHS hospital on September 10, 1995, many days after he was critically injured in a parcel bomb blast that some woman delivered at the office of BBC’s Yousuf Jameel. The main target of the explosion, Jameel, survived with injuries. Since then, the epitaph is a standing witness to Kashmir’s troubled history and challenging record keeping.
It has been over two years since Zuhaib Maqbool, a freelance photojournalist, was hit by pellets in his right eye while covering a protest in downtown, Srinagar.
Carrying two cameras with two other colleagues, the trio was covering a protest and was visible from a distance. Still, a cop came towards them and opened his shotgun.
“We waved our cameras towards him, and shouted that we are from Press, he still pulled the trigger, and within seconds 200 pellets pierced my body, deep into my muscle, turning my white T-Shirt red; two hit my eye; one stuck in the lid; the other went through the cornea damaging the corner of retina,” Zuhaib said. “It has been two and a half years since then, but those 15 seconds still haunt me.” That was September 4, 2016.
After Zuhaib made headlines for being hit by pellets, for seven months, he had to confine himself in a dark room. For almost a year, he was unable to resist the light. Post-surgery, he has been facing difficulty in sleeping and has to oblige to a specific posture while speaking as painkillers continue to be a staple in his pocket, “I never know when it would start paining,” Zuhaib said.
“It has been a long journey of caging in a dark room, more than 5000 pain killers, innovating the ways I resist the light while struggling to earn something,” Zuhaib said while removing his shades to reveal his pellet-hit eye. “I am waiting for the day when doctors will tell me that I no more need any treatment and I can carry my camera and get back to the field.”
Indifferent of fate, Bilal Bahadur, who works with Kashmir Life, is currently undergoing a physiotherapy treatment at a Srinagar based hospital. Bahadur was lucky thrice so far, but the last time was painful.
On January 25, 2019, after a brief cordon and search operation (CASO), a gunfight started between militants and army, in Baramulla. Next morning, Bilal drove to the spot with various other colleagues to cover the funeral of two militants. To get a clear shot of the funeral, he climbed on a stationary truck parked in a corner. “A light nudge from someone and I fell down. I don’t remember anything after that,” said Bilal. He woke up in Baramulla hospital where doctors told him his shoulder was completely dislocated and his elbow was broken. In Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital, he spent weeks and underwent many surgeries. He is still incapacitated but is attempting to do whatever is possible. Doctors have reconstructed with steel part of his broken bones and it will time him to readjust with that.
Bilal has covered the unrests of 2008, 2010 and 2016 and countless events happening in between. In 2008, Bilal was covering the funeral of two civilians, when he was caught in a clash that erupted between police and protestors. He returned office with his right hand in bandages as it was fractured.
Earlier, in 2017, when he was covering a funeral in south Kashmir Bijbehara, a police tear smoke shell hit his right hand. All his colleagues stopped working and somehow drove him out of the clashes to a hospital. For months, he was on a forced holiday.
“Unlike reporters, a photojournalist in Kashmir must be present on the spot of happening, capturing happenings thus is at risk always,” says Sayeed Muzaffar. “If we positioned ourselves on protestor’s side, we get in the range of pellets, and if we are around police then the anger of protestor awaits us. This is where we are caught.”
Muzaffar who has been covering Kashmir for 23 years asserted that earlier even grenades used to explode in the field where we would work. Now stones and pellets have replaced those grenades. “I’m tired of this misfortune” he added.
Photojournalists in Kashmir witness Kashmir from a very close angle. Nissar Ahmed, the official lensman of The Hindu narrates the incident of the 1990s when a mother with her son was walking on the road. “Suddenly there was an attack and both of them were killed,” Nissar said. “Grenades used to explode in close proximity but luckily I survived always. I have instances in which I saw people before my eyes.”
Young photojournalist, Syed Shahriyar recalled a 2011 incident, when he narrowly escaped death. “I was on the side of protestors when armed forces chased protestor from all sides. There was no space left to escape for a photojournalist like me,” he said. “I had to safeguard myself and the camera, so I kept looking for an escape. In the melee, I jumped towards a high tension transmission wire.”
The journalists, more especially the photo-journalists, face the situation from a close quarter, unlike reporters. They have to capture the action in the theatre of the conflict. Mushtaq Ali was killed in a blast in office but photographers of Hindustan Times and Excelsior died in action. Pradeep Bhatia was on way to Partap Park when a massive IED explosion took place in the city centre. He died on the spot. Ashok Sodhi was covering the shelling at the Line of Control when a bullet hit him and he died.
But there are countless instances in which the photojournalists were roughed up while covering protests, processions, funerals and the gun battles. A TV journalist Muzaffar was hit by a bullet when he was covering an encounter live from Lal Chowk. He survived.
However, what is interesting is that in neither of the cases did the police investigated the crime and delivered justice to the media. This was despite the fact that the United Nations declared November 2, as the UN logo International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. It is a declaration of February 21, 2014. The UN General Assembly said that as many as 1010 journalists were killed worldwide between 2006 and 2017 and finally the assembly proclaimed November 2, to be observed as a day especially to fight against the immunity that various forces enjoy in societies who target the media. On this date, two French journalists were killed in Mali.
“This landmark resolution condemns all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers,” the formal declaration said. “It also urges the Member States to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability, bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media workers, and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies. It further calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.”
(A student of Manipal University in Karnataka, Faisal Ahmed Fazeel is an intern with Kashmir Life.)