Kashmir Media In Peril: A situation report by IFJ

International Federation of Journalists has released a brief report about the situation of Kashmir. In the larger public interest, it is being published here. The report was released late November 2017

Key Issues

Ø Challenges of living and reporting in a conflict zone, balancing pressures from all sides: government, security forces, militants, the Kashmiri public

Ø Precarious working conditions: low wages, no job security, benefits, medical, life or risk insurance

Ø Physical safety: No protective gear, insurance or safety training

Ø Government control through regulating advertisement revenue: pressure to toe the official line or face financial insecurity

Ø Lack of unity among journalists: several associations but no common platform

Ø More vulnerable: women journalists, reporters living and working in remote areas; photojournalists at the frontline; Urdu media disadvantaged

Ø Access to information: information controlled by government and security forces; outof-bounds areas, telephone and internet shutdowns; no system in place to get official version of incidents from police or security agencies

Ø State control: regulation by shutting down newspapers (Kashmir Reader)

Ø Recent cases: Shafat Siddiqui – photojournalist drowned in 2014 floods; Mir Javed and Zuhaib Maqbool blinded by pellets in 2016; Kashmir Reader arbitrarily banned for three months in October 2016; Kamran Yousuf, detained without charge by National Investigation Agency, September 2017.

Context

The media in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has walked the razor’s edge for the past 30 years, facing pressures from all sides of the conflict. While the territorial dispute and internal strife are decades old, since the 1990s, Kashmir has been in the throes of an armed insurgency, intense militarisation and arbitrary use of draconian laws. Journalists have had to survive by treading a tricky middle path, carrying out balanced reporting in a conflict situation in which they and their families live. The media has suffered in the form of killings, direct attacks, intimidation, threats and pressures from various quarters. Twenty-one journalists have been killed due to the conflict – either directly targeted or caught in the cross-fire.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which gives sweeping powers to military personnel, and public security laws like the Public Safety Act 1978 of Kashmir, which provides for detention without trial of persons –including journalists– for “acting in any manner prejudicial to security of state or maintenance of public order” are broad in scope and allow restrictions to be placed on the media.

The spike in unrest in 2010 following a “fake encounter” in which three civilians were reported to have been killed by the army and the public protests in 2016 following the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani by security forces brought special challenges for the media.

In recent times, internet shutdowns and censorship have also restricted information flow and the rights of journalists to report.

A meeting in September 2017 of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) in Kathmandu hosted by the IFJ, focussed attention on two zones in the region in need of urgent intervention to protect press freedom and journalists’ rights: Kashmir and the Maldives. Solidarity meetings were proposed in order to create a forum for regional solidarity to enable meaningful interventions in the public sphere, both inside and outside the beleaguered regions.

This situation report on Kashmir is based on meetings with journalists, young reporters, press photographers, editors and media owners in Kashmir in November 2017. Media reports and other data have also been referenced.

Emergence of independent media

“Before militancy took hold in Kashmir, the media was an extension of the state,” says Masood Hussain, editor and owner of Kashmir Life weekly. It was during the 1990s that independent media in Kashmir emerged as a force to reckon with. In the face of great hardship, it has continued to show resilience and not toe any one particular line.

When the armed insurgency erupted in 1990 following what is termed the ‘Gawkadal massacre’ when paramilitary forces opened fire, killing about 50 unarmed protesters, there were only five or six Urdu newspapers being published from Srinagar. The international press was thrown out of the Valley, and until 1995, there was no daily English newspapers published in Kashmir (national dailies published from Delhi were distributed in the Valley).

The leading English dailies published from Jammu are: Kashmir Times and Daily Excelsior.

Kashmir-based editors protesting the media gag.

The weekly Greater Kashmir became a daily in 1995. There are about 61 registered Urdu newspapers, though the prominent ones are: Al Safa Aftab, Srinagar Times, Kashmir Uzma,

Nida-e-Mashriq, Uqaab and Afaaq. The main English dailies out of 34 or so registered newspapers are: Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Images, Kashmir Observer, Kashmir Monitor, Kashmir Life, Kashmir Times and Kashmir Reader. These newspapers took on the challenging task of reporting the militancy and its impact on common Kashmiris, the might of the Indian state and human rights violations committed by the security forces and also by the armed militants.

The media in Kashmir held its own despite pressures from the government, military and the militants. “Kashmiri media has been accused of bias, but there is not a single incident in the past 30 years that has been suppressed by the media. Besides trying to sustain itself as a viable institution, the media has tried to uphold the idea of democracy,” asserts Masood Hussain.

There are no television channels based in the state other than cable TV and national channels broadcast in J&K. However, on many occasions, these are blocked by cable operators under directions of the state government.

In September 2016 for instance, the government cracked down on five news channels (Noida based Gulistan TV, KBC, JK Channel and Hyderabad based Munsiff TV and Insaaf TV) for “fomenting’ trouble” in Kashmir Valley during the ongoing unrest that left close to seventy people dead and thousands injured. A letter by district magistrate of Srinagar to the cable operators said that the “cable operators have been transmitting programmes which promote hatred, ill-will, disharmony and a feeling of enmity against the sovereignty of State.”

In a state with a population of just over 12 million, with 370 publications listed on the Department of Information and Communications of the Government of J&K, several national dailies and online portals, it would seem as though the media industry is thriving. Yet, most of the credible newspapers are struggling to survive.

Labour of love

Journalism as a profession is not yet institutionalised in Kashmir. Structures of recruitment, wages, promotions and benefits are not uniform in any media house. There is only one relatively large media house, the Greater Kashmir, which is relatively more structured in terms of recruitment, salaries and promotions. With the current state of the media, Masood Hussain, editor of Kashmir Life and member of the newly formed Kashmir Editors’ Guild, feels that there is no question of a structure like the Wage Board to regulate salaries. “We need to see the reality. But we are talking about health insurance at the very least,” says Hussain.

For most media houses, the small scale of operations and lack of standard procedures leaves journalists and media staff vulnerable and their jobs insecure. Precarious working conditions are exacerbated by the conflict. Salaries are poor, with journalists working for as little as Rs 5000 (less than USD 100) per month. Interns often carry out major tasks at the paper, sometimes with no salary for up to six months. In such a scenario, there are no appointment letters, no medical benefits, insurance or pensions or provident fund. Written contracts are not drawn up and jobs and work assignments go according to oral agreements which are not binding. Reporters who travel for stories usually end up paying for conveyance themselves, unless they are lucky enough to hitch a ride with their colleagues from the national or international media on their bikes or vehicles. Photojournalists buy their own equipment, having to bear the costs of repairs and upgrades themselves. Phone bills are also borne by reporters.

Members of Kashmir Editors Guild (File Image)

The lack of unity among journalists; the absence of a body to negotiate working conditions; and the precarious financial state of the media industry in Kashmir appear to be reasons for the continuing insecure working conditions. In addition, saturation of the job market, with newly established journalism schools in Baramulla and Anantnag producing 120 graduates every year contributes to a glut in fresh entrants working for very low wages just to be able to gain experience and bylines. This, many felt, results in devaluing professional journalism.

Alongside, the growth of new media has not been matched with an understanding of working conditions of online journalists who are expected to be on standby 24×7. Not only do journalists in the electronic media have to broadcast, they also have to write for the website in English and Hindi and also send photographs. All of this for the same salary.

Risking life and limb

Since the armed conflict erupted in 1990, 21 journalists have lost their lives in targeted killings, or because of being caught in the cross-fire (See Appendix 1). Assaults from all sides of the conflict – militants, the military and state-sponsored renegades (‘surrendered militants’ or Ikhwanis) made journalism a very risky profession during the 1990s.

Several militant groups insisted on media coverage of their activities. Senior journalist Yusuf Jameel then with the BBC, recounts that there was a grenade attack on his in 1990 by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) on the allegation that the Jameel was not giving enough coverage to them. “Ironically, the next grenade attack was by the Jamaat-e-Islami on grounds that I was giving too much coverage to the JKLF!” quips Jameel, who was also abducted and detained by the army on several occasions.

Recalls Haroon Rashid, editor of Nida-e-Mashriq, “In the 1990s, the Khidmat Press – where most newspapers were printed – was owned by the Congress Party. In 1993-4, our paper was ‘banned’ by the Hizbul Mujahideen. If they had issues with the news coverage, they would come right down to Press Colony, ring you up and ask to meet you round the corner to ‘discuss’ matters. My father, Abdul Rashid Shah, the editor at the time, was kidnapped by Kukka Parray [one of the most well known Ikhwanis]. Only after we printed their statement was he released. Now, the militants have Facebook and social media and their own websites to publicise their statements, so they don’t need us!”

Today, while targeted killings are not the norm, journalists continue to be vulnerable while covering the conflict. One journalist narrated how he was recently beaten by the Special Task Force (STF) of the J&K police and had to be hospitalised for two months. “Far from any support from my organisation, my editor did not even phone me.” Reporters from the districts receive more threats than those based in the capital Srinagar, and there is little recourse, it appears.

Regular visits by army personnel and intelligence officers to the homes of journalists and harassment of their families, has become routine enough to be unremarkable – the annoyance and surveillance being borne as a fallout of working and living in a conflict zone. Journalists report being picked up and taken to Military Intelligence (MI) camps and interrogated, sometimes being detained with no charges. Questions about their stories sometimes leads to self-censorship to minimise harassment to families who live in fear.

The lack of support from employers seems to increase vulnerability. The recent arrest of photojournalist Kamran Yousuf, 20, picked up on September 5, 2017 by the National Investigation Authority (NIA) is a case in point. He is reportedly languishing in Tihar Jail in Delhi, with no charges framed against him. The 20-year-old from Pulwama had been contributing to Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Uzma and other publications, but has been disowned by them. A news item about an earlier assault where he was identified as “GK lensman” was taken down from the Greater Kashmir website after his arrest by the NIA.

Press photographers are particularly at risk, since they rush to the spot of incidents even as they are unfolding. Except for those who work for national or international media, local press photographers and video journalists do not have protective jackets or helmets. Due to the nature of their work, they are at the frontlines of conflict with no protection. Mir Javid, a journalist in Kupwara was deliberately targeted with pellets in August, blinding him in one eye despite extensive surgeries.

Likewise, photojournalist Zuhaib Maqbool, 30, blinded in one eye by pellets aimed at him and his colleague Muzamil Matoo, by the security forces in September 2016. Multiple painful surgeries later, he is yet to fully regain his vision. His cameras costing about Rs 2 lakh which he calls his “eyes” were also damaged. Yet, they have no medical, risk or life insurance cover. Funds were raised through a Facebook campaign for their medical expenses.

Women journalists are few in number, and do not as yet form a constituency to negotiate a better deal. There are no female photojournalists and few reporters, the latter having to face additional vulnerabilities covering the volatile political reality that is Kashmir. Many prefer to be feature writers. Some are members of the country-wide Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) in order to connect with women journalists outside Kashmir.

Online abuse and intimidation are growing problems. Says Asif Qureshi, with the ABP TV channel, “I have had to deactivate my Facebook account due to the barrage of abuse within minutes of posting any story.” He recounted how WhatsApp messages from all over the world ranged from a “friendly nudge” to give a certain angle, to open threats. On one occasion, an extremist leader threatened to broadcast a call to burn his house from the local mosque. He feels the discourse has changed from the 1990s when the people of Kashmir felt that the media was telling their story. Today, he says, there is a lack of faith and even animosity between the public and journalists, some of whom are dubbed “agents”.

Zuhaib Maqbool holding protest demonstration against beating of Photo-Journalists in Srinagar on September 03, 2016.

The conflict in Kashmir has led to a peculiar inversion of competitive “breaking news” and “exclusives”, particularly in the electronic media. Given the immediate and wide outreach of television, reporters who are correspondents of national channels say that they are cautious about breaking news, especially about militant groups or human rights violations especially by the army. Therefore, they share information and newsflashes go out simultaneously on the ticker, thus reducing the vulnerability of individual journalists. The vulnerability of Kashmiri journalists who live in the Valley is much higher than “parachute” journalists from Delhi or international channels who visit for a few days and leave, with no stakes in life in the Valley.

Need for professionalism

While many journalists enter the profession due to passion, the desire to inform and tell the story of the conflict, many admit that there is a dearth in professional training. The quality of journalism training is questionable, and often bookish and far removed from reality as the faculty in most journalism schools are not working journalists. There is a lack of professionalism among working journalists who are in need of training and capacity building in data journalism, multi-media, ethical journalism, general skill upgradation and exposure.

There is also a lack of formalised mechanisms of mentoring and skill training whereby senior journalists transmit valuable skills they have learned through vast experience. The lack of investment in professional journalism is displayed in the poor salaries paid to field reporters, and minimising expenditure by relying on newspaper vendors and hawkers in the districts to phone in with local updates which are then subbed and packaged as “news” – thus completely bypassing professional journalists. Says Peerzada Arshad who works with Xinhua, “Another trend is to make use of government employees as sub-editors in the evening. They package agency news in the manner required by the publication, for very little payment.

New technologies and mobile telephony are rapidly changing the way news is generated and disseminated. One journalist related how, when he asked an individual at a press conference for his journalistic credentials, he replied, “I run a WhatsApp group.” Verification and other tenets of professional journalism are often sacrificed for speed and volume of outreach.

Access to Information

News-gathering and verification are fraught with challenges in Kashmir. From obstacles to physical access to villages on the contentious Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan to routine denial of information from official sources, getting the complete story and a quote from all sides is virtually impossible. In a recent case where a ‘suspected militant’ was killed in Uri (a border area), villagers said he was a civilian – a grazer. But it was impossible to verify because journalists were denied access and officials refused to comment.

In some areas, though official permission is obtained, the authorities on the ground do not accept the permissions and passes issued by other authorities. When curfew is imposed, which is routine during military operations, combing, crackdowns or even civil strife, obtaining curfew passes is difficult. Even with passes in hand (issued by the civil authority – the District Magistrate) the military personnel on duty do not permit journalists to enter the spot where incidents have taken place. When the military does take journalists to specific areas, it is usually in the nature of embedded journalism, and extremely controlled.

A case in point is the biased coverage of the floods in Srinagar in 2014. A journalist quoted in a study by the Reuters Institute says, “The majority of the media outlets from New Delhi were operating from the military airbase in Srinagar. They were embedded and did not shy away from openly running a public relations operation for the military. It seems they were reporting for the military, and not for the flood victims.” An extremely skewed picture emerged, with the Indian army, otherwise implicated in severe human rights violations, being portrayed as ‘saviours’ of hapless Kashmiris. Local media and international publications however presented a very different picture of the disaster and its aftermath. Al Jazeera for example ran an opinion piece “India turns Kashmir flood disaster into PR stunt”, contradicting the New Delhi-based media reports that the military had evacuated thousands of people from their submerged homes.

The discrimination against local journalists is open “With names like Butt or Geelani, we are not issued passes,” said one journalist. Often, what amount to curfews in practice are termed ‘restrictions’ and passes are deemed unnecessary, but on the ground, the mobility of journalists is severely curtailed.

Reporter Hakeem Irfan related an incident when the military had restricted movement and residents were not allowed to come out of their houses, even if they were journalists. Yet, the well-known Delhi-based journalist Barkha Dutt with NDTV did her piece-to-camera- from a military vehicle right outside his house! Irfan said that on a news-gathering trip to Gurez on the border, the Grenadiers demanded that he sign a document saying that he was agreeing not to report. He refused to sign.

The official version is often too late in coming, making it impossible to include quotes of relevant government and military sources within the schedule demanded by a daily news cycle. This routine stone-walling means that the official version is missing from news stories. “While there is no direct censorship, circumstances are created to make it difficult to work. There is no system in place to talk to the responsible person in the police or security agencies to get the official version,” says senior journalist Yusuf Jameel.

Another way in which the army controls the flow of information and testimonies from affected populations is to intimidate villagers to the extent that common people are afraid to talk to journalists due to fear of repercussions. Shahana Butt, a reporter for an Iranian TV channel said, “I could hardly talk to victims of pellet injuries during last year’s uprising as they were scared to let me into their homes, lest the army or police harass them after I had left.”

Access to information is severely restricted during shutdowns of the telephone network or the internet. The penetration of the internet and mobile telephony is high. However, during ‘encounters’ and operations, the internet is shutdown or slowed down to a speed that renders it useless. Such blockades are routine after encounters with militants resulting in deaths, until four days till after the funeral rites are completed, with a view to preventing popular mobilization around the killed militants. The internet is routinely shut or slowed down on Fridays, when public gatherings around mosques are likely to be volatile and turn violent with stone pelting.

The struggle to get accreditation and the strict government control over this process was cited as another method of blocking access to information.

Government control

Most of the papers published from Kashmir are priced nominally (Greater Kashmir Rs 5, Rising Kashmir Rs 3, Kashmir Uzma Rs 3), and do not earn sufficient revenue through sales or subscriptions. None of the Srinagar-based newspapers is owned by a business house or corporation. Local business has been hit by the insurgency and corporates from outside the state are loath to spend advertising revenue here. Some which (like Airtel) have been issued directives not to advertise in J&K.

These papers survive on government advertisements and paid public notices. This source of

revenue comes at a price of course. The Central Government Department of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP), disburses advertisements, but with strings attached. Routine systems are not followed and advertisement revenue is disbursed according to discretion and favour, said some editors.

Some publications receive advertisements disproportionate to their circulation (some print a token hundred copies for the record, while raking in large advertisement revenue). The content of these publications is obviously impacted by the dependent relationship between the newspaper industry and the establishment, especially for economic survival. Pro-government publications are favoured with government houses, land, and other ‘privileges’ for propagating the official line. Those who do not play the game, pay a price.

“Some newspapers have been blacklisted for several years for their critical stands,” says Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir. In a recent letter dated October 18, 2017 and addressed to senior officials of the state government and the Jammu & Kashmir police, the Home Ministry says: “It is understood that some newspapers in J&K are publishing highly radicalised content. This is against the Constitution of India as well as the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Hindi Media crew

The letter further says, “…publishing of anti-national articles in the newspapers of the state should be strictly dealt with. Such newspapers should also not be given any patronage by way of advertisements by the state government. This may be circulated to all concerned for strict compliance.” The message cannot be clearer. This was seen by editors in Kashmir as a form of censorship and direct control.

Says Haroon Rashid, editor of Urdu language daily Nida-e-Mashriq, “Even when reporting facts, we are labelled as ‘anti-national’. This year, a publication which carried a photo of [militant leader] Burhan Wani on his death anniversary, had its advertisement revenue cut off on grounds that it was ‘promoting’ militancy. If people are attending the funeral of slain militants in large numbers, this is a fact. How can it be considered as glorifying militancy?” At a meeting with the Director of Information, editors were told “If you take government advertisements, we also expect something.”

Although central government revenue (through the DAVP) has largely been curtailed, state advertising revenue to the tune of about Rs 32 crore was disbursed in the year 2016-2017.

However, this was not reflected in the status of salaries or benefits to working journalists, many said. Some journalists felt that the government could exercise control not by censorship of content, but by making minimum standards, salaries and benefits mandatory and deny advertisement revenue to publications that did not comply.

Organizing for journalists’ rights

Veteran journalist Yusuf Jameel, the Vice President of the Kashmir Union of Working Journalists in the 1980s, says, “We did raise issues confronting us like wages, working conditions and, of course, opening press club in Srinagar with the State government, then headed by Dr. Farooq Abdullah. In fact, he agreed to handover a government-owned building near the Srinagar GPO to KUWJ for using it as press club. But while I and some other members of the KUWJ were accompanying the Chief Minister to the place to take over the premises, the then Director General of Information and Public Relations (J&K Government) Sat Pal Sahni informed Abdullah that he had forgotten to bring the keys with him. Later we came to know that he was reluctant to handover the premises to the KUWJ thinking that ignoring the rival union could create problems for the government.”

The KUWJ existed till early 1990 when the separatist movement entered its violent phase. Many of its members and some office bearers including president JN Sathu had shifted to Jammu for winter months or left the Valley. By then, the KUWJ had split into two after some of its active members led by then PTI bureau chief P.N. Jalali formed separate group and got affiliated with the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) then headed by K. Vikram Rao.

The Valley was in upheaval then, and journalists were busy reporting the conflict. Says Jameel who was working with the BBC Urdu Service, “People like me and Zafar Meraj who was the General Secretary of the KUWJ got busy in counting bodies and remained overwhelmed with work for years to come.”

While the KUWJ did not revive in the Valley to take up issues of working journalists, several associations have sprung up around specific interests: Kashmir Press Photographers Association; Kashmir Journalists Corps; Welfare Association of Journalists; Kashmir Correspondents’ Club. The Kashmir Young Journalists Association (KYJA) is a newer grouping founded in 2016 to serve the interests of fresh entrants into the profession.

Likewise, the Kashmir Editors Guild was set up in 2016 to lobby for issues related to editors and the running of publications. The Jammu and Kashmir Journalists’ Union, with about 30 members, is active in the Jammu region of the state, but not in the Kashmir Valley. Peerzada Ashiq, talking about the Welfare Association of Journalists highlighted the lack of security for journalists and the need to evolve pension schemes and health insurance.

The Kashmir Editors Guild set up in 2016 has a mandate of promoting press freedom and the wellbeing of the media, including welfare of journalists through life and accident insurance and other welfare measures. They have also launched ‘Kashmir Wire’, a community-owned newsgathering institute which every media house pays for. The main agenda of the KEG, according to its General Secretary Bashir Manzar, is to strengthen the credibility of the media in Kashmir.

The move to set up a Jammu and Kashmir Press Club has gained momentum and high-level meetings in November 2017 to identify a government building for the purpose indicates that it might finally become a reality. Whether the Press Club can function as a platform for unity  remains to be seen.

————

Report by Laxmi Murthy

[Thanks to Faisul Yaseen for facilitating meetings and interviews]

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here