‘We Are Fighting Logistical Nightmares and Misplaced Perceptions’

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Senior journalist Sajjad Haider, who was elected the President of Kashmir Editor’s Guild (KEG) has studied engineering in Chennai and later journalism at Tehran University. He started his career in 1990 by covering the Gulf War for Tehran Times. He subsequently took up an assignment for National Iranian Radio and Television and moved to New Delhi. In 1994 he returned to Kashmir and contributed to various international media organizations including BBC online, Deutsche Welle, IRNA and IRIB from Srinagar. In 1997 Sajjad Haider founded the daily Kashmir Observer. In 2006, Sajjad Haider was awarded the prestigious Chevening Fellowship by Great Britain. He studied at the Centre for Security and Diplomacy, Birmingham University. Days after being elected to the coveted position, Haider talked to Tahir Bhat about the challenges he will have to address as the leader of Kashmir’s main editors’ body

Sajjad Haider. Editor Kashmir Observer, and President Kashmir Editor’s Guild (KEG)

KASHMIR LIFE (KL)Kashmir media is being criticised for its failure in reporting Kashmir properly. How do you respond to this critique?

SAJJAD HAIDER (SH): Kashmir media is journalism of courage. Nowhere do we have an example of newspapers coming out during prolonged curfews with restrictions even on the movement of reporters faced with total communication blockade. Local media was perhaps the only civilian entity alive when everything had frozen under the unprecedented lockdown post-August 5, 2019. We have given a new definition of journalism to the world.

Although Kashmir media has demonstrated resilience and vivacity, the contemporary political, economic and environment journalism here could very well die a death if it is not already in its death throes. This would not only constitute a tragedy but also a travesty of huge proportions given that a robust media is the lifeblood of any society and polity.

Yet some quarters accuse us of not meeting their expectations. They may be having a point but their observation is flawed. Yes, there are shortcomings. I have no qualms in acknowledging that, but that’s because we made newspapers available to our people when our smallest revenue channels had been choked and when there was an outright internet lockdown in place. That’s unheard of in the recent memory.

KL: Kashmir Editors Guild had a long spell of dormancy. What were the reasons for that?

SH: Life after August 5, 2019, froze in Kashmir. Which section of society was functional? It’s unfair to expect from editors who are part and parcel of the same society to meet and issue statements. Priorities changed and our priority was to bring out newspapers at least to chronicle events in whatever little way possible as we lacked communication with our field reporters and those in towns for months. How we produced a day’s copy is a separate story in itself.

KL: As the president of the Kashmir Editors Guild, what are the immediate challenges that you find for yourself?

SH: Although Kashmir media has demonstrated resilience and vivacity, the contemporary political, economic and environment journalism here could very well die a death if it is not already in its death throes. This would not only constitute a tragedy but also a travesty of huge proportions given that a robust media is the lifeblood of any society and polity. We, at the KEG, would want to contribute to both the survival and longevity of media in Kashmir as KEG is a forum of bonafide newspapers which constitute 90 per cent of overall readership within and outside Kashmir both in print and online formats.

KL: What are your immediate priorities?

SH: At this delicate moment and time, developing a robust framework and architecture which, among other relevant things, means and entails the cooperation of all newspaper owners and editors to take on the new challenges. Kashmir newspapers have a particularly unenviable job to do and there is also a perception issue. Media, particularly newspapers have been vilified perhaps out of naiveté. As I told you earlier, critics have often wilfully or due to naivety ignored the challenges newspapers face here. For example, empanelled newspapers all over the world publish advertisements from businesses, trade, corporate, and governments against a set rate. It is no favour but a necessity as these advertisements constitute public information. Apart from the newspaper, the main income that a publisher sells is the newsprint space. That is what the income is all about. Here, vested interests have started converting this into a scandal, and made it sort of a largesse. I think education and public awareness has to be a continuous priority with the editors’ body.

Members of Kashmir Editors Guild in a meeting in 2018 in Srinagar. (File Image)

KL: Journalists also say that the KEG is in a way not taking any interest in the affairs of the Kashmir Press Club?

SH: Kashmir Press Club is the outcome of strenuous efforts of KEG and it ensured its management is in the hands of an elected body of journalists. KEG was part of the elections. I’m sure elected body of KPC is competent enough to handle affairs there and we are always at their beck and call.

KL: Every time, there is an incident, the photographers are the first to be attacked. Can KEG intervene in undoing this routine?

SH: Photojournalists in Kashmir are doing an exceptionally great job and their work has received international recognition. It is unfortunate and tragic that in their own homeland they are mistreated and humiliated. They are the frontline reporters and chroniclers of history in action. They deserve not only respect but support as well. It is a matter of great concern for KEG and we are working in tandem with them on it.

KL: How are the turmoil and the lockdown impacting the media in Kashmir?

SH: The situation prevailing in Kashmir post-August 5 has made our job harder. Deprived of high-speed internet, the only mode of communication in these times, newspapers are facing information crisis. At times we could publish little that concerned the ongoing situation. Since there was no counter-narrative available as all shades of political opinion were virtually absent from the scene and the local administration was the only content provider left. This gave the impression that newspapers here were pushing only government narrative. This has dented our credibility among the readers. The vilification campaign only added to the notion that we have compromised on objectivity and independence.

Kashmir Editors Guild New Body (L-R) Haji Hayat (treasurer), Manzoor Unjum (Vice President), Sajjad Haider (President), Masood Hussain (Secretary-General) and Shafat Kirra (Vice President).

Another grave issue is the financial squeeze. We had to lay off our staff causing disruption in our operations. Many reporters became jobless. This state of affairs is killing journalism in Kashmir. We are fighting both logistical nightmares and misplaced perceptions.

KL: The major newspapers in Kashmir are also being criticised for not having a fair hire and fire policy?

SH: I think all major newspapers are governed by labour laws and any aggrieved person has that option available to lodge a complaint if he or she has been unfairly treated by any member.

KL: Why is the KEG not keeping better coordination with the media watchdogs in India and outside to safeguard the interests of the journalism in Kashmir?

SH: KEG does have coordination with media bodies outside Kashmir but I admit it needs to be strengthened.

KL: How do you see the challenge that print media is facing from the digital media and how it is being managed by the communication blockade?

SH: The traditional media in Kashmir which is regulated by licence agreements are face to face with unregulated media here which has grown exponentially over the last few years. We also are faced with the challenge of social media where unauthorised news pages and platforms dish out fake or unverified news to fetch likes and traction. They pose a challenge to us because we take the time to verify facts before releasing them. This is a universal issue not exclusive to Kashmir. What is exclusive to Kashmir is that authorities here don’t distinguish between digital platforms of established newspapers and those created by social media buffs. At times they are preferred over online editions of local newspapers.

KL: How do you see the new trend of newspapers seeking a donation from people?

SH: It again is a global trend. Producing content that is reliable and authentic comes with a cost. Newspapers have the discretion to charge users for it. So there are subscription modules and donation options made available to readers. I don’t see anything wrong in that.

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