Saturday, October 10, 2009

Situation Report: In Troubled Environment, Media in Kashmir Force Open Several Doors

Just around daybreak on May 30, 2009, two women, Niloufer Ahangar and her sister-in-law Asiya Jan, were found dead at different spots in a stream near the district town of Shopian, 52 kilometres from Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Tension gripped the area and the local administration promptly deployed security forces in strength in an effort to deter possible mass protests. As the numerous independent news channels in the Kashmir valley – the largest of the three cultural regions that make up the state of Jammu and Kashmir – stepped up their coverage, residents of Shopian came out on the streets, protesting what they were convinced, was a case of rape and murder, in which security agencies controlled by the Indian Government were directly culpable.

The local police put out a clumsily worded press release that day which announced the two deaths but recorded that “post-mortems conducted revealed no marks on the dead bodies including private parts”. This release was reportedly withdrawn quickly, though without an alternative explanation given for the deaths. No first information report (FIR), the first recording of a suspected crime, was filed. In other words, the document that formally records the beginning of an investigation was not in existence till well after the first signs of a suspected crime emerged.

On May 31, Greater Kashmir, the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in the valley, reported the incident in the following words: “Two young women were (yesterday) found dead in mysterious circumstances in South Kashmir’s Shopian district triggering massive protests as their family and local people alleged that the duo were raped and murdered by the armed forces. The authorities clamped curfew in the town which the protesters defied. Fifty persons, including several policemen, were injured in the clashes.”

As the issue caught fire, local news channels carried lengthy reports on May 31 involving accounts from the family members of the two women. Also featured was the official explanation, given by the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, the top official looking after civil administration in the Kashmir valley.

For various reasons, not unrelated to intrinsic credibility, the official narration on the deaths remained subdued all through this cycle of events. The news channels and print media meanwhile, reconstructed the sequence of events leading to the death of the two women, seemingly from interviews with local residents and family members. Media accounts of the tragedy – in a situation of active information denial by the local and state authorities – mutated rapidly over the first two days, while conforming to the broad template of an atrocity perpetrated by the security forces that have been deployed in strength in the valley.

Since the atrocity came to light when Kashmir’s newspapers had closed their editions for the day, the news emerged in print only the following day. As reported in Kashmir’s three largest circulated English-language dailies – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times – the two women had gone out to the family orchard to attend to work at 5pm on May 29. When they failed to return at a reasonable hour and with darkness setting in, Shakeel Ahmad, Niloufer’s husband, set off in search for them. From various passers-by and acquaintances, he gathered that the two women had been seen on their trudge back home, till at least the time they passed an armed patrol deployed in Shopian for night-time security.

Shakeel then made an official complaint at the local police station and secured the voluntary assistance of a police constable. Together with this policeman, he and Asiya’s brother, Zahoor Ahmad, set out on a search until 3am, when they retired for two hours. Shortly after resuming the search, they found the two women, dead with serious marks of injury on their necks and heads – one on the bank of the stream and the other about a kilometre downstream on a mound of gravel near the middle of the stream’s width.

A day afterwards, with state and local authorities seemingly caught flat-footed by an eruption of public anger, this basic account acquired a few embellishments. It is not clear where they came from, but the intervention by Kashmir’s political dissidents had an undoubted role. According to the newer version that came to be accepted as authentic in most of the Kashmir valley the following day, Niloufer and Asiya were working at the orchard till just before dark on May 29. As they were returning on foot, Niloufer phoned her husband, Shakeel Ahmad, to tell him that they would soon reach home, though there was a group of uniformed personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) supposedly stalking them.

For the rest, the media version that emerged on day two did not seriously amend or contradict the account of the previous day. Zahoor Ahmad’s testimony was critical in the construction of events following the discovery of the women’s bodies. Reportedly, the bodies were first taken to the local medical centre for autopsy. Zahoor was, according to Kashmir media reports, present when a team of doctors after a first examination confirmed rape. However, the medical team was soon afterwards forced to abandon its task. The police reportedly made an urgent request that the bodies be handed over to the families, since they feared that with rape being certified, there would be a serious deterioration of the situation if the last rites for the deceased were not swiftly completed. However, as the media in Kashmir reported it, there was shortly afterwards a virtual diktat by the same policeman that the doctors performing the autopsy should omit all references to rape in their report. This exceptional request reportedly leaked out to the assembled crowd since the immediate family of the two women was present when it was made. The crowd that had gathered outside the medical centre erupted in anger, forcing the doctors to abandon their autopsy.

Subsequently, another team of doctors arrived from the nearby town of Pulwama to complete the procedures. Their conclusion, despite urgent police requests that a contrary conclusion be returned, was supposedly that the fact of rape was established, before death by strangulation. For an authoritative opinion, forensic samples gathered from the bodies were referred to the Forensic Sciences Laboratory under the Home Department of the J&K State Government.

The police continued to insist that the two bodies bore no scars of injury at the moment of their discovery – other than bruises that may have been inflicted by being dragged into a river and colliding against rocks. The claims in this narration indicated death by drowning.

Blaming the messenger

An IFJ representative who met with senior officials in the Kashmir Home Department on June 1 found them virtually unanimous in holding local news channels and print media responsible for the escalation in public tensions. The media, they said, had gone beyond reasonable limits of free reporting in reconstructing the Shopian deaths and had become part of the problem, with its disinclination to respect honoured lines of distinction between reporting and editorial comment.

To the question of how the police agencies and government authorities believed the women died, the answers were equivocal. One very senior official confessed ignorance, while insinuating that the women may have strayed away from their normal routine to fulfil some assignation. The implication was that the women may have ventured into enterprises that were inherently hazardous, involving motives and passions that could put them in danger.

As stated by J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at a press conference on June 1, the media had been irresponsible in putting out the worst possible stories on the deaths. They had erred in avoiding the standard convention of using the term “alleged” to describe situations where there was no firm determination of fact.

As he said in the course of a press conference that was telecast in real time by Kashmir’s numerous news channels: “Different people give different interpretations. Some say they (the women) were raped and murdered. But no one is waiting for the factual report.”

Immediately after the press conference, Kashmir’s news channels switched to Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the leading voice of the valley’s constituency for Pakistan. It is a measure of the freedom that the Kashmir media has won for itself through the years of the insurgency that Geelani, who has been under house arrest since March 25, as the Indian general elections process got under way, was able to address almost the entire media corps of Srinagar with few impediments. Nothing in what he said could have been pleasant to the ears of the administration, since he rejected the chief minister’s offer of a judicial commission of inquiry into the Shopian deaths, ridiculed the notion of a “special investigation team” set up by local police - since as he put it no agency could be a credible investigator in a case in which it was the main accused - and called for a three-day general strike in Kashmir.

On June 2, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which has been a major player in electoral politics and was till recently part of the coalition that ruled the state, took out a demonstration in Srinagar, marching toward the principal town square in defiance of police efforts to restrain protests. The demonstrators, who included the party’s top leadership, announced their intent to march toward Shopian the next morning to challenge the state government and compel it to come out with the truth behind the killings. On the march back to their party office, the demonstrators swerved into a police station about halfway along the route, with the obvious intent of challenging the police.

Kashmir’s live news channels - after covering the demonstrations in real time - were soon reporting the arrest of the PDP leaders as fact. This led, in the eyes of the administration, to much avoidable tension. The police officials in charge were nonplussed, since they had in their own account, no intent to detain the demonstrators and indeed, no purpose other than controlling any possible violence. But the administration’s inability to clarify the status of the demonstrators yet again badly compromised it in the public eye. A senior official of the state government’s Home Department denounced the Kashmir news channels for their coverage and denied there were any arrests. However, by the evening a top police official was describing the status of the PDP leaders as one of “protective custody”.

At his June 1 press conference, the J&K chief minister had admitted that there was a trust deficit between the administration and the people of the state. This was not specific to his tenure, since it applied to much of the state’s recent history. He also suggested that the deficit was in part a creation of the media. This was a refrain that other state officials took up all through the days of the Shopian crisis.

Restraints on the media

In practical terms, this attitude resulted in a clumsy effort to restrain journalists from going about their jobs. On June 2, journalists seeking to travel to Shopian from Srinagar, individually and in groups, found it virtually impossible to get through. Invariably, it took them more than three hours to reach the town of Pulwama, which would usually be no more than an hour away. Once there, they were typically advised to go no further, as numerous roadblocks and security cordons had been set up.

From the point of view of Kashmir’s journalists, the events unfolding after the Shopian tragedy showed yet again that any ground they claim will have to be zealously defended. Official outrage against the media invariably boils over every time there is a serious political crisis in the state, involving mass unrest and protests. In the fraught atmosphere of Kashmir, the media has held up the administration to certain standards of public accountability. The state administration, at various key moments, has failed these tests and then made a scapegoat of the media.

In the case of the Shopian deaths, the “blame the media” attitude was misplaced. Under relentless public pressure, partly arising from wide coverage of the matter by Kashmir’s media, the state government finally relented and empowered a judicial commission of inquiry to determine the facts.

Information trickled out from state sources, through selective leaks rather than open media briefings or releases. On June 8, NDTV, a news channel that broadcasts nationally in Hindi and English, ostensibly got the full story of the post-mortems conducted on the women. On that day’s main news bulletin, the channel’s Srinagar correspondent reported that the post-mortems were inconclusive, since the doctors “could not complete their report because of the hostile atmosphere”. The doctors’ reports though did confirm “the presence of semen on both bodies”, though no “firm conclusion of murder” could be drawn. All that could be said was that the deaths occurred on account of “haemorrhage and neurogenic shock”.

Great outrage ensued. NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi was specifically targeted by political groups then in the vanguard of the agitation over Shopian, which read into his news report an insinuation that the women had been engaged in consensual sex shortly before they died. Local activists demanded that Masoodi be ostracised and expelled from the Kashmir valley. Others cast aspersions on his intentions, his supposed proximity to the J&K chief minister and his entire family genealogy.

The schism that has always been present between Kashmir’s local media and the national media came glaringly into focus at this point. On June 10, a local web-based daily, Etalaat, called the NDTV report a “twisting” of facts which severely eroded the credibility of journalism in Kashmir. The paper also accused the channel of saying something that it had not said: “that the cause of death was brain haemarage (sic) caused due to excitement”.

The following day, The Hindu, one of India’s top English language dailies, published from 12 centres including the national capital of Delhi, reported Masoodi’s travails in the strongest possible language, characterising these as “a grim illustration of the culture of unreason generated by the leadership of ongoing protests against the still-unexplained deaths of two young women in southern Kashmir last month”. In its rendering of the NDTV report though, The Hindu was selective, omitting any mention of the reference to traces of semen. Masoodi was, in this account, suffering from public opprobrium in Kashmir merely for reporting that the autopsies had been “inconclusive” and had not definitively pointed to the mob-dictated consensus that rape had preceded the murders.

On every significant detail, the media reports at the local and national levels showed sharply divergent attitudes. For The Hindu, the location where the women’s bodies were found was a “fast-flowing mountain stream”. The implication was that death by drowning was a possibility. For local journalists reporting in the national press, it did not seem credible that the women could have been drowned in “ankle-deep water”. For local journalists reporting in the local press, the question did not seem worth spending time over, at all.

What emerged with great clarity through this episode was the “blame the messenger” attitude, seemingly shared across all shades of political opinion in Kashmir. Just as the state administration began its crisis response to Shopian by blaming the media for supposedly blowing up an issue “out of proportion”, political dissidents in Kashmir showed little hesitation in targeting a particular journalist for a news report that he had obviously filed on the basis of a non-attributable briefing by state government officials.

Ultimatums to ‘behave’

Meanwhile, the Directorate of Information in the state government issued notice to all local cable TV channels to suspend their news broadcasts. This diktat, issued on June 5, was partly diluted a month later, when the channels were allowed to air the 15 minutes of news they were permitted at the time of their registration. As the editors and owners of the channels put it, they were summoned early in June and given a virtual ultimatum by the authorities that they needed to “behave properly”. Several were told that their fiduciary relationship with the the secessionist political formation, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, was well known, and that the dossiers available with state intelligence agencies provided ample grounds for their prosecution under the special security laws in force in Kashmir.

An account of the content that was broadcast by the Kashmir news channels through those days does not establish clear grounds for this extreme action against the media. The various news channels in Kashmir may indeed have only done what the authorities failed to do: take note of a serious crime and document the public concern that those responsible be brought to account.

When the judicial inquiry into the Shopian killings by Justice Muzaffar Jan submitted its report, there were special words of censure for the media. The entire report of the inquiry commission was published on the websites of Kashmir’s main newspapers on July 11. The judge identified several instances of misreporting by the media. In an indication yet again of the divergent perceptions of the national and the regional media, The Hindu on July 12 reported that “Justice Jan’s report highlights disturbing evidence that some journalists may have fabricated elements of their stories.”

In fairness, Justice Jan did not at any point accuse the media of “fabrication”. What he did rather, was to observe that there could be occasions when “unconfirmed and incorrect information is fed to print and electronic media to flare up (sic) the sentiments of the public”. The inaccuracies that were specifically identified by the judge included:

· The report that the two women had called their homes over mobile phone to say that they would soon reach back, though they were bothered by CRPF personnel stalking them. This report had been decisively disproved by all the evidence that the commission had heard, including from members of the victims’ family. The commission, with the assistance of police investigators seconded to it, examined phone records, and in none of these was there any evidence of a call made from a “phone that may have been in the victims’ possession”.
· One constable from the police station in Shopian came in for a great deal of attention from the media, for supposedly making several calls to his superiors when the first missing persons report came in, alerting them to the possibility of an explosive situation developing. However, the phone records that had been accessed by the inquiry found that the policeman concerned “had made only four calls during the day and no calls … from 10.00pm on 29th of May to 6.00am on 30th of May 2009”, i.e., between the times that the women were first reported missing and the discovery of their bodies.
· Reports that Neelofar was pregnant at the time of her death, again widely featured in the media, were found to be untrue;
· Her body moreover, showed no visible signs of external injury, contrary to reports in the media that she bore multiple wounds;
· Although “gang-rape” was widely reported, “no (such) evidence was found by the team of medical experts.
· Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, the media had reported that Asiya had a mark of “sindoor” (a deep vermilion coloured powder regarded as a mark of female chastity in Hindu custom) on her forehead, which was found during the inquiry, to be a bleeding wound. This said, the commission, was a “shameful” distortion of the truth.

Kashmir’s media came in for serious censure from counterpart organisations at the national level for real and perceived transgressions. As The Hindu reported, “For the most part, Justice Jan found, the media misrepresented forensic evidence.” There was also an allegation in The Hindu’s interpretation that the media may have been guilty of inciting “hatred by broadcasting communal propaganda”. The suggestion that one victim’s forehead had been smeared with sindoor “suggested that the rapists were Hindus” and the rape itself “a macabre religion-driven hate crime”.

The commission’s report also included a section on the immediate family of the dead women, rife with references that the public took to be an attempt at “character assassination”. Under pressure of public questioning, the judge was quick to disclaim responsibility, ascribing the entire section to the sole responsibility of the police official seconded to assist his investigations. The police insisted that the judge was fully in the know about the inclusion of this material.

The judge may have withdrawn his remarks on the media though there seem to be two opinions on this. His report however does not identify the specific source of the report on the smearing of vermilion on one of the victims’ foreheads. None of the three English-language newspapers with significant circulation in Kashmir – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times – carried anything suggesting this in the first reports of May 31. All three seem to have taken elaborate care to record that “rape and murder” was not established, but a belief of the people of Shopian, arising from the circumstances in which the women were found and the conduct of local authorities immediately afterward. All three newspapers gave front-page prominence to the official response, represented then by a senior minister in the state cabinet, Ali Mohammad Sagar, who held out the assurance that the crime would be solved within 48 hours.

It is not feasible to scour through all the reporting that emerged on the Shopian tragedy in the print and electronic media and to identify where journalistic irresponsibility may have fuelled public anger. Justice Muzaffar Jan, for his part, does not identify any particular news organisation for the many breaches that he has identified in the norms of fair reporting.

Even the reporting on the phone calls that the victims allegedly made was not something that the journalists “fabricated”, as the inquiring judge seemed to suggest and sections of the national media seemed firmly to infer. Rather, it was a claim that had been made in a public statement by a political personality, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, which the media should have been at liberty to report. The story that a victims’ forehead had been smeared with sindoor came similarly from PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, a politician with a considerable following in the Kashmir valley. Viewed purely in terms of a politician’s obligation that he or she should assume responsibility for words uttered in public, whether in anger or in reason, the media was entitled to report these utterances. That the media did not cross-check this account with members of the victims’ families, or indeed with anybody who might have been in the know, is a professional lapse. But considering the severe impediments to free movement faced by journalists in Kashmir during those turbulent few days, it is one that can be understood.

The Shopian issue continued to smoulder for over a month-and-a-half. Mid-August, the Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Delhi reported that the DNA samples it had been sent – ostensibly of the two victims and the four policemen who had been named after the judicial inquiry as suspects in the destruction of evidence – were all fudged. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tendered a public apology for his administration’s mishandling of the case and vowed to bring a superior authority – the police agency controlled by India’s Union Government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – into the case. At the time of writing, the bodies of the two victims had been exhumed under the supervision of the CBI, after the explicit consent of the families had been granted. What course the investigations will now take, is a matter of conjecture. But the key issue that emerges is that after advancing numerous alibis and seeking to make the media a scapegoat, the state administration finally had to admit that it had hit a wall in its inquiries. Presumably, if it had listened to what the media was reporting, rather than shrink into a defensive “blame the messenger” stance, things might have been different.

Resort to threats and curbs

Early in July, another violent death in Kashmir – this time in the capital city of Srinagar – sparked a further furious round of contention between the administration and the media community. Asrar Mushtaq Dar, 19, was went missing from his home in Srinagar on July 3. His body was found on July 8, bearing marks of a brutal end. Initially believed to be a custodial killing, Dar’s murder sparked protests and strikes across the valley, which was already tense after the killings of other college students and an alleged desecration of a nearby mosque by personnel of the security forces. When the police arrested an estranged friend of his on July 15 and procured his confession, the protests ended, along with speculation from separatists and politicians that Dar was killed in police custody.

In the eight days between the discovery of Dar’s body’s and the arrest of his one-time friend, journalists in Kashmir faced the brunt of police aggression. On July 8, Fayaz Bukhari, of NDTV, was verbally assaulted by the Director General of the J&K Police for publicising allegations of Dar’s parents that their son had disappeared in police custody. On July 10, Bukhari and Rasheed Rahi, of CNS news agency, received threatening calls from various police authorities. The police had already registered an FIR against Rahi for allegedly creating panic during the Shopian murders, and he had been assaulted in the Kothi Bagh police station in Srinagar just days before.

A statement from the Srinagar Journalists’ Association noted that the police threatened Bukhari, even though he had reported the protests in a professional and balanced manner. “His fault is that he aired both police and family versions of what led to Asrar’s mysterious death,” it argued. Meanwhile, the J&K Council for Human Rights urged the administration in Srinagar to respect the working independence of Kashmiri journalists at all costs. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a statement reminding the state police that “reporting all sides of any matter is part of the professional commitment of journalists”, and reiterating that there could be “no justification in any event for threatening journalists with arrest under the special security laws applicable in Kashmir”.

It must be observed here that several among Kashmir’s journalistic community are privately willing to admit their unhappiness that a similar display of unity and resolve did not follow the threats that were made against NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi by dissident political forces in Kashmir, just a few days before.

The restraints on local cable TV channels remain in force at this writing. Explaining the restrictions, the head of local administration in Srinagar said, “As per Section 6 of the Cable Act, the local cable TV operators are not allowed to telecast any news or current affairs programs … (T)he Cable Act of 1995 and Section 6 says ‘operators cannot telecast anything which promotes violence’ … They were unabatedly showing the scenes that were not in sync with the program code. By telecasting the footage of violence continuously on their channels, they were creating a law and order problem for the government and we had to restrict them. They were showing violence against state and paramilitary forces for hours. Government will not allow them to show whatever they want. After all it’s a friendly concession that we have given to them that they are showing news, which otherwise they are not entitled to show”.

Media pressured in tense environment

Since mid-2008, Kashmir has witnessed a degree of political turbulence that brought back memories of 1989, when mass demonstrations and a long threatened and dormant insurgency broke out. The year 2008 was especially crucial in that elections were scheduled to be held by October to the state legislative assembly, and these occasions invariably feed a tense contest between the Indian Government and parties that have accepted the Indian constitutional scheme on one side, opposed by the forces that believe the political status of the state is yet unsettled. Mass disturbances over the allotment of land in the Kashmir valley to a Hindu religious trust ensured that the elections could not be held as scheduled. When held in December, the polling was relatively peaceful, with a high voter turnout.

The high degree of suspicion with which journalists are viewed was however on ample display. On December 7, a group of journalists reporting on local perceptions on the election campaign were attacked by security personnel in the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. Six of the journalists suffered injuries, two seriously. They were reporting on a street demonstration involving a number of local residents, mostly youth, who had come out in support of the ongoing campaign to boycott the state-wide elections. The IFJ was informed that a senior police official on duty instructed his men to beat the media persons covering the demonstration, supposedly as a means of dispersing the protesters. Journalists at another northern Kashmir town, Baramulla, were told the same day, to leave the area since their presence was supposedly inciting the local people to engage in demonstrations and slogan-shouting.

These incidents illustrate some of the dimensions of governmental pressure on the media to suppress an alternative narrative on the elections in J&K. The media has had to balance this out against pressure from armed militant groups, which were determined to deny the electoral process all legitimacy.

Early in November 2008, the State Government sent an advisory to all media organisations within its jurisdiction, warning against the “publication of certain objectionable material”. Recipients were put on notice that they were to “refrain from publication of such objectionable and seditious material”. Failure to comply would result in “action” under rules which allowed for the withdrawal of official advertising from non-compliant media organisations. The warning came as the nominations process was opening for the assembly elections, amid calls by certain political elements for a boycott.

The IFJ, with the support of its affiliate organisations in India and the media community in Kashmir, issued an appeal to the State Government in J&K to de-link its advertisement placement policy from the editorial stance of particular newspapers.

Close to two decades since the militancy in Kashmir erupted, the media has gone through various phases in its fraught relationship with state agencies. In 1996, when elections were under way in J&K, the only means the media had to deal with the multiple pressures it faced was to shut down. In the 2002 electoral cycle, the media managed to function with relatively little pressure, since the contest for the first time seemed to offer the people of J&K choices that went beyond the parties officially sanctioned by Delhi.

The 2008 elections took place in the aftermath of prolonged and widespread civil disturbances, following the land allotment controversy. Beginning with mass protests in the valley, the political crisis was qualitatively transformed when retaliatory actions began in the Jammu region.

On August 9, police seized all copies of an Urdu-language daily, Etalaat, for allegedly carrying a report of a village being razed by a mob in the Jammu region. At the same time, state authorities warned staff at the English-language daily Rising Kashmir not to carry certain kinds of reports. The Jammu offices of another English-language daily, Greater Kashmir, were attacked by mobs. One of Kashmir’s best-known journalists, who went out into the Jammu region for a reporting assignment, recounted how he felt compelled then to travel under a false identity card, for fear of being attacked on grounds of his religious identity.

In this context, a conclave of Kashmir valley’s most senior journalists resolved on August 9 that the state authorities should adopt a policy of complete transparency with the media and the general public in Kashmir about all ongoing incidents of violence and lawlessness in both the Jammu region and the Kashmir valley.

However, the situation deteriorated seriously and a blanket curfew was imposed in the Kashmir valley on August 23, 2008. Newspapers in Srinagar failed to print for six consecutive days on account of severe restrictions on the movement of journalists and other media employees. Security agencies also compelled local cable news channels to suspend broadcasts or to air only entertainment programs.

Fifteen journalists and media workers were reported injured on August 24 in targeted attacks by personnel of the CRPF. The injured included journalists from India’s two main news agencies, the Press Trust of India and the United News of India, who had been trying to go to their workplaces.

The IFJ’s inquiries with journalists in Srinagar revealed that security forces persistently disregarded media accreditation cards and curfew passes, in some instances snatching and destroying them. Armed CRPF personnel were reportedly heard remarking that they had orders to prevent journalists in particular from proceeding to work. Despite State Government assurances that media accreditation cards would be considered good for passage through curfew-bound areas, security forces disregarded these credentials during that turbulent period.

Three English language newspapers in Srinagar – Greater Kashmir, Etalaat and Rising Kashmir – posted notices on their websites regretting their failure to publish because staff could not travel to work. The Urdu language press was also paralysed. News websites during this period were updated sporadically only because some employees were confined to their offices by the curfew imposed in the entire Kashmir region.

At the same time, in a cycle of attacks and retaliation, copies of the Daily Excelsior, published from the city of Jammu, were burnt in a locality of Srinagar, for its ostensible indifference to the protests in the Kashmir valley.

Managing conflicting perspectives

As in most areas of conflict, Kashmir also witnesses a tendency for contesting parties to deny others a voice, except where it suits their interest. A central question confronting the media community in Kashmir is whether the voice of ordinary people has been heard through the media or stifled, all through the years of conflict and insurgency.

One of the principal areas of concern is the relative concentration of the media community in the state’s two main cities, Jammu and Srinagar. In the Kashmir valley, journalists are concentrated in Srinagar. Among journalists in Kashmir there is recognition that the voice of the people, as reflected through the media, has been subdued to an extent. However, over the years the media community has evolved strategies of representing the local situation in a manner that has retained readers’ loyalty. This has involved multiple skills, such as evolving a particular vocabulary that will be understood by the media audience, following codes of attribution for news stories that reveal the layers of meaning that can be read into them, adopting a protocol of story placement and prioritisation that will minimise the pressures on the media from the contesting sides, and providing higher visibility to commentators who are sympathetic to the civil liberties discourse and enjoy credibility within the larger Indian media audience.

The main difficulty encountered by journalists in Kashmir is the overlapping of several narratives: the local, the national and the global. Linked to this is the narrative that emerges from Pakistan’s longstanding political intervention in Kashmir, and that country’s seemingly unending turbulence. These complicate matters further.

As in most other parts of India with a history of conflict, the state and the security agencies are a major source of news in Kashmir. Journalists are often under compulsion to report in accordance with the state’s views. This sets up a conflict in terms of ethical practice, since the inputs received from official sources are often at variance with the points of view that the press gathers from its interactions at the local level.

In reconciling these conflicts, the media community in Kashmir maintains the tough language of confrontation. But it has also had to accommodate the officially determined narrative and provide it with adequate space, though often with attributions clearly spelt out, so that the audience is clearly informed that certain stories are being featured only under duress. It has been a long and hard process of negotiation, but because of the high international visibility of the Kashmir issue and the greater degree of scrutiny that agencies in the state function under, the authorities have been compelled to yield ground. This ongoing process of negotiation does not however ensure the security of journalists. In many ways, the threats that journalists face from insurgent groups are more difficult to deal with, because it is quite often out of their hands to meet the stringent conditions on reporting that this side of the conflict imposes.

These tensions begin with the basic vocabulary of conflict reporting, in the choice between the use of “dispute” or “problem” and between “terrorist” or “militant”. Journalists’ dispatches are commonly edited, headlined and laid out on the page by colleagues in distant centres such as Jammu and New Delhi, who may not be aware of the daily compulsions faced by colleagues working on the ground.

The militancy imposes its own restrictions on journalists and the media, which often amount to censorship. News reports that inconvenience militant groups and, in particular, call into question the commitment of Pakistan to the cause, are severely restricted. When respected political leaders in Kashmir are reviled by state agencies on the other side of the Line of Control that divides India from Pakistan-controlled territory, or when training camps for militants are shut down under the pressure of coercive diplomacy by India and its western allies, media outlets in Kashmir come under pressure to ensure that public perceptions of the objectives of the militancy are not undermined. Commonly faced with the threat of lethal force for reporting in a manner that displeases one side or the other, journalists opt for self-censorship rather than truth-telling.

There are numerous cases of journalists being harassed and threatened by both sides in the conflict. However, the two deaths recorded in the state in recent months – of press photographer Ashok Sodhi on May 11 and news videographer Javed Ahmed Mir on August 23 last year – were the consequence of being caught in the crossfire in armed encounters.

Media growth and conditions

Despite recurrent threats, Kashmir’s media continues to grow. Two decades ago, there were an estimated five newspapers published from Jammu and Srinagar. Today, there are 11 English- and 46 Urdu-language dailies in Srinagar city alone which have been registered with the government and approved for placement of official advertising. If the number that have not been approved for ad placements are added, the total number of dailies in the Kashmir region would be 81. Local news and entertainment channels have sprouted, and except in situations of dire emergency, as recently seen, manage to evade the scrutiny of state security agencies. At the most recent count, there were six cable channels operating from Srinagar, all of which were in the business of broadcasting news when the situation demanded and when the authorities relaxed their vigil.

Representative of the vigorous media culture in evidence in Kashmir, a monthly magazine was launched in June 2009, with a cover story that was sharply critical of elections held under the Indian constitution as “disempowering” of Kashmiris. In addition, the inaugural issue also featured an investigative article on how some of Kashmir’s most influential political families had managed to buy up the title to the most prime real estate in the valley, in defiance of revenue rules.

Kashmir University’s Department of Mass Communications in Srinagar turns out more than 20 graduates each year. They in turn become eager job-seekers in a growing industry. However, wage scales and working conditions remain undefined for the most part, especially in Kashmir’s growing Urdu-language press.

Another feature of media growth in Kashmir has been a proliferation of “news agencies”. These are typically one-person operations in district towns, which serve as freelance news-gathering resources for newspapers in Srinagar. They are a means for newspapers to economise on news-gathering costs, since few can afford to retain journalists on their payroll outside the State’s two main cities. The provenance of the news stories emanating from these agencies though, is often problematic, though media persons in Kashmir have learnt to identify the interest groups using these as fronts to disseminate news and information..

The absence of salary structures and insurance cover for journalists and media workers is of serious concern. Additionally, certain areas, such as Uri and Tangdar, are out of bounds, even for journalists. Reporting about these places, which are close to the Line of Control where Indian armed forces face Pakistan’s in an uneasy, seemingly never-ending confrontation, is next to impossible. The news-agents who perform news gathering in these areas typically service numerous clients in Srinagar and work under conditions of extreme stress.

What to do?

There is an association of journalists in Kashmir but its membership is rather modest in relation to the large and growing community that it seeks to represent. Differences in perception on what a professional body can achieve in the circumstances that prevail in Kashmir account for the failure of the existing body to achieve wider enrolment. This issue could be dealt with through a wider dialogue among journalists and agreement over a charter that covers the various professional choices and contingencies they face. The body could then also engage the broader public, including state and non-state actors in Kashmir’s political landscape. Given the spirit of civic engagement that still remains strong in Kashmir despite two decades of insurgency, there is a possibility that a consensus could be achieved on non-coercive methods of grievance redressal in matters involving journalism. There are strong possibilities that journalists could evolve such norms and ensure their acceptance by media managements and Kashmir’s various political actors.

Issues of wages and working conditions also need to be addressed on a priority basis. The media in Kashmir has grown significantly in recent times, though unevenly. The differences in compensation that exist between the English and Urdu-language media need to be addressed. Common norms could be agreed on employment and contractual terms that eliminate some of the sense of discrimination that journalists in particular sectors may have. This would also serve to sustain the enthusiasm that the youth in Kashmir still evidently harbour for the profession of journalism.

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