Rumours and Censorship – A report on media in Kashmir

It was the first day of October 2010. The autumnal air was beginning to get nippy. Summer was officially over in Kashmir, but its horrors were still trailing. At the crack of dawn, copies of leading newspapers in Srinagar were seized before they could be distributed. The new Assembly session was about to start and several journalists were on their way to cover it. Among them were a father and son team from the Associated Press — Merajuddin and Umar Meraj. Meraj is one of Kashmir’s best-known photojournalists. This highly respected veteran has covered the ground for over 20 years but he was not prepared for what was to unfold that morning.

His car was allowed through the first checkpost, but stopped at the second. He showed the police his Assembly Pass, Press Card and Curfew Pass, but was asked to turn back and go home without any reason being provided. When he got off to talk to the sub-inspector on duty, a couple of policemen walked up to his car and slapped his son. Before he could react, the sub-inspector ordered that he be ‘removed’. He was beaten severely and a blow on his neck left him unconscious. All this while his son continued to wail and plead with the police. CNN IBN bureau chief Mufti Islah, who was passing by, tried to reason with the policemen. When his colleague took out his camera to shoot the incident, both of them were also beaten.

Ironically, while the journalists were being thrashed, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was apologising for the seizure of newspapers earlier in the day saying, “I seek an apology from the mediapersons if the action has led to any inconvenience to them.” However, what was more alarming was his statement that the government had not ordered this seizure. “I personally felt that such an action was not needed,” he said. “But I will get it ascertained why the copies were seized. I have asked Director General of Police to report to my office on the issue in next 24 hours.” This statement is hardly alarming to a Kashmiri journalist, but to the outsider it is at the heart of a perturbing question: Who is in charge in Kashmir?

Once Meraj was back home from the hospital, the CM’s aides came calling. Later, the CM himself called to apologise. All of them assured Meraj that action would be taken against the errant cops. “You will not be able to do a thing,” retorted Meraj. Seventeen days later when he was allowed to leave his house, he had to cross the same checkpoint. None of the officers connected with his case had been removed — not even the sub-inspector who had watched over the heinous act. “I fear going past that point now. They could hit out at me again for talking about it,” says Meraj. He does not see any point in filing a case against them. However, he was not always this cynical. In 2000, when he had gone to cover a mine blast near Tanmarg, he was beaten along with over 15 other journalists by a renegade leader. He registered a case against the leader. No action was taken against him. In 2006, the leader’s son came to his house to threaten him to withdraw the case. The leader goes by the name of Muma Kana. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Padma Shri despite a number of criminal cases pending against him.

Meraj has been beaten several times while reporting. He says he remembers 11 incidents vividly but has stopped counting since. Yet he insists that things were not so bad before 2008. If you were beaten there was hope that the forces in charge would face action. Threats were issued indirectly not on the ground by the personnel themselves. This time around journalists were made to feel the wrath of the forces. They would often hear things like “It is because of your reportage that the situation flares up” or “Your curfew passes won’t work with us, we follow our own orders.”

Naseem, a 24-year-old journalist with Rising Kashmir, a prominent English daily, was apprehended outside his house on his way to the office and asked to produce the day’s copy of the paper. The lead picture was of a stone-pelter’s back. The cop started yelling at him saying that they did not get his face on purpose and if they had the cops could have caught the offender. He was let of with the threat of a thrashing.

Senior journalist Riyaaz Masroor, who has trained Naseem and his colleagues at the paper and works as a correspondent with the BBC, had a similar experience. “They announced that our curfew passes stand cancelled and we need to come out and get new ones made. The next day I left home to do just that. I had heard that press vehicles were being damaged so I chose to walk instead. I was stopped at a checkpoint near my house and asked to go back. Then without any provocation, without any explanation, they started to beat me,” his voice trails off.

n the past months of unrest, the cops have not distinguished between editors and interns. Several journalists have been beaten or humiliated. Star News bureau chief Asif Qureshi, 35, was stopped on his way home on 4 August and made to do manual labour by the roadside despite having valid identification and curfew pass.

There is not a single journalist TEHELKA met whose curfew pass has not arbitrarily been torn or declined. A day before Eid, a couple of journalists finished with their pages late at night and were heading back home. They were let through the first checkpoint but asked to return from the next. They argued saying the first checkpoint let them off and that it was Eid so they wanted to get back home. They pleaded with their curfew passes in hand but the cops refused to let them through, asking them to get back into office. When they finally turned to walk back to the office, the cops at the first checkpoint would not let go them go back. No explanation was provided to them for either decision and they sat late into the night on the road between two checkpoints unable to go home or into office.

The harassment is not necessarily over the local media trying to cover the conflict between protestors and security forces. In the first week of October, Nazeer, 24, wrote an article questioning the J&K Assembly Speaker’s remarks on Ashok Bhatt, the deceased Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly, hailing his secular credentials. The daily that carried the piece was threatened and Nazeer was forced to apologise personally to the Speaker for his article.

The feeling on the ground is that there is a method to this madness — the cops have orders to curb Kashmiri journalists, whether they are from the local press or national. And given that the local administration seems to be clueless, most people are convinced that this is being done at Delhi’s behest. So is this really a well-planned attempt to curb the will and work of the local press? Deliberate, perhaps, but organised not as much. The security forces see the local media as biased against them. Condemned to face the wrath of the people and up against a violent struggle that is constantly taking them by surprise, they don’t see why the media should not be stopped, especially when they believe that the reportage fuels more violence. The Valley does not receive any national daily until late afternoon, so the masses rely on local publications for information. Srinagar Inspector General Shiv Murari Sahai has another explanation for why his men did not always respect curfew passes, “There was illegal scanning and proliferation of curfew passes so its sanctity was completely lost.”

It is hard to refute his claim. Anyone with a little bit of resources could collect blank curfew passes and fill out details later. But even though one can sympathize with the difficulties of policing a conflict state, it does not justify venting ire in an arbitrary way on the press for several months at a stretch. The buck stops with the administration that failed to step in to create checks and balances for both the police and the media. The police, left to fill in the absence of the other arms of the state, cracked its whip blindly at will. It was in these circumstances that India’s rating in the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporter’s Without Frontiers, France, dropped 17 places in one year to a 122 (out of 178 countries) in December. The report cited the violence in Kashmir as the primary reason for this depreciation.

For an aggregate of about 30 days since July, curfew has been so stringent that no newspapers have come out. On a number of other days, newspapers would be stopped from being distributed in an area where violence had occurred. On others, entire lots of newspapers were seized from the press. On the odd days that papers did come out, their resources were strained to the hilt. There was no saying how many staffers would be allowed to get to office. On some days there were no more than two-three people to work on some of the largest dailies. “Why issue curfew passes at all then? It makes us feel compelled to step out and cover stories,” says Meraj. Political cartoonist and Srinagar Times editor Basheer Ahmed Basheer echoes the sentiment. “I wish they had openly banned newspapers like they did with local television news,” he says. “At least that way our readers would stop expecting us to deliver.”

But the cable television industry does not see itself at any advantage. Over the past few years Kashmir witnessed a proliferation of local cable channels hosting news and current affair shows. Most of the programming was amateur, even tacky, but to a population that feels under-represented by the national media, local news was a welcome window to their never-ending war.

During the 2008 Assembly election, these channels found favour with politicians as well. They would get innumerable calls to cover campaigns and are said to have played a major role in getting the electorate out to vote. India was smug over the large voter turnout and the voters themselves were looking forward to the tenure of their promising young CM — Omar Abdullah — for an improved quality of life. But the climate of hope didn’t last long. In 2009, as the Valley simmered over the alleged double rape and murders in Shopian, cable news operators were asked to reduce the airtime of news. They complied without complaining and found themselves back on air as soon as the crisis was over.

But the worst was yet to come. Last year, while the Valley grappled with stone-pelting, deaths and unprecedented curfews, news channels found themselves under scrutiny again. They were issued several ‘advisories’ to ‘tone down’ their coverage of funerals of the teenagers killed by security forces. Then came a missive directing all local channels to slash airtime of news and current affairs shows from 24 hours to a mere 15 minutes, at a stipulated time every day. After the violence that followed the Quran burning protests on Eid, the channels were asked to stop broadcasting news altogether. The cable operators were also asked to take Iranian channel Press TV and Al Jazeera off air.

The industry obeyed the restrictions for over a month, certain that the ban would be lifted as soon as the administration thinks fit. But one October morning, they woke up to a statement by minister Taj Mohiuddin in the papers declaring that there was “no question of lifting the ban as the situation in the Valley had not improved but worsened because of them”. He even offered to “facilitate bank loans on low interest” to those employed by the industry so they can “start some private business of their own”.

Mohiuddin was one of the MPs who had actively sought the help of local channels to cover his campaigns, reveals Syed Tajamul, political editor of Sen TV, one of Kashmir’s best-known channels. When the union finally started protesting, they were told that their operations had been illegal to begin with. Didn’t the endorsement and various communications with the administration amount to tacit consent to run the channels, they wonder now. But no answers are forthcoming anymore. “No one is answering our calls or willing to talk to us anymore,” says Tajamul signs off, fighting back tears.

“Cable TV operators find themselves under more pressure than others because they sold out to the political parties during elections by agreeing to carry out propaganda for them,” says Najab, 30, a freelance writer. There is little sympathy for the cable news industry in general. Most people see them as corrupt, incompetent and cynically believe they deserved what they got. But the plight of hundreds of videographers, reporters, producers and editors, who find themselves suddenly unemployed, begs a different question. What makes an entire industry susceptible to be used and disposed off at the political class’s will?

Sheikh Imran Bashir, from the Agency India Press (Wire Services) has a story that contextualises this question. While the protests were at their peak he got a call from the Directorate of Information asking him why they weren’t reporting that Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s effigies had been burnt downtown. Imran crosschecked this with his sources and found no such incident had occurred but the pressure from the DI’s office continued to build up. “If I had carried the story Geelani’s side would have lynched me,” he says, still outraged. Imran spent an entire day in fear and anguish before coming up with an inventive con. He wrote out the story and mailed it to the DI’s office, pretending it was being circulated to all his clients. Thereafter for days on end he kept trying to call the DI’s office to check if they had seen the story and his call was not answered. “Can you imagine what would have happened if I had really written the story and got into trouble for it? They would not even answer my phone to help me,” he yells, breathless. A week later, the officer finally answered his call and said he was very pleased with the release. Imran was indignant, outraged but also relieved that the storm had passed.

This is a regular hiccup in the day of a wire service reporter but they have as little sympathy as the cable news journalists. A large number of them are treated with scorn and suspicion because they are seen as agents of the establishment. A lot of them set shop in the state in 2008, around the same time that the cable news industry was encouraged. Print journalists give valid reasons for this scepticism. Most of the wire agencies, despite being new on the block, get the kind of access to politicians that even established newspapers miss. They release fully developed, edited copies of stories. There is just one version of the story that is released. No one seems to know who funds or owns most of the agencies and given that they do not require licences to operate the way newspapers do, there is a feeling that they go unscrutinised. Smaller newspapers are almost entirely dependant on wire services for their reportage, which makes questions about their objectivity all the more pressing.

An alternative to wire services was offered by SMS news providers. Jasim owns a company called the Valley Media Service. For a monthly subscription fee of Rs. 50, they would periodically send SMS to their subscribers with news reports, press releases, community and social service messages as well as classifieds and job opening-related advertisements. The problems started when SMS service providers started mushrooming all over the Valley. Some of them were trained mediapersons but the majority of them simply wanted to capitalise on the trend. “They would flash news without verifying its authenticity, and were usually corrupt,” says Jasim.

To address these concerns, 20 out of 150 SMS service providers formed a union called the All India News Network Association and went to meet the Director of Information to discuss how the unreliable elements could be dealt with. However, Jasim’s SMS service was stopped without any notice on 3 February. On enquiry, the telecom operator, informed him that his number was one of a list sent by the J&K Home Department to the telecom company asking them to immediately block SMS services on those numbers. He was unable to get any explanation from the Home ministry. One by one all bulk SMS providers faced this undeclared ban until three months later in June, when all SMSes were officially banned in the Valley.

Jasim’s subscriber base at the time of banning was more than 5,000 people, mostly from the Valley. Unverified estimates suggest that between all the SMS providers, they reached out to nearly 10 lakh subscribers. On 24 December, SMS services were resumed in the Valley for all post-paid customers, but Jasim still cannot send text messages. He has made a number of enquiries but failed to ascertain why his service is not back up yet.

All this while, Jasim has been collecting updates from his network on ground and posting them on social media websites to ensure stories continue to be told. Through the summer of clampdowns on mainstream media, social media became the point of convergence for the news hungry. All the prominent English dailies would routinely update their websites and post on Twitter and Facebook, but for all their efforts the local population remained circumspect about them given the kind of pressures they knew existed. This resulted in the inflated popularity of amateur news sites run anonymously. A couple of these sites were suspected of being used to coordinate the protests as well. There was no accountability for the news being put out and rumour mongering abounded. But the real character of these pages emerged as an outlet for angry dissent. The comments that piled up were inflammatory and offensive — often to such an extent that it was impossible to reconcile them with the real mood on ground, angry as it was. The government as usual, reacted with disproportionate force — picking up young boys for participating in the social media agitation and slapping the Public Security Act on them.

But in order to evaluate the anonymous, exaggerated anger on the Internet, one needs to understand how journalists in Kashmir practice self-censorship under the threat perception of the State in real life. After years of living under oppression, the Kashmiri has learnt to draw his own boundaries. He monitors himself to stay within its precincts even when the State blinks.

This was not always the case. The story of media in Kashmir starts at the beginning of militancy in the early 1990s. A small, ill-equipped industry suddenly found itself responsible for covering a bloody war. They took on the task high on enthusiasm and ideology. But in the new climate, with the power suddenly decentralised, the various factions at war realised political and muscle clout was not enough — if they wanted their side to score, they would need propaganda as well. This is when pressures started to build up on the media. Militants would phone them regularly asking for more coverage of their activities. Every time a militant outfit called taking responsibility of an attack, the armed forces would refuse to corroborate the incident. If the newspapers went ahead with the militants’ version, they would receive threats from the forces. Both sides would give them inaccurate numbers and inflated claims.

The new power centres were young and heady. All of them felt aggressive. All of them felt insecure. Many a journalist was brutally murdered in this climate. The story of Yusuf Jameel, a correspondent of the most popular medium of news in those days, the BBC Radio, is a metaphor for the times. He has survived six attacks on his life — both by the military and the militants. In the last of these, a parcel bomb was hand-delivered to his office. He lost one of his close friends and colleagues in the incident and was severely injured himself. While he was away recovering, the BBC came under severe pressure from the establishment to sack him. Jameel became a print correspondent after the BBC succumbed to the pressure and has been with several national English dailies since.

As militancy died down in the new millennium, power returned to the various arms of the State. With the change in circumstances, point-blank killings and kidnappings of journalists became rare and the State adopted a subtler carrot-and-stick policy to control the media. Advertising was the biggest weapon in their hands. Hit by civil war, the Valley has not kept up with the wave of globalisation and market growth in the rest of the country. Newspapers are almost entirely dependant on ads by the state and Centre. It is common practice for ads to be completely banned or reduced in space by centimeters when newspapers are not toeing a ‘favourable’ line.

But the monetary checks are not necessarily always direct. Conveyor, a current affairs and investigative monthly, took on the administration in radical ways within months of its publication in June 2009. The parent company of the publication finances it primarily from returns they get by selling ad space on hoardings. One of their main clients was a state-run bank whose chairman suddenly decided to withhold payments due to them from the time they started financing the magazine. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry on publishing.

Means of coercion may have evolved but that is not to say oppressive intimidation is no longer a possibility. In 2004, Maqbool Sahil, reporter for Urdu weekly Chattaan, was blindfolded and arrested when he had gone to the army PRO for a routine visit. Soon, the police declared he was a Pakistani spy based on highly questionable ‘evidence’ recovered from him. For four years he was tortured and interrogated before protests from all quarters succeeded in having him released. Two years after his release he still cannot comprehend why he was arrested. His feeling is that the police wanted to make an example of him because he had run a series of anti-police stories. “It is also possible that they were paid off to target me by personal enemies,” he says.

Suhail Bukhari, 30, could have met a similar fate this year. He claims that his vigorous coverage of the agitation made NewsX the most watched national channel in Kashmir. Some of his stories did not go down well with the administration and soon enough they found an excuse to hit out at him. The channel carried a ticker in July claiming one person had died in a clash in Pulwama. Bukhari called the news desk in Delhi and told them that was an error and should be removed. Despite this he learnt that a warrant had been issued in his name. His editor from Delhi wrote a letter to the police saying the error had been made in Delhi and Bukhari had nothing to do with it. But Bukhari found out that the police had decided to charge him with attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, waging war against the nation and inciting violence. For over a month Bukhari kept trying to procure a copy of the FIR to understand the bizarre turn of events but failed. All through he was never directly contacted by the police. In the last week of November, he learnt through a newspaper report that the police had dropped all charges due to lack of evidence. He was not informed officially about this either.

Bukhari may have gotten off easier than Sahil but the extent of State presence in the journalist’s life is worrisome. There is hardly any journalist or publication that does not get calls about the form, content and placement of stories on a regular basis. The separatists make their share of phone calls as well, even if they are less frequent and frightening. It is in this context that the aforementioned self-censorship takes on paranoiac proportions. There is hardly any culture of investigative or narrative journalism and follow-ups are few and far between. Jameel explains how he learnt to manipulate words in the early 1990s to try and make sure every side felt their version was being put out, while still attempting to put out the truth.

The question of terminology is a vexed one in Kashmir. One of the most high-profile murders of the 1990s was that of the Doordarshan director, a Kashmiri Pandit called Lassa Koul. It is said that right before his death he had ordered small changes in the terminology used by newsreaders. For instance, terrorists were now to be referred to as militants. Story goes that he was immediately asked to revert back to the ‘old’ format by higher authorities and eventually lost his life to militants.

Another example of terminology issues, reveals yet another kind of censorship. Writers reporting their own conflict for a highly sensitised mass of readers are judged harshly and branded ‘traitors’ if they fail to accommodate public sentiment in reportage. Newspapers in Urdu, the language of the masses, are more susceptible to this. Rahim, 30, an editor with one of the most dynamic new Urdu papers explains this phenomenon — “When a militant or innocent citizen dies, we are supposed to write jaanbahaq huaa (martyred) in copy but when a security person is killed we must say halaaq huaa (killed). If five people are killed in all we can’t headline the piece as ‘five killed’. We must draw the distinction between the two killings even if that means a longer headline than the design can accommodate.”

Malik Sajad, a 23-year-old political cartoonist with Greater Kashmir was still in school when he started working for the newspaper. One of his first cartoons was about a grenade attack in Lal Chowk on Independence Day despite backbreaking security measures. The very next day his office was invaded by CRPF security forces with the head of the battalion looking for Sajad. “When he was pointed to a boy in school uniform getting off his cycle, he promptly called his senior and said there must be some mistake. ‘He is too young to be doing this,’ he said. That is how I was let off the hook,” chuckles Sajad. But he didn’t let the incident pass. He has now moulded his art to ensure that he can say what he wants to without offending anyone. For instance, he never uses caricatures and tones down the critique for both the State and the separatists. He calls this “improving his art”.

But overall, the proverbial carrot has become more influential than it ever was. Clearly the need for media is as obvious as the need to keep it in check. The security officer on ground might abuse the journalist and threaten him with death but the feelers sent out by authorities are more discrete — politely offering money or privileges. It is hard to tell how many journalists succumb to these offers, especially when there does not seem to be much of an alternative. But it is worth noting that at a time when newspapers are increasingly threatened for survival in the rest of the world, new newspapers are launched in the Valley every day.

Evidently, a number of these are simply mouthpieces for small and large political factions. But for the average Kashmiri, it has become difficult to tell the grain from the chaff. There isn’t one publication out of the Valley that is not accused of corruption by somebody or another. And cynicism is more vicious and widespread than actual corruption. Jameel rues this. “I did not once think of quitting my profession when I was being attacked over and over again in the 1990s but when I see the corruption in the media today, I want to leave,” he says.

Over the past two months, the Valley has returned to a semblance of normalcy, but the situation for journalists is still grim. On 31 December, Early Times, an English daily, sent out a press release, a plea to the journalistic fraternity detailing the harassment they are undergoing in the hands of the state government. The release claims all their advertisements have been banned, their reporters are being subjected to routine humiliation, the editor’s house is under surveillance — he has been charged on false counts — and the State is hitting out against the business interests of the newspaper’s owners. They claim they have incurred this wrath for reporting misgovernance and refusing to give ‘positive coverage’ to the CM. While these claims are unverified, the desperate helplessness in the tonality of this email sent out by a prominent daily is disturbing to say the very least.

On 16 December, photojournalist Shafat Siddiqui, 35, was near Lal Chowk covering the Muharram procession. While trying to return to the Dainik Jagran office with the photographs, he was stopped at several checkpoints. When he told the stationmaster this, he was promised they would escort him to the office shortly. Suddenly one of the constables on duty started abusing him. Sensing threat, he got into his car and attempted to leave, but the constable hit his vehicle and dragged him out, proceeding to beat him severely. It was only when reporters from NewsX and Aaj Tak intervened that he was let off. In the hospital, the doctor told him he had had a close shave with his head injury.

Newspapers like Rising Kashmir and Ittelaat have been facing a ban of advertising from the state government since November and the Centre for nearly a year now. It is not surprising that more and more newspapers are exercising self-censorship. Wajid, 26, tells us how his editor asked him to change the language of a report to avoid embarrassing the interlocutors or portraying them as ‘failures’.

The only silver lining is that the media has survived yet another season of brutalities. It may not be ready to take on the establishment head on, but it is noting events as they transpire, ensuring that the first draft of a cruel history is not obliterated.

(Originally appears in Tehelka. Some names have been changed to protect identities. 
This report was supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.)