Shooting the Messenger: Dangers for Journalism in Kashmir

    Updated June 14, 2018.

    In the winter of 1989, Kashmir had a paradigm shift in its political scenario. Post rigged elections of 1987 and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents by the National Conference government had dire consequences. The restive valley had awakened the first major armed revolt, after the short lived Al-Fatah rebellion in the late 1970s. In December, Rubaiya Sayeed’s abduction and subsequent release by the Kashmir Liberation Front had created the platform for one of world’s longest armed rebellion that continues till date.

    The tribe of journalists had to keep buzzing everyday lest some event take place in the valley. After the ouster of Farooq Abdullah, Jagmohan had come for his second stint as the governor of Jammu Kashmir. The day after he landed in Srinagar, a chain of massacres takes place in Srinagar. The situation tense, as Amin Kamil the poet writes,” In this city of sad decay/even a fluttering heart is a treasure.”

    It was February 1990, Mehraj Din, one of the pioneers of photojournalism in Kashmir got a call about the assassination of the Doordarshan Director.

    The Doordarshan Director Lassa Kaul had faced ire from the rebels over his reporting of Kashmir in the recent times. He was walking towards his residence in Bemina to meet his parents according to his friends. As soon as he stepped out of his car, he was shot dead in the street. Mehraj Din took a picture of that scene that forms a part of the recently published photo-book, The Witness  A case was filed, the gunmen remain unidentified.

    Doordarshan’s station in Srinagar was closed for the next three years. The news and the programming were transmitted directly from New Delhi, India.

    In April 1990, the Daily Aftab was banned by Governor Jagmohan over the coverage of the massacres. The ban was overturned by the courts after ten days. Sonaullah Bhat, the pioneer of Urdu journalism in Kashmir, was often threatened by rebel outfits, agencies and the Indian forces alike. His offices were frequently raided and his house was burned down in August 1993.

    In 1991, Muhammad Shaban Vakil part of the erstwhile 70s armed rebels’ group Al Fatah established the Daily Alsafa, an Urdu news daily. It reached great fame after it refused to sanitise any story, and carried statements of rebel outfits almost daily. It was first raided by the paramilitary forces in 1990s, during an encounter near its office. Its staff was ruthlessly beaten up by the forces. During the tenure of Jagmohan, Alsafa was also banned temporarily.

    In the 1990s, the government and the rebel outfits battled to control the media. A fierce Shaban became the public enemy number one. On the afternoon of April 23, Shaban Vakil was shot dead in his office by a rebel outfit. He was 41. Later Daily Alsafa’s editorial standards nosedived after his son Ashraf took over. He later joined the PDP government as a minister.

    Jagmohan also ordered the arrest of Surinder Singh Oberoi the AFP correspondent in Srinagar. Oberoi went on to be honoured by the Freedom Forum. Jagmohan went on to order closure of three newspapers, seized printing presses and charged a few editors under the draconian TADA act.

    One of the most recalled incidents when it comes to how dangerous it gets is the story of Yusuf Jameel.

    He had started working as a journalist for local dailies such as the Daily Aftab before the armed uprising. It was in 1990, that Jameel became a household name. His voice of credibility is still highly valued in the valley. He was working for the BBC and a stinger for Time and Reuters during the 1990s. Both organisations were widely respected for their objective coverage. There’s a saying in Kashmir that, one listens to Indian radio for the Indian version and then listens to Pakistan radio for their version but everyone listens to BBC for the real version. Such was the respect for BBC among Kashmiris, and Jameel was their man on the ground. He would also report on the Voice of America’s radio broadcast.

    In 1990, Indian forces abducted him, took him blindfolded to an unknown location. His existence was unknown for two days. In those days, abduction of any one would lead to either torture camps or an enforced disappearance.

    Jameel was interrogated about his friend and fellow press colleague Zafar Mehraj’s alleged contacts with the rebel outfits. Both the Indian government and the governor of Kashmir Girish Saxena denied the family’s version of Jameel being taken by Indian forces.

    He was released afterwards. A disciplinary action was held against the officers involved. In 1992, on two occasions grenades were thrown at Jameel’s office and his residence in Srinagar.

    He was also severely beaten up by Indian forces in 1992 while on his way to cover protests of Dukhtaran-e-Millat. He was admitted in the hospital for four days on account of his head injuries. He was also threatened by anonymous callers annoyed by his coverage of the war.

    Yusuf Jameel with AFP photographer Mushtaq Ali (R) (Yusuf Jameel/Facebook)

    In 1995 at Jameel’s Srinagar office, a Burkha-clad woman came to his office with a parcel asking for Jameel.  Mushtaq Ali along with Habib Naqash was at his office during that time. Mushtaq asked the lady to handover the parcel that she had for Jameel. While opening the parcel, an explosion happened.

    Jameel and Habib escaped with minor injuries. Mushtaq Ali succumbed to his injuries three days later. Mushtaq worked for Asian News International and Agence France Presse as a photojournalist. Srinagar’s Press Lane was named after him, as the Mushtaq Press Enclave.

    After investigation it was revealed that the Indian Army through the Ikhwani militia had sent the parcel bomb to assassinate Yusuf Jameel.

    Yusuf Jameel receiving the 1996 CPJ award (Yusuf Jameel/Facebook)

    Yusuf Jameel was later awarded International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. He moved to London to work for the BBC. But returned back to his country, saying in an interview to International Press Institute’s Press Report, “I am keen to return to Srinagar to resume work, but many well-wishers, concerned for my safety, insist that I should not do so… I believe that such risks are part of my profession.”

    Another notable incident is of Zafar Mehraj. On December 8 1995, Mehraj was returning after interviewing the notorious Indian sponsored Ikhwani militia commander, Kukka Parray. Mehraj then was working for Zee News, while returning back to Srinagar, Mehraj was shot thrice grievously injuring him.

    At the Chrar Sharif ruins in May 1995. From right to left Mushtaq Ali with Sheikh Tariq, Yusuf Jameel and Habibullah Naqash. (Yusuf Jameel/Facebook)

    In May 1995, during the Chrar Sharif arson the reporters were not allowed inside by the Indian army. Thus there are no independent accounts of what actually happened except one police version. The authorities had already banned reporters from entering Chrar in March of 1995 when it was under the rebel control since January that year. In the aftermath of the tragedy, reporters were not allowed near one kilometre of the shrine by the Indian forces.

    Mehraj Din the photojournalist, now with Associated Press TV, lost one of his eyes when a grenade splinter hit his eye. Abdul Qayoom another photojournalist was assaulted by Indian forces breaking his two ribs.

    In August 10, 2000 Hindustan Times photojournalist Pradeep Bhatia lost his life while covering a bomb blast. Ashish Sodhi another Hindustan Times photojournalist lost his life covering an encounter in Samba, Jammu.

    Fierce activist and a freelance reporter Aasiya Jeelani, a freelance reporter was assassinated in a mine-blast in 2004. She had started the first women-led newsletter called, ‘Voices Unheard’.

    In 2011, Showkat Shafi the now photo-editor of Aljazeera and the Pulitzer winning photographer Narciso Contreras were beaten up in police custody by Indian Forces and Police personnel while covering protests in Srinagar.

    Shahid Tantray, currently the photo-editor of the Indian magazine Caravan was also beaten up by Indian forces in November 2011.

    Last year, Sumaiya Yusuf a 25 year old reporter for Rising Kashmir was harassed and abused by the Indian forces while on her to way to report. A case was registered but nothing came out of it.

    Muneeb ul Islam a photojournalist with the Kashmir Reader was manhandled by the Indian forces while covering protests in Anantnag in August 2016.

    Zuhaib Maqbool and Muzammil Matoo were shot at by Indian forces with pellet-guns in September 2016. They were covering protests in Srinagar. Muzzammil was hit in his eyes, resulting in partial blindness in his left eye while Zuhaib was hit on his back and his left arm.

    In 2008 and 2010 uprisings, many times Journalists’ curfew passes were not respected and instead were beaten up by the authorities.

    Local cable news broadcasting has been banned since 2010. There have been frequent press gags and Internet bans.

    Last year alone, Kashmir Reader was banned for several months for their independent journalism. Even our website WithKashmir had been taken down once on government orders earlier in 2017.

    On the evening of June 14 2018 (29th of Ramadan, 1439 AH), Shujaat Bukhari, the Chief Editor of a popular Srinagar based daily – The Rising Kashmir, was shot dead while he was leaving his office at Press Colony Srinagar. Unknown gunmen fired a volley of bullets on his car. Bukhari was shot multiple times in his head and abdomen.

    Shujaat Bukhari

    Despite worldwide condemnations and outrage, the Indian authorities continued with their assault on journalists this year. In March alone, eminent photojournalist Touseef Mustafa who works for AFP was caught by Indian forces and tried to choke him. Other journalists such as Farooq Javed, Shuaib Masoodi, Sheikh Umar and Imran Nissar also sustained minor injuries during the assault.

    In the last three decades, at least ten journalists have been killed and several have been injured. In such an environment, it takes great courage to stay objective and report on the war in Kashmir. Kashmiri Journalists have etched a great name in the world of journalism, winning laurels and awards. But most importently telling stories of their own home and making sure that nobody forgets.

    The legacy of such journalists has inspired the new generations to take up the mantle of journalism. It is not easy to be a journalist in here, but it is worthwhile to tell a story.


    Correction: Muhammad Amin, who worked for PANA (Pan African News Agency) and Daily Aftab simultaneously during the 1947 era, was the first photo-journalist of Kashmir not Mehraj Din as was written in the previous version of this post. (Yusuf Jameel)