Freelance Journalism In Kashmir: Playing With Fire

    Fall 2014, I attended a three-day workshop about visual storytelling at MERC, University of Kashmir. The attending instructors at the workshop are two of the best photojournalists of present times. Many young boys and girls from varied backgrounds attended the workshop, with few from the journalism background and rest from engineering, business studies & other non-journalistic fields. During one of the interaction sessions, one of the instructors was briefing us about pros and cons of freelancing in photojournalism. He told us, “Never risk yourself for the organisation you are freelancing for, cause they would not hold your back or stand by you in case of any eventuality or mishap”. He ended the session by saying “No story is worth your life”. He was saying it for he has worked in places which are war-torn and conflict-riddled like Afghanistan and Libya.

    Kashmir due to its conflict is regarded as one of the worst place to be a photojournalist or for that a journalist.

    In September 1995, Yousuf Jameel, one of the most iconic journalists of the valley received a burqa-clad woman in his office, handing over a parcel. There were few friends at Jameel’s office at that time including Mushtaq Ali and Habib Naqash. Insisting to receive a parcel, Mushtaq snatched the parcel from Jameel and opened the parcel which turned out to be a parcel bomb, blasting off shortly after opening leaving all of three injured. Mushtaq after battling life for three days in hospital later succumbed to his injuries. This was just beginning as intimidation and harassment of journalists & photojournalists continued and is still on.

    On 5 September 2017, Kamran Yousuf, a photojournalist working as a freelancer for Greater Kashmir (GK) was detained by police and later handed over to National Investigation Agency (NIA). According to various news reports quoting Police and NIA officials, Kamran was arrested for his alleged involvement in stone pelting, instigating youth for stone pelting, mobilising support against state forces by posting videos and pictures from South Kashmir on social media. Most of the videos and pictures posted by Kamran have been going viral for last many months.

    The allegations levelled against Kamran came as no surprise for hundreds of youth has been detained in crackdowns and night raids since the martyrdom of HM commander Burhan Wani. Astonishing and surprising everybody was the shameful silence of Kashmir’s media corporations especially Greater Kashmir for which Kamran would risk his life and cover stone pelting clashes & funerals in remote areas of South Kashmir. On 6 September 2017, in a brief news item, GK reported the arrest of two stone pelters from Pulwama without naming two youth. The report was about Kamran and another youth arrested on same day Kamran was arrested. GK maintained complete silence with it all media corporations and journalistic fraternity. After With Kashmir started #FreeKamran campaign and posted an editorial, people started talking about Kamran. With Kashmir editorial made GK swung into action and they updated an earlier news report about Kamran where he was referred as GK Lensman.

    Report from March 2017 when a local daily owned Kamran.

    Greater Kashmir Page 3. March 04, 2017

    Last year when Kashmir Reader was banned for three months by the state government, media fraternity had established a Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) to act as the voice of media fraternity and journalists of Kashmir. But about Kamran’s arrest, KEG remained tight-lipped. There is an organisation of press photographers by name of Kashmir Press Photographers Association (KPPA). A photographer friend told me, KPPA would have protested about Kamran’s arrest, had he been a member of the association. Nothing happened for four days apart from few journalists and photographers coming from Pulwama and staging a protest in Mushtaq Ali press enclave Srinagar.

    On 9 September, in the evening, a handful of journalists, some new faces in photojournalism and few kids held placards and protested for few minutes in same Mushtaq Ali press enclave.
    Later in the evening, the Kashmir TV Journalists Guild, Kashmir Journalist Core, Kashmir Video Journalists Association and Kashmir Press Photographers Association issued a joint statement requesting the NIA to come clear on the charges for which Kamran Yousuf was arrested.
    All the associations in the meeting decided to hold a joint symbolic sit-in protest, the date of which will be decided at the next joint meeting. This was done in wake of Indian Home ministers four-day visit to the valley for all journalists will be busy.

    The media fraternity especially photojournalists could have protested like South Korean photojournalists protested last year. When Japan and South Korea signed a pact on military intelligence sharing in November 2016, authorities decided to do the signing in private, closing off the ceremony to the press. Unhappy about this decision, photojournalists decided to protest the media blackout by laying down their cameras. As Japanese ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine arrived at the South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul on November 23th, 2016, he entered the doors to find a tunnel formed by a line of photojournalists on both sides. KPPA could have done the same during the presser of Indian Home Ministers visit in Srinagar. But they decided to remain tight-lipped and continued to do their work while one of their colleagues from South Kashmir was in NIA custody with no information about his whereabouts.

    In April 2017, when a valley photojournalist was manhandled by state police, media fraternity especially photojournalists had protested very same day calling for action against an involved police officer and the news was on front pages of all local dailies next day. But in case of Kamran, valley dailies and media fraternity maintained silence which raises many questions in one’s mind. Why this bias?

    Most of the people argued Kamran Yousuf is a freelancer, therefore, GK has no responsibility for owning him. But GK stooped too low by updating an earlier news report about Kamran, which also raises questions over GK’s approach in this case.
    In a conversation with ‘The Hoot’, editor-in-chief of GK Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo denied Kamran’s associations with his media house. Later, Greater Kashmir made changes to the website and removed the word GK from their headline, more on that in a bit. Meanwhile, KEG is headed by Kaloo.

    This incident has brought fore different aspects of freelancing in media and journalism in Kashmir.
    Freelancing has more cons than pros and in Kashmir, freelancing in journalism is more as one gets exploited.

    A school friend, who last year completed his masters in journalism from Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) has been doing stories for a newly floated daily from Srinagar. It has been two months, he has done more than 20 stories and the newspaper owners have not paid him a single penny. He says, “I cannot help it, big media houses do not recruit and smaller ones do not pay less or do not pay at all like one I have been doing stories for”.

    Usually, a freelancer in Kashmir gets recruited verbally or just through informal contacts. There is no signing of contract sort of thing here. In fair weather, work done by freelancers is readily carried by media houses while giving peanuts to the freelancers. When things get tough sometimes, media houses back off like what happened in Kamran’s case.

    During floods in the year 2014, Shafat Sidiq a photojournalist lost his life performing his professional duties. He was working for daily Dainik Jagran. After his death, the organisation he was working for termed him as a stringer and denied any compensation. This had come as shock for whole media fraternity who had gone aghast about insensitivity showed by Dainik Jagran.

    Shafat Siddiqui. Photo: Imran Shah

    Day in and day out, photojournalists get injured while covering stone pelting clashes in different parts of Kashmir. Most of these are freelancers because they are the ones who are without any protective gear. Kashmir has seen a manifold increase in the number of photojournalists.

    Saqib, a student of journalism in CUK and freelance photojournalists says, “one can see many young boys lugging cameras on shoulders in Press Enclave. Some of these are school dropouts. These boys think photojournalism is all about covering stone pelting and funerals.” Almost every fifth Kashmiri on Instagram is a photographer and visual storyteller. Just for the sake of few likes and reports by some Instagram handles with few thousand followers, young boys and girls are coming into fields photography and photojournalism. This is a simple case of herd mentality. Dropping out of schools & colleges and risking one’s life for plain stupidity.

    Shams ul Haq Qari.

    Shams Ul Haq Qari, a photojournalist at Barcroft Media- South Asia Bureau has previously worked as a freelancer in many organisations back in Kashmir. According to Shams, ” There are many ways of freelancing in Kashmir. But these young journalists should also grow up to contribute to media houses outside Kashmir and not be confined to one place only. Freelancing does not pay much in Kashmir and the print is already running low in terms of their profit. This means if someone contributes to a newspaper, they either get paid less or nothing at all. Some magazines, however, do a good job.”
    Things have not been easy for Shams. He has worked in different genres of photography apart from regular wire photography. He says” One has to look beyond the line. I used to shoot nature, wildlife, conflict, news, weddings and other magazine stuff. Being diverse is important for survival in this industry.”

    Freelancers get paid little or nothing at all. Earning a little while endangering their lives on ground zero is the ugly face of freelancing in the media industry in Kashmir.

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