A ground report on the near-clampdown on press movement, information gathering and dissemination in the Valley
Reporting in Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370 is not easy, especially for a reporter from outside Kashmir. It has become a ritual to invite contempt from the people of Srinagar right at the moment of introduction. The choicest expletives are reserved for the “Indian media”, who most of the people in the Kashmiri capital felicitate as “propagandists”, “bootlickers” and “sell-outs”.
“We’ll speak to you,” they say politely, “but we know you’ll not tell our side of the story.”
Television news networks have not been snapped off in Srinagar. They are currently the primary source of information from outside. Besides NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, who enjoys much affection in the Valley, no one that this correspondent met in the past three days is prepared to entertain a reporter’s defence of his integrity. One local said: “We have two enemies: the Modi government and the Indian media. One makes life hell for us, and the other comes here to say that everything is normal.”
While this can get discouraging – and often unnerving – local and national media journalists in the Valley continue to report amid what they call a “complete information blockade”. Since August 5, landlines and mobile phones in Kashmir are as good as rocks. There is no network or working connection – and the less said about Internet facilities the better.
Journalists here unanimously agree that the Indian government’s clampdown on press movement is unprecedented. “When it comes to gathering, and transferring information, things have never been this bad,” says Mir Ehsan, Srinagar bureau chief of Hindustan Times, who has reported from Kashmir for more than two decades.
However, journalists here have found a way out of the blockade: pendrives. Stories are being collected, furiously typed, transferred to pendrives and transported to Delhi through generous travellers. It’s the season of ‘pendrive journalism’ in the Valley.
“We’re back to the bloody stone age, man,” says Mukhtar Baba, editor-in-chief of the wire agency, The Kashmir Press. “We have not been in touch with our families, our friends and our colleagues. They don’t know whether I’m alive and I don’t know whether they’re alive.” According to Mukhtar, this is the first time in his career spanning three decades that a lockdown has been this draconian: “From 31 July, 1988 to August 9, 2019, I haven’t seen things become this bad. The landlines would work even during the worst years of the militancy in the 1990s.”
Mohammad Zulqarnain, the Srinagar bureau chief of Hyderabad-based ETV Bharat, says the whereabouts of more than half of his reporting team remains an anxious mystery. “I have 25 reporters under me. I am in touch with six of them who are in Srinagar. But I don’t know the fate of my district reporters. They are spread over in Baramulla, Anantnag, Pulwama and Sopore. God knows what is going on there.”
Things are worse for local journalists. In Srinagar, they have to lie to get past paramilitary check-posts that have sprung up. Saying that one is a journalist is not a good answer. “I am the relative of a patient admitted at the local hospital,” they often say. Some venture outside to report only after 9 pm, when the forces recede to the barracks and the restriction on movement relaxes. And yet, uncertainty hangs in the air. “We’re leaving our offices but we do not know whether or when we’ll return,” says Bashaarat Masood, a journalist with The Indian Express in Srinagar. The forces, he says, often chooses to arbitrarily disallow civilians from taking certain routes.
This correspondent witnessed this first-hand. Minutes after landing in Srinagar, the driver escorting me to the hotel got into a minor tiff with another local. Two paramilitary men nearby took notice, shouted at both of them and barricaded the road. The driver glanced at me with annoyed resignation and said, “See! This is what they do.” When we tried dialogue, they asked us to fuck off. So, promptly, we fucked off.
There have been whispers about assault on scribes too. According to one eyewitness, on August 11, a group of four journalists headed to Soura, a site of mass protests on the outskirts of Srinagar, where they were stopped by a personnel of the SOG (Special Operation Group). Journalists were not allowed to pass even after they displayed their identifications. The eyewitness alleges that when an argument ensued, the personnel hit a journalist on the leg with a lathi multiple times.
In an airy, single-roomed national daily bureau that overlooks the Jhelum in Srinagar, journalists from different organisations gather and discuss the prevailing situation. There is a sofa but most choose to sit on the carpeted floor. This allows them to fix their eyes on the television that switches between NDTV, BBC and Al Jazeera. A small chamber in the bureau is stocked with eggs, milk, fruit and cup noodles – an arrangement as part of the ‘curfew planning’.
Safwat Zargar is an independent journalist who reported on the death of 17-year-old Osaib Altaf in Srinagar. Altaf, was allegedly cornered by CRPF men while playing cricket on August 5, he tried to flee the scene and jumped into the Jhelum. He drowned. The curfew-like situation ensured that this information travelled at snail’s pace and reached Zargar 30 hours later on the evening of August 6. He filed his copy and handed it over to a journalist who was headed to Delhi on August 7. “I don’t know if it has been published,” Zargar sighs.
Bashaarat Masood is gripped by similar doubts. He is not sure if his story on the Valley’s lockdown that he pendrived to Delhi has been published.
By a marvellous coincidence, I had downloaded both Zargar and Masood’s stories on my phone before flying into Srinagar. Their faces light up when I show them the stories. They scroll up and down and read them more than once. The phone is then passed around to others who go through it with much interest.
There is a feeling among local journalists in Kashmir that that they’re deliberately not being treated at par with those who have “parachuted” into the Valley. The reporters from outside, they believe, have been issued passes to move around without hassle, especially those with an “agenda”. It is important to note that Section 144 has been imposed in Srinagar, however, there is no official curfew in place.
“I’ve worked here for 20 years and this is the first time they refused to issue me a pass,” says Ehsan of Hindustan Times.
Ishfaq Tantry, a correspondent with The Tribune and the general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, claims that he had visited the Divisional Commissioner a day before for a pass. “They made me wait for almost half an hour outside his office. I grew impatient and left. It’s a complete information blockade.” Tantry adds that the Internet connection at the Press Club has also been snapped. The only service available to the journalists there is the canteen.
Mukhtar Baba adds another angle to the story. “There is always a kala-gora attitude that authorities here have towards journalists,” he says. “If you’re from outside Kashmir, they see you as Indian and don’t trouble you much. If you’re Hindu over that, even better. But by god if you’re a local journalist who happens to be a Kashmiri Muslim, they treat you like a second-class citizen.”
Baseer Khan, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, denied claims of local journalists facing discrimination and told Newslaundry that they are “rumours”.
Media reports claiming that people in Srinagar are happy with the 370 abrogation are contemptuously laughed off in journalist circles. “It is total bunkum,” declares one senior journalist. “I’ve worked out of here since decades and filed copies that collectively weigh more than that journalist who’s reporting such things. No one here is happy with the decision. These people don’t know Kashmir.”
According to Rifat, a 25 year-old Srinagar-based journalist, being a female reporter has its pros and cons this time around. “For reporters, the situation is very bad here. On the first day, I was stopped at a number of places by the forces and asked to turn back when I told them I was a journalist. They said they had orders to disallow journalists’ movement. So, I had to lie at other posts. I said I’m visiting a patient – that’s when they let me pass.”
She adds: “Many of us are not in touch with our families. We don’t know if our stories are published. We’re working hard to get them out but our hands are tied.”
Rifat also corroborates the supposed insider/outsider prejudice. She says she was stopped at a paramilitary check-post where journalists from a Delhi-based channel were busy clicking selfies. “I was in the queue and couldn’t even say that I’m a journalist, but there they were, clicking selfies with mics in hand. It’s very frustrating. We are all taking risks by reporting under these circumstances, but we’re being discriminated against because we are locals.”
But the forces, she says, are a bit relaxed with female journalists. “Local male journalists have it worse. They are treated way more strictly.” Rifat has filed eight stories for her publication since August 5. Reporting, she says, has become fraught with risks. The previous day, for instance, she was stuck in a protest in Rajbagh when stone-pelting broke out. “It is a risk to venture out. I’ve been reporting since 2016 and things weren’t this strict even then. It is better reporting at night but then there is greater danger.”
Rifat’s family had started panicking the other day when she did not reach home by 10 pm. Her father went around the city looking for her. “I finally returned home only to find out that he was still out. We became anxious and then began looking for him. He came back at midnight.”
As she eats a cup of hot water noodles, she tells me about a family pact. “My family has asked me not to go out because of the prevailing situation. So, I left home very early today and told them to go looking for me only if I did not turn up by 10 pm.”
Rising Kashmir, a 12-year-old newspaper with one of the largest circulations in Kashmir, came out with merely four pages for the first time on August 6. The usual range of the paper is anywhere between 16 and 18 pages. The state of Greater Kashmir, the largest circulated daily in the region, is no different.
At the Rising Kashmir office in Srinagar’s Press Colony, editors, reporters and some visitors are cramped within a small room with six computers. Stacks of newspapers lie in one corner, and at another, the veracity of various pieces of information is being weighed by a small group of men.
Faisal Yaseen, the associate editor of the paper, says that the situation in Kashmir was worse in 2008 and 2016, and yet the paper never dropped to four pages.
He says: “In 2016, I couldn’t reach my office. But we still collected information over landlines. This time they’ve snapped them off too. Back then we managed to publish our e-paper online but not the hard copy because of the ban. This time it’s the opposite: we publish the hard copy but can’t upload it online.”
The situation at Rising Kashmir is as grim as others. The paper is not in touch with its outstation reporters and the authorities have allegedly declined to issue them passes that allow movement. Yaseen too claims that he knows reporters from outside Kashmir who have been issued such passes, but these were declined to his team.
He states that the “government version” on critical matters has not been reaching the newsroom, and reporters have to often file reports by relying on reports on TV news channels. “We wanted to report Amit Shah’s speech in the Rajya Sabha but we had no access to it. I finally asked one reporter to watch snippets of his speech on NDTV and transcribe it. So essentially, a local paper has to rely on channels in mainland India to report on local matters.”
When I rather thoughtlessly ask Yaseen whether he’s facing any censorship or pressure since August 5, he is quick to shoot back: “When there is little information about the situation, why do you need censorship?”
On August 10, the Rising Kashmir front page had six Press Trust of India (PTI) stories. For Yaseen, the credit goes to pendrive journalism: “I had a friend coming in from Delhi yesterday. He had saved some PTI copies on his pendrive. He came to the office and handed it to us.”
Despite the Indian government’s information blockade in Kashmir, there are no full stops for journalism in the region. Information is being tactically suppressed, but it does reach newsrooms at one point or the other. Journalists here are often seen in newsrooms of other media outlets keeping up each other’s spirits. They share food, discuss information, help with writing copies, go out reporting together, and most crucially, smuggle out the written word in departing pendrives.