Two low intensity bombs exploded within the premises of Srinagar Club and (city’s) Central Telegraph Office during the intervening night of July 31 and August 1, 1988. As a reporter one could afford to ignore them but then a statement came from pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) saying it “heralds the beginning of armed freedom struggle in Indian-occupied-Kashmir”.
Little did we, the members of Kashmir press corps, know then that it was an opening to an era of upheaval, sacrifices, mayhem and bullying and the resultant political uncertainties! Like common Kashmiris, the “historical break” changed our lives as journalists too.
Soon every day for journalists in the Valley became a struggle; finding ourselves on a razor’s edge and often caught in a “please a thousand masters” kind of dilemma. The worst followed.
The militants intensified their campaign and the revolt became spectacular, making headlines in the international press. Back home, it became a pivotal event in Kashmir’s recent history, with the youth who had turned to the gun enjoying the overwhelming support of the population. Security forces responded strongly to crush the rebellion, termed by New Delhi as terrorism unleashed from across the western borders.
With intensifying violence taking a daily toll on civilians, militants and security forces and causing huge destruction, the work of journalists has become increasingly difficult. The majority of Kashmir’s Hindu population soon fled their homes and hearth to take refuge in Jammu and elsewhere in the country. With them left a horde of journalists too — they were mainly correspondents of various Indian and foreign news organisations and necessarily the members of the minority community.
The rest of the fraternity — almost all Muslims — who stayed put found themselves right in the middle of all the violence and mayhem. We had to endure undeclared censorship, legal harassment, imprisonment, abductions, attempts on our lives or the assassination of close colleagues as a result of our efforts to report the news, on the government and the militants, candidly. Some reporters landed in prison or their graves for writing the truth; others worked under a state of siege and lived in fear of security forces, armed militants, and in later stages, counterinsurgency forces, renegades and “unidentified” militants or the invisible gun.
Apparently, various factions at war had realised that political and muscular clout was not enough and in their pursuit to score did all they could to get more than the coverage they deserved. Both wished to reduce our responsibility into the propaganda war machinery.
Those of us who tried to report and write about things as they were would openly be accused of being hand-in-glove with militants and “terrorists” and receive threats on a daily basis. Government forces would also regularly subject print journalists, including editors and publishers of local newspapers, to raids, detentions and interrogations, both to force them to identify their contacts within militant groups and to reprimand them for disclosing human rights violations by the armed forces.
Our access to the places of occurrences and key areas was made impossible and flow of information from the government forces and other official agencies was poor. In fact, they would try to sell half-truths and, in many cases, information would be simply denied. Apart from creating physical and operational difficulties for all, advertisement support to local newspapers was used as a tool by the government to force them into subjugation.
On the other hand, the militant groups would give us inaccurate numbers and inflated claims and those of us who refused to succumb to their diktats would face intimidation, physical assaults and abductions besides a ban on publications.
As many as 18 media persons fell prey to violence — some of them were killed by militants and some by security forces or unknown assailants and others died in bomb explosions or shooting incidents. Each of the deaths has had a profound impact on the local press community. But it was our choice to live with the contending forces in the Valley, even realising soon that none of whom were satisfied with our efforts to simply tell the truth about events.
The saga of Kashmiri media persons becoming themselves “news” continues. The reality for journalists in Kashmir is — they are struggling in worse conditions — the reality for us is that everyone wishes to conquer us and, therefore, uses coercive tactics. The struggle is real, and continues.
In fact, post-August 5, 2019, media persons in Kashmir have been caught in a more complex situation in many ways. The communication blockade which had begun a night before J&K was stripped of its special status and split up into two Union territories created chaos in the Valley and the Jammu division. Most scribes couldn’t file any stories to their newspapers for about a week. In fact, newsgathering became unfeasible in view of a complete information blackout. With withdrawal of all means of communication and curbs on our movement, we were made ineffective as reporters. All those avenues through which a media person could reach out to his/her readers, listeners or viewers were clogged up. The blockade reduced a majority of media persons virtually into useless creatures.
However, about a week later, the government set up a facilitation centre for the media persons in a Srinagar hotel which made access to Internet possible. Yet it was a restricted and insufficient kind of an arrangement as only four desktops connected with an Internet-leased line connection were available for nearly 300 local and visiting media persons, leaving most of them high and dry.
Subsequently, the number of access points was increased and since the centre has been shifted to the summer headquarters of J&K’s department of information and public relations along Srinagar’s Residency Road, comparatively better Internet facility is offered to media persons. In the meantime, landline and mobile phone services were also restored in the Valley fully and partially, respectively. Pre-paid mobile phone, Short-Messaging-Service (SMS) and Internet services remain suspended, however. In Jammu, while the broadband services have been restored fully, the Internet remains unavailable on mobile phones. The pleas of the Valley’s media persons that, at least, their broadband connections be restored seem to have fallen on deaf ears. As pointed out by the Kashmir Press Club, the communications blackout has meant minuscule access to the world outside and more than 20 weeks of “deprivation and humiliation”.
On the other hand, the government has lately embraced several bizarre methods to discount and even run down independent journalists and other media persons including those duly accredited by its own information department. They are not being invited to cover important official functions nor do top administration and security forces officials solicit their queries. In contrast, “media persons” with dubious credentials are being encouraged to take the limelight for obvious reasons.
Some reporters who wrote stories critical of the policies and actions of the government and various other official agencies and the police had to cope with tough situations in the recent past. A few were even summoned by the police and asked to disclose their news sources.
Lately, there has also been a trust deficit between media persons and the average Kashmiri. Many Kashmiris complain that sections of local media including major Srinagar dailies have post-August 5 failed to reflect the ground reality of Kashmir and overwhelming feeling of its residents.
Moreover, while the Kashmiris now routinely refuse to confide with media persons apparently to avoid any harassment by the police, they, at times, also seek to identify reporters, no matter which organisation he or she is working for, with national TV channels, many of which, according to them, continue to pursue a partial and, in many cases, even hostile methodology when it comes to covering Kashmir. All this has made the job of a journalist in Kashmir all the more difficult and challenging.
But the silver lining is; the Valleyites also acknowledge that a vast section of print media in the country is still better than electronic media that has “abandoned journalism for drama”.