On 2 April, hundreds of youth attempted to disrupt a gunfight in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. As the protest spiraled out of the police’s control and challenged the national media projected myth of normalcy in Kashmir, local journalists were beaten by the police.
As the events unfolded, not far from the Srinagar city, amid the government forces’ inability to contain the protest, a video went viral on social media showing police personnel, armed with an assault rifle, kicking a photojournalist, who is then seen calmly walking away.
The massive protest was symbolic as it broke the lull — an environment of fear — after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and despite the threat of being booked under anti-terror laws that are now under widespread use.
Two weeks later, Inspector General of Police in Kashmir Vijay Kumar ordered a ban on live coverage of gunfights, where destruction of civilian property is common. “Media persons should not come closer to encounter sites and law and order situations and they should not carry live coverage of these situations,” he ordered during a press briefing last week.
Kumar justified the ban citing Supreme Court guidelines and questioned media presence near sites of gunfights. “Then you complain about forces’ beating you. Why do you go to any encounter site where firing is going on? You have to wait outside, district SP will brief you there only,” he told media persons.
The ban on reporting comes as New Delhi doubles its efforts to project the narrative of normalcy and promotes tourism. Reiterating the ban on media coverage, Kumar reportedly issued written orders to all district police chiefs to officially convey the ban on media coverage of gunfights and instructed them to initiate legal action against journalists who continue to report.
How close is close?
Questioning the ban on media coverage, Farooq Javed Khan, the president of the Kashmir Photographer’s Association, said that journalists have always kept their distance from gunfights. “I don’t think any photojournalist has ever tried to cross the set limits by the forces… We have never been inside a gunfight,” he said.
The presence of journalists, or simply eyes other than that of the government forces, is imperative to the flow of information from gunfights where the use of disproportionate force is common but now a shroud of secrecy has prevailed since the government forces stopped identifying or handing over the bodies of the militant killed.
Last month a video went viral showing the Indian Army setting civilian houses on fire. The video came on the same day as eight houses were gutted during a gunfight in Shopian. The police had passed off the destruction as happenstance while the Army, in an unusually detailed statement emailed only to The Print, stated that the houses caught fire because of dry grass stored in them.
“Now the entire narrative is going to get changed,” said Shahana Butt, a correspondent and producer with the Iran-based Press TV, “because there is not going to be any video evidence, there is only going to be one side evidence of the security perspective.”
Butt believes that the media is going to be under the scanner of the government because “they don’t want those stories to come out.” She pointed to the large numbers of civilians coming out in support of militants during gunfights.
“So this is a conflicting situation in which they do not want people to know that there is still support for the fighters who are fighting,” she said, “for the independence of Kashmir, who are fighting against the Indian rule in the region.”
Instead of the latest diktat, Butt said that the government should in one go direct journalists “to not cover the government”. “Live reporting must be done from gardens or highly busy roads so that the situation in Kashmir is seen as normal,” she said sarcastically. “Nothing in Kashmir is normal.”
For Butt, there is no freedom of the press when it comes to Kashmir as there has been a lot of surveillance, a lot of censorship on media in the region. “There has always been a kind of security check and other checks related to journalists and journalism,” she said, adding that the “press was never free in Kashmir”.
Journalists in Kashmir have been risking their lives to report from the frontlines of the conflict, documenting excessive use of forces during gunfights and in law and order situations where the government forces commonly resort to firing pellets from shotguns, grievously injuring and even blinding civilians.
There have been numerous attempts aimed at scuttling the flow of information. The latest diktat against the press brought Kashmir’s various journalists’ bodies together who condemned it in a joint statement. “It appears to be a tactic to coerce journalists into not reporting facts on the ground,” the statement by twelve journalist bodies said in the statement.
The joint statement appreciated the difficulties of the profession in Kashmir and sought to put the diktat in perspective. “It also seems to be a part of the string of measures taken by the authorities to suppress freedom of the press in the region. Summoning journalists to police stations, filing FIRs, and seeking informal explanations for their work…”
Calling Kumar’s diktat an “attack on press freedom” that is “highly distressful”, the statement said: “Covering and reporting law and order situations in the region is one of the basic requirements for most news organisations… Barring them from covering such events would mean stopping them from delivering their professional duties.”