The year 2020 has been an unprecedented year for the world, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the global population. Millions have lost their loved ones and millions more have seen worst. For the first time, people irrespective of their religion, identity, geography, or other privileges witnessed a lockdown that was earlier only seen in conflict or war-torn regions. Although all of this happened in Kashmir too, the journalists in the valley had not only to overcome the challenges of the virus but also fight back summons, harassment, beatings, and grief.
While the year 2019 will be remembered for the restrictions on the working of media in Kashmir, 2020 will be etched in the memories of Kashmiri journalists as a year that was bereft with suppression and rewards. The year began with valley’s journalists dotting the media center set up by the government even as restrictions on the internet continued till early March 2020. That was when the valley scribes no longer needed to wait for their turn at the media center, neither they needed to tread the knee-deep water at the facilitation center; resulting after frequent snowfall previous winter.
As spring arrived so did the summons and booking of journalists under laws that were never before used on media. Being a journalist has always been a challenging task in the conflict region, however, being booked under anti-terrorism laws was new for the valley’s media personnel.
It was April, when two Kashmiri journalists – Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Under the UAPA one can be jailed for a period of seven years without even securing bail for up to two years. While the duo was not arrested, the UAPA continues to hang over their heads as a double-edged sword.
In May, a gunfight in Srinagar resulted in the killing of Hurriyat leader Ashraf Sehrai’s son Junaid, however, with its culmination, the Nawakadal area of downtown had turned into a ghost town with at least seventeen houses razed to rubble in the gunfight. The Kashmir Walla broke the story of the destruction and suffering of the locality to the world. However, that did not go too well with the authorities, as they summoned KW’s editor-in-chief, Fahad Shah, to the cyber police station in Srinagar. He was questioned for several hours at the station.
It did not stop there, Shah was again called to a police station in June and once again asked about the coverage of the Srinagar gunfight. In August, while returning from Punjab where he had gone to report the farmers’ agitation, he was detained from the highway and taken to Qazigund police station, where for hours he was interrogated about his work and the organization. In the post-August 2019 Kashmir, The Kashmir Walla has been battling extreme pressure – both physical and mental, to remain silent over human rights issues.
In August, another journalist Qazi Shibli who is editor of the online portal The Kashmiriyat had to face jail once again. Ahead of the abrogation of Article-370, Shibli had been detained for reporting on the troop buildup in the region. He was released in April this year. However, on the first anniversary of 5 August, in 2020, he was again jailed for a month.
While the year 2020 was in news for the cyber police’s actions against the journalists, it took a step further ahead when a local journalist, Auqib Javed, was thrashed and abused inside the premises of the police station. The 28-year-old journalist later wrote an emotional first-person account of the ordeal, detailing his painful time at the police station.
Another journalist, Kamran Yusuf had to face similar treatment from the government forces as he was beaten while he was covering a gunfight in south Kashmir. The video of the act went viral on social media and Yusuf later wrote about his struggles. This year the National Investigating Agency (NIA) raided the residence of Parvaiz Bukhari, who works with the AFP. At the same time, the office and residential apartment of daily Kashmir Times’s Executive Editor, Anuradha Bhasin, was sealed. She was evicted from the premises.
The harassment of journalists did not end there. In the fanfare-led District Development Council (DDC) elections, three journalists were thrashed in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district by Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Sandeep Chaudhary, while they were covering the alleged booth capturing. Chaudhary, who is known for schooling journalists in his op-eds, faced backlash and eventually had to apologize to the trio.
While one might have thought that the year would end on a good note, journalists covering an army event were beaten up badly by the army personnel, who later apologized.
The year of loss
While journalists in Kashmir faced harassment and summons throughout the year, what hurt most was the sudden death of two of their colleagues in just two months’ time. In October, 31-year-old Javaid Ahmad suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died in a bus while traveling to Srinagar for a meeting at the daily Rising Kashmir office, where he was a staffer. The death of a young and budding journalist left all the media fraternity in shock.
Only a month later another journalist, Mudasir Ali, who was in his late thirties passed away at his home after suffering a cardiac arrest. The brilliant journalist’s death acted as a severe blow to the fraternity that is yet to come out of the shock. His peers and colleagues described the journalist, who wrote for national and international publications, as irreparable.
Although the year was trouble for Kashmir journalists, there was recognition too for their brilliance. Three journalists, Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan, and Channi Anand from the erstwhile state were awarded journalism’s highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize, for their coverage of the 2019 clampdown. This led to widespread praise for the Kashmir media fraternity, however, some expressed jealousy too. They started a campaign against the trio and called out the Pulitzer center for promoting the anti-India agenda.
The young female photo-journalist, Masrat Zahra, booked under UAPA, photojournalist Ahmer Khan, and few others also got awards for their work between 2019-2020. The Kashmir Walla’s editor, Fahad Shah, was also nominated for the 2020 RSF Press Freedom Prize for Courage for the work produced by the magazine since August 2019, when most of the mainstream media remained quiet.