Viewpoint: 'Killing the truth' in Kashmir

Protest in Srinagar on 14 September 2010 The protests are the biggest security challenge to Indian rule in many years

Local journalists have been beaten and prevented from covering recent unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir. More than 100 people have died since June during clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters in some of the bloodiest scenes the disputed state has seen in years.

Sajjad Haider, editor of The Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, describes what it is like for journalists trying to cover the deaths of members of their own community while under curfew.

A local journalist working for the BBC recently had to get his pink-coloured curfew pass, specially designed for the press, replaced with one meant for those attending marriage ceremonies in order to reach me at my home in curfew-bound central Srinagar.

A considerate police officer had told him that this was the best option if he wanted to escape the wrath of the security personnel enforcing the curfew on the streets.

The treatment of local reporters by the authorities is in contrast to that received by visiting correspondents.

They have come to be known locally as "embedded journalists" and are accorded full assistance by the state government to move around freely in Kashmir. Local journalists covering the unrest - and living amid it - were banned from moving around during the curfew while permit cards issued to them were cancelled.

The Kashmir Press Association recently said this amounted to an "unwritten ban" on local media outlets and accused the government of adopting a discriminatory attitude.

"Scores of local journalists have been thrashed while discharging their professional duties," it said.

Not long after, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had to apologise when a well-known local journalist was beaten by police. An investigation was announced - but regrets and promises of probes are not new for Kashmir.

The fact is the situation for the media has not changed a bit here.

Freedom calls

For me, journalists working for local newspapers are exceptional individuals operating in exceptional circumstances - without any safeguards and guarantees either from their respective organisations or from the state.

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How can newspapers be circulated when there are severe restrictions on public movement?”

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Calls for "Azadi" (freedom) probably ring in the ears of Kashmiri journalists even when they are asleep.

On 11 June, mass civilian protests erupted in Srinagar when a 17-year-old boy died after being hit on the head by a police tear gas canister in the congested old part of the city. A month later, local journalists joined the calls for freedom, demanding their own liberation.

Killings had happened before, but why the outcry this time? Actually, on 11 June there was not one death, but two.

After the boy died, police sought to put the blame on those who had tried to rush him to hospital to save his life. The police killed the boy first - and then killed the truth.

The real catalyst of the current uprising in Kashmir is not so much the first killing as the second. Undoubtedly, the present situation is a continuation of events that have afflicted the region for the past 20 years.

All it needed was a spark. It is a bid to break free of the suffocation in which people find themselves here. The haunting question is how much the Kashmiri media have lived up to the expectations of their people.

The bitter reality is that, while it may have progressed over the last 20 years, it has not become completely free.

The absence of private businesses in Kashmir, the dependence on government advertisements, the government's monopoly on the flow of information and the fear of reprisals are all factors which have prohibited the growth of a fully free media.

So local reports are sometimes constrained to give space to propaganda alongside the facts.

For example, on 24 September the Jammu and Kashmir police rejected media reports that 2,000 people had been injured in police and paramilitary action during 105 days of unrest.

Questioning the figures, a spokesperson for the police said that only 504 civilians had been injured. But according to him, the number of police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel injured was nearly 4,000.

However, according to the register of one single hospital in Srinagar (the SK Institute of Medical Sciences), 599 civilians with firearms injuries had been admitted during this period.

There are dozens of other hospitals treating the injured in the rest of Kashmir.

'Let down'
Paramilitary soldier checks the curfew pass of a civilian Curfews have made moving around freely impossible

In Kashmir today there are about 25 news channels available - but not one of them is Kashmiri.

The local media are limited either to newspapers or to a handful of cable channels.

As if that was not enough, the government appears terrified of what remains of their freedom.

Curfew passes were issued to accredited journalists only, as local authorities do not recognise the non-accredited journalists who form the bulk of the journalist population here. The tough accreditation rules they have formulated make it virtually impossible for local newspaper reporters.

How can newspapers be circulated when there are severe restrictions on public movement?

The problems are not all to do with government curbs - Srinagar-based newspapers have had to suspend publication at times because of a lack of advisements as well.

The reality is that newspapers, which heavily rely on the revenue from government advertisements, are facing huge losses and many publications have had to lay off staff.

Many newspapers are on the brink of closure as the separatist strikes coupled with government curfews have closed whatever little private advertisement flow was coming their way.

It makes it all the harder to meet the expectations of a people who feel let down by their own media.

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