International Federation of Journalists JACQUELINE PARK
IFJ Asia-Pacific Director (Supported by UNESCO/IPDC asiapacific.ifj.org)
Situation Report: Jammu and Kashmir, India September 2009
In Troubled Environment, Activist Media Opens Doors
Just around daybreak on May 30, 2009, two women, Niloufer Ahangar and her sister-in-law
Asiya Jan, were found dead at different spots in a stream near the district town of Shopian, 52
kilometres from Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
Tension gripped the area and the local administration promptly deployed security forces in
strength in an effort to deter possible mass protests. As the numerous independent news
channels in the Kashmir valley – the largest of the three cultural regions that make up the state
of Jammu and Kashmir – stepped up their coverage, residents of Shopian came out on the
streets, protesting what they were convinced, was a case of rape and murder, in which security
agencies controlled by the Indian Government were directly culpable.
The local police put out a clumsily worded press release that day which announced the two
deaths but recorded that “post-mortems conducted revealed no marks on the dead bodies
including private parts”. This release was reportedly withdrawn quickly, though without an
alternative explanation given for the deaths. No first information report (FIR), the first recording of a suspected crime, was filed. In other words, the document that formally records the beginning of an investigation was not in existence till well after the first signs of a suspected crime emerged.
On May 31, Greater Kashmir, the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in the
valley, reported the incident in the following words: “Two young women were (yesterday) found
dead in mysterious circumstances in South Kashmir’s Shopian district triggering massive
protests as their family and local people alleged that the duo were raped and murdered by the
armed forces. The authorities clamped curfew in the town which the protesters defied. Fifty
persons, including several policemen, were injured in the clashes.”
As the issue caught fire, local news channels carried lengthy reports on May 31 involving
accounts from the family members of the two women. Also featured was the official explanation,
given by the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, the top official looking after civil administration in the Kashmir valley.
For various reasons, not unrelated to intrinsic credibility, the official narration on the deaths
remained subdued all through this cycle of events. The news channels and print media
meanwhile, reconstructed the sequence of events leading to the death of the two women,
seemingly from interviews with local residents and family members. Media accounts of the
tragedy – in a situation of active information denial by the local and state authorities – mutated
rapidly over the first two days, while conforming to the broad template of an atrocity perpetrated by the security forces that have been deployed in strength in the valley.
Since the atrocity came to light when Kashmir’s newspapers had closed their editions for the
day, the news emerged in print only the following day. As reported in Kashmir’s three largest
circulated English-language dailies – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times –
the two women had gone out to the family orchard to attend to work at 5pm on May 29. When
they failed to return at a reasonable hour and with darkness setting in, Shakeel Ahmad,
Niloufer’s husband, set off in search for them. From various passers-by and acquaintances, he
gathered that the two women had been seen on their trudge back home, till at least the time they passed an armed patrol deployed in Shopian for night-time security.
Shakeel then made an official complaint at the local police station and secured the voluntary
assistance of a police constable. Together with this policeman, he and Asiya’s brother, Zahoor
Ahmad, set out on a search until 3am, when they retired for two hours. Shortly after resuming
the search, they found the two women, dead with serious marks of injury on their necks and
heads – one on the bank of the stream and the other about a kilometre downstream on a mound
of gravel near the middle of the stream’s width.
A day afterwards, with state and local authorities seemingly caught flat-footed by an eruption of
public anger, this basic account acquired a few embellishments. It is not clear where they came
from, but the intervention by Kashmir’s political dissidents had an undoubted role. According to
the newer version that came to be accepted as authentic in most of the Kashmir valley the
following day, Niloufer and Asiya were working at the orchard till just before dark on May 29. As
they were returning on foot, Niloufer phoned her husband, Shakeel Ahmad, to tell him that they
would soon reach home, though there was a group of uniformed personnel of the Central
Reserve Police Force (CRPF) supposedly stalking them.
For the rest, the media version that emerged on day two did not seriously amend or contradict
the account of the previous day. Zahoor Ahmad’s testimony was critical in the construction of
events following the discovery of the women’s bodies. Reportedly, the bodies were first taken to
the local medical centre for autopsy. Zahoor was, according to Kashmir media reports, present
when a team of doctors after a first examination confirmed rape. However, the medical team was
soon afterwards forced to abandon its task. The police reportedly made an urgent request that
the bodies be handed over to the families, since they feared that with rape being certified, there
would be a serious deterioration of the situation if the last rites for the deceased were not swiftly
completed. However, as the media in Kashmir reported it, there was shortly afterwards a virtual
diktat by the same policeman that the doctors performing the autopsy should omit all references
to rape in their report. This exceptional request reportedly leaked out to the assembled crowd
since the immediate family of the two women was present when it was made. The crowd that
had gathered outside the medical centre erupted in anger, forcing the doctors to abandon their
Subsequently, another team of doctors arrived from the nearby town of Pulwama to complete the procedures. Their conclusion, despite urgent police requests that a contrary conclusion be
returned, was supposedly that the fact of rape was established, before death by strangulation.
For an authoritative opinion, forensic samples gathered from the bodies were referred to the
Forensic Sciences Laboratory under the Home Department of the J&K State Government.
The police continued to insist that the two bodies bore no scars of injury at the moment of their
discovery – other than bruises that may have been inflicted by being dragged into a river and
colliding against rocks. The claims in this narration indicated death by drowning.
Blaming the messenger
An IFJ representative who met with senior officials in the Kashmir Home Department on June 1
found them virtually unanimous in holding local news channels and print media responsible for
the escalation in public tensions. The media, they said, had gone beyond reasonable limits of
free reporting in reconstructing the Shopian deaths and had become part of the problem, with its
disinclination to respect honoured lines of distinction between reporting and editorial comment.
To the question of how the police agencies and government authorities believed the women
died, the answers were equivocal. One very senior official confessed ignorance, while
insinuating that the women may have strayed away from their normal routine to fulfil some
assignation. The implication was that the women may have ventured into enterprises that were
inherently hazardous, involving motives and passions that could put them in danger.
As stated by J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at a press conference on June 1, the media had
been irresponsible in putting out the worst possible stories on the deaths. They had erred in
avoiding the standard convention of using the term “alleged” to describe situations where there
was no firm determination of fact.
As he said in the course of a press conference that was telecast in real time by Kashmir’s
numerous news channels: “Different people give different interpretations. Some say they (the
women) were raped and murdered. But no one is waiting for the factual report.”
Immediately after the press conference, Kashmir’s news channels switched to Syed Ali Shah
Geelani, the leading voice of the valley’s constituency for Pakistan. It is a measure of the
freedom that the Kashmir media has won for itself through the years of the insurgency that
Geelani, who has been under house arrest since March 25, as the Indian general elections
process got under way, was able to address almost the entire media corps of Srinagar with few
impediments. Nothing in what he said could have been pleasant to the ears of the
administration, since he rejected the chief minister’s offer of a judicial commission of inquiry into
the Shopian deaths, ridiculed the notion of a “special investigation team” set up by local police -
since as he put it no agency could be a credible investigator in a case in which it was the main
accused - and called for a three-day general strike in Kashmir.
On June 2, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which has been a major player in electoral
politics and was till recently part of the coalition that ruled the state, took out a demonstration in
Srinagar, marching toward the principal town square in defiance of police efforts to restrain
protests. The demonstrators, who included the party’s top leadership, announced their intent to
march toward Shopian the next morning to challenge the state government and compel it to
come out with the truth behind the killings. On the march back to their party office, the
demonstrators swerved into a police station about halfway along the route, with the obvious
intent of challenging the police.
Kashmir’s live news channels - after covering the demonstrations in real time - were soon
reporting the arrest of the PDP leaders as fact. This led, in the eyes of the administration, to
much avoidable tension. The police officials in charge were nonplussed, since they had in their
own account, no intent to detain the demonstrators and indeed, no purpose other than
controlling any possible violence. But the administration’s inability to clarify the status of the
demonstrators yet again badly compromised it in the public eye. A senior official of the state
government’s Home Department denounced the Kashmir news channels for their coverage and
denied there were any arrests. However, by the evening a top police official was describing the
status of the PDP leaders as one of “protective custody”.
At his June 1 press conference, the J&K chief minister had admitted that there was a trust deficit
between the administration and the people of the state. This was not specific to his tenure, since
it applied to much of the state’s recent history. He also suggested that the deficit was in part a
creation of the media. This was a refrain that other state officials took up all through the days of
the Shopian crisis.
Restraints on the media
In practical terms, this attitude resulted in a clumsy effort to restrain journalists from going abouttheir jobs. On June 2, journalists seeking to travel to Shopian from Srinagar, individually and in groups, found it virtually impossible to get through. Invariably, it took them more than three hours to reach the town of Pulwama, which would usually be no more than an hour away. Once there, they were typically advised to go no further, as numerous roadblocks and security cordons had been set up.
From the point of view of Kashmir’s journalists, the events unfolding after the Shopian tragedy
showed yet again that any ground they claim will have to be zealously defended. Official outrage
against the media invariably boils over every time there is a serious political crisis in the state,
involving mass unrest and protests. In the fraught atmosphere of Kashmir, the media has held
up the administration to certain standards of public accountability. The state administration, at
various key moments, has failed these tests and then made a scapegoat of the media.
In the case of the Shopian deaths, the “blame the media” attitude was misplaced. Under
relentless public pressure, partly arising from wide coverage of the matter by Kashmir’s media,
the state government finally relented and empowered a judicial commission of inquiry to
determine the facts.
Information trickled out from state sources, through selective leaks rather than open media
briefings or releases. On June 8, NDTV, a news channel that broadcasts nationally in Hindi and
English, ostensibly got the full story of the post-mortems conducted on the women. On that day’s main news bulletin, the channel’s Srinagar correspondent reported that the post-mortems were inconclusive, since the doctors “could not complete their report because of the hostile
atmosphere”. The doctors’ reports though did confirm “the presence of semen on both bodies”,
though no “firm conclusion of murder” could be drawn. All that could be said was that the deaths
occurred on account of “haemorrhage and neurogenic shock”.
Great outrage ensued. NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi was specifically targeted by political
groups then in the vanguard of the agitation over Shopian, which read into his news report an
insinuation that the women had been engaged in consensual sex shortly before they died. Local
activists demanded that Masoodi be ostracised and expelled from the Kashmir valley. Others
cast aspersions on his intentions, his supposed proximity to the J&K chief minister and his entire
The schism that has always been present between Kashmir’s local media and the national
media came glaringly into focus at this point. On June 10, a local web-based daily, Etalaat,
called the NDTV report a “twisting” of facts which severely eroded the credibility of journalism in Kashmir. The paper also accused the channel of saying something that it had not said: “that the cause of death was brain haemarage (sic) caused due to excitement”.
The following day, The Hindu, one of India’s top English language dailies, published from 12
centres including the national capital of Delhi, reported Masoodi’s travails in the strongest
possible language, characterising these as “a grim illustration of the culture of unreason
generated by the leadership of ongoing protests against the still-unexplained deaths of two
young women in southern Kashmir last month”. In its rendering of the NDTV report though, The Hindu was selective, omitting any mention of the reference to traces of semen. Masoodi was, in this account, suffering from public opprobrium in Kashmir merely for reporting that the autopsies had been “inconclusive” and had not definitively pointed to the mob-dictated consensus that rape had preceded the murders.
On every significant detail, the media reports at the local and national levels showed sharply
divergent attitudes. For The Hindu, the location where the women’s bodies were found was a
“fast-flowing mountain stream”. The implication was that death by drowning was a possibility.
For local journalists reporting in the national press, it did not seem credible that the women could have been drowned in “ankle-deep water”.5 For local journalists reporting in the local press, the question did not seem worth spending time over, at all.
What emerged with great clarity through this episode was the “blame the messenger” attitude,
seemingly shared across all shades of political opinion in Kashmir. Just as the state
administration began its crisis response to Shopian by blaming the media for supposedly blowing
up an issue “out of proportion”, political dissidents in Kashmir showed little hesitation in targeting a particular journalist for a news report that he had obviously filed on the basis of a non attributable briefing by state government officials.
Ultimatums to ‘behave’
Meanwhile, the Directorate of Information in the state government issued notice to all local cable
TV channels to suspend their news broadcasts. This diktat, issued on June 5, was partly diluted
a month later, when the channels were allowed to air the 15 minutes of news they were
permitted at the time of their registration. As the editors and owners of the channels put it, they
were summoned early in June and given a virtual ultimatum by the authorities that they needed
to “behave properly”. Several were told that their fiduciary relationship with the the secessionist
political formation, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, was well known, and that the dossiers
available with state intelligence agencies provided ample grounds for their prosecution under the
special security laws in force in Kashmir.
An account of the content that was broadcast by the Kashmir news channels through those days
does not establish clear grounds for this extreme action against the media. The various news
channels in Kashmir may indeed have only done what the authorities failed to do: take note of a
serious crime and document the public concern that those responsible be brought to account.7
When the judicial inquiry into the Shopian killings by Justice Muzaffar Jan submitted its report,
there were special words of censure for the media. The entire report of the inquiry commission
was published on the websites of Kashmir’s main newspapers on July 11. The judge identified
several instances of misreporting by the media. In an indication yet again of the divergent
perceptions of the national and the regional media, The Hindu on July 12 reported that “Justice
Jan’s report highlights disturbing evidence that some journalists may have fabricated elements of their stories.”
In fairness, Justice Jan did not at any point accuse the media of “fabrication”. What he did rather, was to observe that there could be occasions when “unconfirmed and incorrect information is fed to print and electronic media to flare up (sic) the sentiments of the public”. The inaccuracies that were specifically identified by the judge included:
• The report that the two women had called their homes over mobile phone to say that they
would soon reach back, though they were bothered by CRPF personnel stalking them.
This report had been decisively disproved by all the evidence that the commission had
heard, including from members of the victims’ family. The commission, with the
assistance of police investigators seconded to it, examined phone records, and in none
of these was there any evidence of a call made from a “phone that may have been in the
• One constable from the police station in Shopian came in for a great deal of attention
from the media, for supposedly making several calls to his superiors when the first
missing persons report came in, alerting them to the possibility of an explosive situation
developing. However, the phone records that had been accessed by the inquiry found
that the policeman concerned “had made only four calls during the day and no calls …
from 10.00pm on 29th of May to 6.00am on 30th of May 2009”, i.e., between the times
that the women were first reported missing and the discovery of their bodies.
• Reports that Neelofar was pregnant at the time of her death, again widely featured in the
media, were found to be untrue;
• Her body moreover, showed no visible signs of external injury, contrary to reports in the
media that she bore multiple wounds;
• Although “gang-rape” was widely reported, “no (such) evidence was found by the team of
• Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, the media had reported that Asiya had a mark of
“sindoor” (a deep vermilion coloured powder regarded as a mark of female chastity in
Hindu custom) on her forehead, which was found during the inquiry, to be a bleeding
wound. This said, the commission, was a “shameful” distortion of the truth.
Kashmir’s media came in for serious censure from counterpart organisations at the national level
for real and perceived transgressions. As The Hindu reported, “For the most part, Justice Jan
found, the media misrepresented forensic evidence.” There was also an allegation in The
Hindu’s interpretation that the media may have been guilty of inciting “hatred by broadcasting
communal propaganda”. The suggestion that one victim’s forehead had been smeared with
sindoor “suggested that the rapists were Hindus” and the rape itself “a macabre religion-driven
The commission’s report also included a section on the immediate family of the dead women,
rife with references that the public took to be an attempt at “character assassination”. Under
pressure of public questioning, the judge was quick to disclaim responsibility, ascribing the entire
section to the sole responsibility of the police official seconded to assist his investigations. The
police insisted that the judge was fully in the know about the inclusion of this material.
The judge may have withdrawn his remarks on the media though there seem to be two opinions
on this.9 His report however does not identify the specific source of the report on the smearing of vermilion on one of the victims’ foreheads. None of the three English-language newspapers with significant circulation in Kashmir – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and the Kashmir Times – carried anything suggesting this in the first reports of May 31. All three seem to have taken elaborate care to record that “rape and murder” was not established, but a belief of the people of Shopian, arising from the circumstances in which the women were found and the conduct of local authorities immediately afterward. All three newspapers gave front-page prominence to the official response, represented then by a senior minister in the state cabinet, Ali Mohammad Sagar, who held out the assurance that the crime would be solved within 48 hours.
It is not feasible to scour through all the reporting that emerged on the Shopian tragedy in the
print and electronic media and to identify where journalistic irresponsibility may have fuelled
public anger. Justice Muzaffar Jan, for his part, does not identify any particular news
organisation for the many breaches that he has identified in the norms of fair reporting.
Even the reporting on the phone calls that the victims allegedly made was not something that the journalists “fabricated”, as the inquiring judge seemed to suggest and sections of the national
media seemed firmly to infer. Rather, it was a claim that had been made in a public statement by
a political personality, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, which the media should have been at liberty to
report. The story that a victims’ forehead had been smeared with sindoor came similarly from
PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, a politician with a considerable following in the Kashmir valley.
Viewed purely in terms of a politician’s obligation that he or she should assume responsibility for
words uttered in public, whether in anger or in reason, the media was entitled to report these
utterances. That the media did not cross-check this account with members of the victims’
families, or indeed with anybody who might have been in the know, is a professional lapse. But
considering the severe impediments to free movement faced by journalists in Kashmir during
those turbulent few days, it is one that can be understood.
The Shopian issue continued to smoulder for over a month-and-a-half. Mid-August, the Forensic
Sciences Laboratory in Delhi reported that the DNA samples it had been sent – ostensibly of the
two victims and the four policemen who had been named after the judicial inquiry as suspects in
the destruction of evidence – were all fudged. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tendered a public
apology for his administration’s mishandling of the case and vowed to bring a superior authority
– the police agency controlled by India’s Union Government, the Central Bureau of Investigation
(CBI) – into the case. At the time of writing, the bodies of the two victims had been exhumed
under the supervision of the CBI, after the explicit consent of the families had been granted.
What course the investigations will now take, is a matter of conjecture. But the key issue that
emerges is that after advancing numerous alibis and seeking to make the media a scapegoat,
the state administration finally had to admit that it had hit a wall in its inquiries. Presumably, if it
had listened to what the media was reporting, rather than shrink into a defensive “blame the
messenger” stance, things might have been different.
Resort to threats and curbs
Early in July, another violent death in Kashmir – this time in the capital city of Srinagar – sparked a further furious round of contention between the administration and the media community. Asrar Mushtaq Dar, 19, was went missing from his home in Srinagar on July 3. His body was found on July 8, bearing marks of a brutal end. Initially believed to be a custodial killing, Dar’s murder sparked protests and strikes across the valley, which was already tense after the killings of other college students and an alleged desecration of a nearby mosque by personnel of the security forces. When the police arrested an estranged friend of his on July 15 and procured his confession, the protests ended, along with speculation from separatists and politicians that Dar was killed in police custody.
In the eight days between the discovery of Dar’s body’s and the arrest of his one-time friend,
journalists in Kashmir faced the brunt of police aggression. On July 8, Fayaz Bukhari, of NDTV,
was verbally assaulted by the Director General of the J&K Police for publicising allegations of
Dar’s parents that their son had disappeared in police custody. On July 10, Bukhari and
Rasheed Rahi, of CNS news agency, received threatening calls from various police authorities.
The police had already registered an FIR against Rahi for allegedly creating panic during the
Shopian murders, and he had been assaulted in the Kothi Bagh police station in Srinagar just
A statement from the Srinagar Journalists’ Association noted that the police threatened Bukhari,
even though he had reported the protests in a professional and balanced manner. “His fault is
that he aired both police and family versions of what led to Asrar’s mysterious death,” it argued.
Meanwhile, the J&K Council for Human Rights urged the administration in Srinagar to respect
the working independence of Kashmiri journalists at all costs. The International Federation of
Journalists (IFJ) issued a statement reminding the state police that “reporting all sides of any
matter is part of the professional commitment of journalists”, and reiterating that there could be
“no justification in any event for threatening journalists with arrest under the special security laws applicable in Kashmir”.
It must be observed here that several among Kashmir’s journalistic community are privately
willing to admit their unhappiness that a similar display of unity and resolve did not follow the
threats that were made against NDTV reporter Nasir Masoodi by dissident political forces in
Kashmir, just a few days before.
The restraints on local cable TV channels remain in force at this writing. Explaining the
restrictions, the head of local administration in Srinagar said, “As per Section 6 of the Cable Act,
the local cable TV operators are not allowed to telecast any news or current affairs programs …
(T)he Cable Act of 1995 and Section 6 says ‘operators cannot telecast anything which promotes
violence’ … They were unabatedly showing the scenes that were not in sync with the program
code. By telecasting the footage of violence continuously on their channels, they were creating a
law and order problem for the government and we had to restrict them. They were showing
violence against state and paramilitary forces for hours. Government will not allow them to show
whatever they want. After all it’s a friendly concession that we have given to them that they are
showing news, which otherwise they are not entitled to show”.10
Media pressured in tense environment
Since mid-2008, Kashmir has witnessed a degree of political turbulence that brought back
memories of 1989, when mass demonstrations and a long threatened and dormant insurgency
broke out. The year 2008 was especially crucial in that elections were scheduled to be held by
October to the state legislative assembly, and these occasions invariably feed a tense contest
between the Indian Government and parties that have accepted the Indian constitutional scheme on one side, opposed by the forces that believe the political status of the state is yet unsettled.
Mass disturbances over the allotment of land in the Kashmir valley to a Hindu religious trust
ensured that the elections could not be held as scheduled. When held in December, the polling
was relatively peaceful, with a high voter turnout.
The high degree of suspicion with which journalists are viewed was however on ample display.
On December 7, a group of journalists reporting on local perceptions on the election campaign
were attacked by security personnel in the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. Six of the
journalists suffered injuries, two seriously. They were reporting on a street demonstration
involving a number of local residents, mostly youth, who had come out in support of the ongoing
campaign to boycott the state-wide elections. The IFJ was informed that a senior police official
on duty instructed his men to beat the media persons covering the demonstration, supposedly as
a means of dispersing the protesters. Journalists at another northern Kashmir town, Baramulla,
were told the same day, to leave the area since their presence was supposedly inciting the local
people to engage in demonstrations and slogan-shouting.
These incidents illustrate some of the dimensions of governmental pressure on the media to
suppress an alternative narrative on the elections in J&K. The media has had to balance this out
against pressure from armed militant groups, which were determined to deny the electoral
process all legitimacy.
Early in November 2008, the State Government sent an advisory to all media organisations
within its jurisdiction, warning against the “publication of certain objectionable material”.
Recipients were put on notice that they were to “refrain from publication of such objectionable
and seditious material”. Failure to comply would result in “action” under rules which allowed for
the withdrawal of official advertising from non-compliant media organisations. The warning came as the nominations process was opening for the assembly elections, amid calls by certain
political elements for a boycott.
The IFJ, with the support of its affiliate organisations in India and the media community in
Kashmir, issued an appeal to the State Government in J&K to de-link its advertisement
placement policy from the editorial stance of particular newspapers.
Close to two decades since the militancy in Kashmir erupted, the media has gone through
various phases in its fraught relationship with state agencies. In 1996, when elections were
under way in J&K, the only means the media had to deal with the multiple pressures it faced was
to shut down. In the 2002 electoral cycle, the media managed to function with relatively little
pressure, since the contest for the first time seemed to offer the people of J&K choices that went
beyond the parties officially sanctioned by Delhi.
The 2008 elections took place in the aftermath of prolonged and widespread civil disturbances,
following the land allotment controversy. Beginning with mass protests in the valley, the political
crisis was qualitatively transformed when retaliatory actions began in the Jammu region.
On August 9, police seized all copies of an Urdu-language daily, Etalaat, for allegedly carrying a
report of a village being razed by a mob in the Jammu region. At the same time, state authorities
warned staff at the English-language daily Rising Kashmir not to carry certain kinds of reports.
The Jammu offices of another English-language daily, Greater Kashmir, were attacked by mobs.
One of Kashmir’s best-known journalists, who went out into the Jammu region for a reporting
assignment, recounted how he felt compelled then to travel under a false identity card, for fear of
being attacked on grounds of his religious identity.
In this context, a conclave of Kashmir valley’s most senior journalists resolved on August 9 that
the state authorities should adopt a policy of complete transparency with the media and the
general public in Kashmir about all ongoing incidents of violence and lawlessness in both the
Jammu region and the Kashmir valley.
However, the situation deteriorated seriously and a blanket curfew was imposed in the Kashmir
valley on August 23, 2008. Newspapers in Srinagar failed to print for six consecutive days on
account of severe restrictions on the movement of journalists and other media employees.
Security agencies also compelled local cable news channels to suspend broadcasts or to air
only entertainment programs.
Fifteen journalists and media workers were reported injured on August 24 in targeted attacks by
personnel of the CRPF. The injured included journalists from India’s two main news agencies,
the Press Trust of India and the United News of India, who had been trying to go to their
The IFJ’s inquiries with journalists in Srinagar revealed that security forces persistently
disregarded media accreditation cards and curfew passes, in some instances snatching and
destroying them. Armed CRPF personnel were reportedly heard remarking that they had orders to prevent journalists in particular from proceeding to work. Despite State Government
assurances that media accreditation cards would be considered good for passage through
curfew-bound areas, security forces disregarded these credentials during that turbulent period.
Three English language newspapers in Srinagar – Greater Kashmir, Etalaat and Rising Kashmir
– posted notices on their websites regretting their failure to publish because staff could not travel to work. The Urdu language press was also paralysed. News websites during this period were updated sporadically only because some employees were confined to their offices by the curfew imposed in the entire Kashmir region.
At the same time, in a cycle of attacks and retaliation, copies of the Daily Excelsior, published
from the city of Jammu, were burnt in a locality of Srinagar, for its ostensible indifference to the
protests in the Kashmir valley.
Managing conflicting perspectives As in most areas of conflict, Kashmir also witnesses a tendency for contesting parties to deny others a voice, except where it suits their interest. A central question confronting the media community in Kashmir is whether the voice of ordinary people has been heard through the media or stifled, all through the years of conflict and insurgency.
One of the principal areas of concern is the relative concentration of the media community in the
state’s two main cities, Jammu and Srinagar. In the Kashmir valley, journalists are concentrated
in Srinagar. Among journalists in Kashmir there is recognition that the voice of the people, as
reflected through the media, has been subdued to an extent. However, over the years the media
community has evolved strategies of representing the local situation in a manner that has
retained readers’ loyalty. This has involved multiple skills, such as evolving a particular
vocabulary that will be understood by the media audience, following codes of attribution for news
stories that reveal the layers of meaning that can be read into them, adopting a protocol of story
placement and prioritisation that will minimise the pressures on the media from the contesting
sides, and providing higher visibility to commentators who are sympathetic to the civil liberties
discourse and enjoy credibility within the larger Indian media audience.
The main difficulty encountered by journalists in Kashmir is the overlapping of several narratives: the local, the national and the global. Linked to this is the narrative that emerges from Pakistan’s longstanding political intervention in Kashmir, and that country’s seemingly unending turbulence. These complicate matters further.
As in most other parts of India with a history of conflict, the state and the security agencies are a
major source of news in Kashmir. Journalists are often under compulsion to report in accordance
with the state’s views. This sets up a conflict in terms of ethical practice, since the inputs
received from official sources are often at variance with the points of view that the press gathers
from its interactions at the local level.
In reconciling these conflicts, the media community in Kashmir maintains the tough language of
confrontation. But it has also had to accommodate the officially determined narrative and provide it with adequate space, though often with attributions clearly spelt out, so that the audience is clearly informed that certain stories are being featured only under duress. It has been a long and hard process of negotiation, but because of the high international visibility of the Kashmir issue and the greater degree of scrutiny that agencies in the state function under, the authorities have been compelled to yield ground. This ongoing process of negotiation does not however ensure the security of journalists. In many ways, the threats that journalists face from insurgent groups are more difficult to deal with, because it is quite often out of their hands to meet the stringent conditions on reporting that this side of the conflict imposes.
These tensions begin with the basic vocabulary of conflict reporting, in the choice between the
use of “dispute” or “problem” and between “terrorist” or “militant”. Journalists’ dispatches are
commonly edited, headlined and laid out on the page by colleagues in distant centres such as
Jammu and New Delhi, who may not be aware of the daily compulsions faced by colleagues
working on the ground.
The militancy imposes its own restrictions on journalists and the media, which often amount to
censorship. News reports that inconvenience militant groups and, in particular, call into question
the commitment of Pakistan to the cause, are severely restricted. When respected political
leaders in Kashmir are reviled by state agencies on the other side of the Line of Control that
divides India from Pakistan-controlled territory, or when training camps for militants are shut
down under the pressure of coercive diplomacy by India and its western allies, media outlets in
Kashmir come under pressure to ensure that public perceptions of the objectives of the militancy
are not undermined. Commonly faced with the threat of lethal force for reporting in a manner that displeases one side or the other, journalists opt for self-censorship rather than truth-telling.
There are numerous cases of journalists being harassed and threatened by both sides in the
conflict. However, the two deaths recorded in the state in recent months – of press photographer
Ashok Sodhi on May 11 and news videographer Javed Ahmed Mir on August 23 last year – were
the consequence of being caught in the crossfire in armed encounters.
Media growth and conditions
Despite recurrent threats, Kashmir’s media continues to grow. Two decades ago, there were an
estimated five newspapers published from Jammu and Srinagar. Today, there are 11 Englishand
46 Urdu-language dailies in Srinagar city alone which have been registered with the
government and approved for placement of official advertising. If the number that have not been
approved for ad placements are added, the total number of dailies in the Kashmir region would
be 81. Local news and entertainment channels have sprouted, and except in situations of dire
emergency, as recently seen, manage to evade the scrutiny of state security agencies. At the
most recent count, there were six cable channels operating from Srinagar, all of which were in
the business of broadcasting news when the situation demanded and when the authorities
relaxed their vigil.
Representative of the vigorous media culture in evidence in Kashmir, a monthly magazine was
launched in June 2009, with a cover story that was sharply critical of elections held under the
Indian constitution as “disempowering” of Kashmiris. In addition, the inaugural issue also
featured an investigative article on how some of Kashmir’s most influential political families had
managed to buy up the title to the most prime real estate in the valley, in defiance of revenue
Kashmir University’s Department of Mass Communications in Srinagar turns out more than 20
graduates each year. They in turn become eager job-seekers in a growing industry. However,
wage scales and working conditions remain undefined for the most part, especially in Kashmir’s
growing Urdu-language press.
Another feature of media growth in Kashmir has been a proliferation of “news agencies”. These
are typically one-person operations in district towns, which serve as freelance news-gathering
resources for newspapers in Srinagar. They are a means for newspapers to economise on
news-gathering costs, since few can afford to retain journalists on their payroll outside the
State’s two main cities. The provenance of the news stories emanating from these agencies
though, is often problematic, though media persons in Kashmir have learnt to identify the interest groups using these as fronts to disseminate news and information..
The absence of salary structures and insurance cover for journalists and media workers is of
serious concern. Additionally, certain areas, such as Uri and Tangdar, are out of bounds, even
for journalists. Reporting about these places, which are close to the Line of Control where Indian
armed forces face Pakistan’s in an uneasy, seemingly never-ending confrontation, is next to
impossible. The news-agents who perform news gathering in these areas typically service
numerous clients in Srinagar and work under conditions of extreme stress.
What to do?
There is an association of journalists in Kashmir but its membership is rather modest in relation
to the large and growing community that it seeks to represent. Differences in perception on what
a professional body can achieve in the circumstances that prevail in Kashmir account for the
failure of the existing body to achieve wider enrolment. This issue could be dealt with through a
wider dialogue among journalists and agreement over a charter that covers the various
professional choices and contingencies they face. The body could then also engage the broader
public, including state and non-state actors in Kashmir’s political landscape. Given the spirit of
civic engagement that still remains strong in Kashmir despite two decades of insurgency, there is
a possibility that a consensus could be achieved on non-coercive methods of grievance
redressal in matters involving journalism. There are strong possibilities that journalists could
evolve such norms and ensure their acceptance by media managements and Kashmir’s various
Issues of wages and working conditions also need to be addressed on a priority basis. The
media in Kashmir has grown significantly in recent times, though unevenly. The differences in
compensation that exist between the English and Urdu-language media need to be addressed.
Common norms could be agreed on employment and contractual terms that eliminate some of
the sense of discrimination that journalists in particular sectors may have. This would also serve
to sustain the enthusiasm that the youth in Kashmir still evidently harbour for the profession of
1 The CRPF is an armed police force controlled directly by the Indian Government, though nominally it is only
deployed at the request of state governments when serious threats to law and order are feared. In Kashmir, the CRPF has been on active duty, combating the insurgency against Indian Government control, since 2003. They took over that year from the Border Security Force, another armed wing of the Government, which had been deployed in law and order duties in Kashmir since the insurgency erupted in 1989.
2 Sevanti Ninan, writing in The Hoot, has scoured the NDTV website for the full content of the news report and found nothing more than this. See her “Reporting Kashmir: a problem of versions”, available at this writing at:
http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/searchdetail.php?sid=3910&bg=1, for an interesting analysis of the differing perspectives of the national and Kashmir media on particular issues, the issues reporters face in Kashmir and the conflicting pressures they have to handle depending on whether their forum is local or national.
3 The Daily Etalaat, Srinagar, once published in both Urdu and English. It has since discontinued its English print edition but continued to publish in English on the web. The report in question was posted on June 10, 2009, titled “NDTV report mars journalistic credibility in Kashmir”, available at this writing at: http://etalaat.com/english/News/front-page/5534.html.
4 “Kashmir journalist discovers perils of plain speaking: Islamist groups hold out death threats to NDTV reporter”,
The Hindu (Delhi edition), June 12, 2009, page one, available at this writing at:
5 These comparisons are drawn out by Sevanti Ninan in the reference cited above in footnote 3.
6 See “Local Cable TV becomes a victim of Shopian Unrest”, on The Hoot, available at this writing at: http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/searchdetail.php?sid=3918&bg=1
7 See “Cable Censorship in Kashmir Continues”, in The Hoot, available at this writing at:
8 “Media Misrepresented Key Facts on Shopian Rape-Murder”, The Hindu, July 12, 2009, available at: http://www.thehindu.com/2009/07/12/stories/2009071255830800.htm.
9 A.G. Noorani, a well-known commentator, writes in “A flawed inquiry”, Frontline, August 15-28, 2009, that the observations on the press were withdrawn (www.frontline.in/stories/20090828261703500.htm), Greater Kashmir, in
its report dated July 13, 2009, quotes the judge as saying that he stands by his remarks on the media (see: “It is Justice Jan versus the Police”, available at:
Supported by UNESCO/IPDC asiapacific.ifj.org
10 “Kashmir cable restrictions: no let-up after two months”, The Hoot, available at this writing at: http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/searchdetail.php?sid=4029&bg=1.