"Journalists doing their jobs were beaten up and fired upon"

BY Dilnaz Boga| IN Media Freedom | 16/03/2011
The clampdown for more than seven months last year during the agitation in Kashmir severely restricted media freedom, but journalists keep finding different ways to break the silence.
Their travails behind getting the story is evocatively captured by award-winning photojournalist DILNAZ BOGA in the first of a two-part series from her diary – jottings she maintained as and when she got a chance.

The diary: Jan- Sept 2010

The beginning

My first bout with a curfew was in January 2010. A teenager has been killed and no one was held accountable, so the people poured on the streets to show their anguish. The clampdown is more severe in the Downtown area of Kashmir than Jawahar Nagar (where state officials reside). Paramilitary troopers are caught on cell phone videos throwing stones and breaking windowpanes of people's homes. There are some streets in Downtown that have no windowpanes!

By the tenth day, I'm out of food and find myself on a staple diet of bananas, thanks to the poor vendor who takes a risk and ventures out late evening.

Fear of the sun

It's been almost two months since we've been under curfew in Kashmir. It's not the echoes in the empty streets decked up with concertina wires imported from Israel that are disturbing, it's the rising sun I fear that brings with it the news of deaths by tear gas shells or bullets.

Bearing witness

As journalists we are issued curfew passes by the government. Most times, the local police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) fail to honour them. When I pick my camera to take photos they threaten me with a baton. Getting past every street is an achievement, with the police and the paramilitary playing God.

Last month, when the government imposed a media gag, the CRPF stood outside media offices and our homes, preventing us from moving out. Journalists who were only doing their job were beaten up and fired upon. They were taking photos of soldiers firing on funerals, and soldiers entering people's homes and destroying property.

Doctors from hospitals say that the injured have been shot mostly in the head and chest. No security personnel have perished in the fierce clashes, hospital sources add.

In the past month, the violence has intensified, with up to eight deaths a day. Hundreds have been injured due to firearms or assault.

Just as the people mourn for one death, another one follows. They are firing at ambulances that ferry the injured. Only if people in India knew what was happening here. The media is sold to propaganda.

Those killed have been unarmed civilians. A young woman who was drawing curtains to protect her home from tear gas was shot in the chest. An eight-year-old boy was beaten to death by the paramilitary. I don't want to be Indian anymore.

In India, the people what to know why…

The killings have caused even more people to come on the streets to protest the killings since the justice mechanism is not in place. How can justice evade a people in supposedly the world's largest democracy?

They are preventing journalists from going to villagers where protesters have been killed. They are blocking phone signals in those districts. There has been a ban on SMS. They've even shut the airport on the pretext of repairing the runway. They don't want to hide the killing fields.

Thank God for Facebook. We've learnt to pick bits of information from there and verify it. Someone said that a meeting was being held in Delhi to "tackle the internet". They decide not to go ahead with the Internet blackout, as it would also affect subscribers in Punjab.

The local press has reported that in the last month, 1,400 people, mostly teens, have been booked under draconian unconstitutional acts that the state uses as instruments of suppression. Kashmir does not have juvenile homes, so the minors share cells with criminals far away from home. Nightmares follow them upon release, a lawyer tells me. This flouts the Juvenile Justice Act and international child laws that India is signatory to. Who cares?

To report or not to report

For journalists, to confirm a death and report it is tricky. The Police Control Room rarely shares information. The authorities block the cellular phone signals of the area where the killing has taken place. The government for the last two months has already banned SMS service. Busy doctors in hospitals, who have their hands full, help us confirm the killings. Law enforcement authorities withhold information, fearing a backlash.

Calls from Kashmiri friends fill up the day as hardly any news manages to trickle out. The national media, on the other hand, chooses to demonise the stone-throwers, blaming the violence on ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. This aggravates the locals. State propaganda has played a pivotal role in delegitimizing the struggle for independence. Full marks to the state. Shame on my tribe!

Internet to the rescue

With Internet as their only vent, youngsters post all kinds of messages on networking sites such as Facebook – angry, sad, frustrated, determined but not confused. Everybody here wants freedom from India. They want independence.

We're Indian, we hate Pakistan: Jingoism at its best

I requested a friend in the media from New Delhi to cover the unrest, with the approval of her editor.

She arrived and we started shooting before sunrise to circumvent the curfew. Covering ground was difficult as we'd be stopped and asked to turn around everywhere we went on our way back before noon. The fact that we were not local media helped us commute.

After burning the midnight oil, and putting together four very difficult packages that covered the turmoil, she headed back only to be told by her channel's head that "the stories could only be screened on a Pakistani news channel". Nationalism and conforming to the state's rules are two qualities that the Indian mainstream media excels at. My friend quit her job of 9 years later that month.

Alone but not lonely

I haven't seen anyone in a week. We haven't been allowed to step out at all. The killings are at their peak. I'm constantly on the phone with my colleagues. We are uploading stories online all through the night. None of the newspapers have made it to the stands today. The police have confiscated them. All the more reason to focus on the job at hand.

With people being cooped into their homes for long spells, tempers are running high. Families are finding it hard to get along. Friends are more irritable, highly strung, sleepless, restless, depressed, helpless and very angry. They all want to step out of their homes. Some can't even peep out of their windows as they hear gunshots.

Days later, I manage to visit most of them, negotiating my way through groups of protesters, security personnel and empty streets. Some of my friends look like they just got released from jail. Others are unusually quiet. Some cry. Some even curse saying that we should all get bombed together, instead of a few being shot every day. Anger is hurt turned inside out, said one.

An Update:

Since December 2010, SMS services resumed only to post-paid customers in Kashmir. Several leaders of the separatist amalgam of the Valley, the Hurriyat, are still behind bars since their arrest last summer. And so is President Mian Qayum of the Bar Association. In the last few months, almost 5,000 preventive arrests have been made by the security agencies.

The state is readying itself for summer. There are talks of building a new prison. Local newspapers have been warned by the government from refraining from carrying news about Egypt, Tunisia and Lybia. Meanwhile, no one has been accountable for the 123 killings since January 2010. The victims' families are still running from pillar to post.

(Dilnaz Boga is a journalist from Mumbai. She worked for Srinagar-based website Kashmir Dispatch in Jammu and Kashmir in 2010. In 2005, she shot a documentary 'Invisible Kashmir: The other side of Jannat' on the psychological impact of human rights violations on the children in Kashmir. She has just been awarded the Agence France-Presse Kate Webb Prize for her courageous work in Kashmir.)

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