Srinagar: One early morning earlier this month, Muneeb ul Islam, a young photojournalist based in South Kashmir who works for a few local dailies, left his home as usual to cover protests in Simthan, Bijbehara, in the Anantnag district. When he reached closer to the street where people were protesting, he was confronted by angry CRPF troops who stopped him from taking pictures of the protest.
“They also slapped me and beat me up,” says Islam, “and then they used me as a shield against stone pelting protestors.” Some of the protestors, however, recognised him in time and didn’t pelt stones in his direction. He was finally let off by the troops.
“Both sides suspect us,” Islam says about the difficulties of covering the latest protests that erupted after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8. “The forces accuse us of instigating protestors, while the protestors suspect us of being government agents,” he says, adding that it gets difficult to work in this hostile environment.
Taking note of the above incident – and a few other incidents involving violence inflicted on journalists covering the recent protests in Kashmir – Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of Asia desk at Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF or Reporters Without Borders) called for “investigations to identify members of the security forces responsible for abuses against journalists and all other violations of freedom of information.”
“We have seen many reports, often accompanied by photos, offering a shocking insight into the aggressive actions and behaviour of the security forces towards the general public and journalists in particular, who are regarded as undesired witnesses,” Ismail said in an official RSF statement released on August 11. “We call on the authorities to carry out investigations to identify those responsible for targeted violence against journalists who risk their lives to inform their fellow citizens.”
In the latest incident, on Tuesday Greater Kashmir reported that the residence of senior photojournalist Danish Ismail was damaged by government forces in Srinagar, which triggered panic among those at his house. “I wasn’t home, when forces attacked my house in Batamaloo area. Locals told me that they threw stones at my house. It was a joint team of police and paramilitary CRPF,” Ismail told Greater Kashmir. “My wife, who isn’t keeping well, fainted.”
In another incident on August 29, photojournalists had gone to cover protests in the Batamaloo area of Srinagar when they were stopped from taking pictures by the policemen stationed in the area. “SHO of the Batamaloo police station stopped us from performing our professional duties,” said Mubashir Khan, staff photographer of Greater Kashmir. “He abused media persons present there and forced photojournalists to go back without taking pictures.”
The following day, policemen at Batamaloo reportedly pelted a stone at photojournalists who were trying to cover the protests in the area. “The policemen there threatened us with dire consequences if we covered the ongoing protests in the area,” said Aman Farooq, a Srinagar based photojournalist who had gone to cover the protests along with his colleagues.
“Whenever there is a volatile situation, people run away from it, but it is the photojournalists who run towards it to cover it for the world,” says Javed Dar, an award-winning photojournalist who has extensively covered the conflict in Kashmir for more than a decade. “Photojournalists working here are always at risk of being hit by bullets or teargas shells because they have to enter the heart of clashes between protestors and the forces to get a better angle for taking pictures.”
Dar has been taking pictures of Kashmir for the Chinese new agency Xinhua for the past ten years. He says he can’t stop himself from covering the recent protests and the blinding of youth and children by pellets, even when he’s not supposed to cover all the events for the agency. “But it’s more of a responsibility since we bring out pictures which can’t lie,” he says. “No one can manipulate a photograph and be biased, and you can’t accuse us of lying as a photographer,” he adds. “Our photos speak for themselves, they clearly tell who is suffering and who is responsible for that suffering.”
Dar says there have been many instances in the last month when photojournalists in Kashmir were stopped from covering the protests. They were also often unable to reach their offices in time to file the day’s photos since their curfew passes were rejected several times by the police and CRPF troops manning the streets. “We also have to take risks of going past barricades put up by the troops and protestors from where other people would normally come back,” says Dar, adding that what happens there depends on the mood of troops and police near the barricades. “Many times we are not allowed to go past the road barricades and have to turn back disappointed, without getting the pictures from the spot.”
The recent ban on internet and mobile network has also affected the work of photojournalists in Kashmir. “Sometimes we came back with pictures after a lot of struggle and risks, but couldn’t access internet and send the photos outside due to the ban,” says Dar. “That is very disappointing.”
Photojournalists have also been at the receiving end of public anger in Kashmir since last month. “Since we are first to reach the spot when someone is killed, people are naturally angry at that time and they think of us as some government agency photographers,” he says. “Till they calm down, we are at risk and sometimes the first victims of public anger.”
Last month, while people were bringing out the dead body of a boy killed in Bijbehara from SMHS hospital in Srinagar, AP photojournalist Dar Yasin rushed to the hospital where he was beaten up along with another colleague by the angry people who had assembled outside the hospital. “By the time he was rescued from the crowd and people came to know that he was a photojournalist, his camera was broken in the scuffle,” says Dar, adding that the camera and lens damaged was worth Rs 3 lakh. “In these times, when there is a shutdown and curfew, we can’t get these costly equipments and thus we have to be very careful of our cameras and lenses while covering the protests.”
In that brief period, before the protestors understand their work, Dar says the photojournalists with their costly cameras and equipments are at risk. “There have been instances when photojournalists have been beaten by people and by the time people know what we are doing, our cameras and other equipment worth lakhs are sometimes damaged,” he says, adding that people also understand and cooperate when they understand their work.
These days, Dar says, they are careful of being seen with their cameras in front of angry people and attendants of those injured who are brought to the hospitals. “Whenever we go to the hospital to take pictures of the injured youth, we take our cameras in our bag and talk to the people there first, check their mood and make them understand that we are here to do our job before we take out our cameras to click photos of the injured,” he says. “That way we gain their trust first. We have to tread carefully in these circumstances.”
Since last month, the frequent mobile ban also made it difficult for Dar to reach out to his family in South Kashmir for several days. “I am always worried about my family and my son back home as my village is the epicentre of protests in the south,” he says, adding that there were days when he was unable to get in touch with his family due to the mobile network ban. On some days, he was able to talk to his family through a friend who had walked to his home with his phone that was somehow working. “It was disturbing and difficult to focus on work in Srinagar while being unaware of the welfare of my family back home.”
“We only show what we click without manipulating the pictures,” says Faisal Khan, a young photojournalist who works for Turkish Anadolu Agency and also for a local Srinagar daily. “The claim that photojournalists provoke protesters to pelt stones and shout slogans is simply baseless,” he says.
Faisal says the “biased reporting” of a section New Delhi-based news channels on the recent protests has made the job of photojournalists working in Kashmir more difficult. “There is public anger against the biased reporting of some Delhi-based news channels, including some Hindi news channels, which has made it difficult for us to work properly as people on the ground don’t differentiate between journalists and can’t tell who works for whom,” he says. “Till these channels keep reporting on Kashmir in a manner which doesn’t reflect the ground realities, we will keep facing the public anger.”