Srinagar: At 7:20 pm on June 14, when Kashmir was preparing to break the penultimate fast during the holy month of Ramzan, I was home with my family. An unusual call – given people don’t call at Iftaar (evening meals during Ramzan) unless it’s an emergency – by a journalist friend left me shocked. My friend had called with the news of Syed Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, some 50 km from Bandipora, my home district.
The news left me gasping for breath. My family could sense the tension triggered in me by the audacious attack on a senior journalist. They consoled me and insisted that I should rest after Iftaar. However, the very next day, while I was still in shock, my family members unanimously said: ‘Change your profession’. This left me perplexed.
At a time when the thought of a senior journalist being brutally murdered in broad daylight almost leaves you feeling claustrophobic, it feels like your parents’ words of caution are warranted. But then all you have to live with is your passion for telling untold stories.
“You aren’t in a safe profession. When a senior journalist is killed in this way, how can you guarantee your own safety?” my mother asked.
These questions were very unusual to me. I was devastated and broken.
I rang up my colleague Aakash Hassan, a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, to lessen the burden.
“Baya aaze che gari sahi halath kharab, Pape che dappan journalism trav (Brother, my family is worried, my father is insisting that I leave journalism),” I told him.
The manner of Bukhari’s killing is unnerving. The 52-year-old was murdered a few metres from the entrance of his office. The gunfire downstairs even alerted his staffers, who were busy readying the next issue of Rising Kashmir.
The place where the attack occurred, Press Enclave, is home to a majority of Kashmir media houses – a second home for any journalist working in the Valley.
Hassan’s reply added to my perplexed mood, “I had to convince my parents for a long time before joining the field. Now, Shujaat sahab’s brutal killing has me worried about my future. Even my parents are now raising questions about my choice. They are anxious.”
Bukhari’s journalism career spanned nearly three decades. He started with the Kashmir Times and moved to The Hindu, where he worked for 12 years. He was a regular commentator and appeared on TV shows.
The issues Kashmiri journalists face go far beyond worrying families. Kashmiri scribes have been walking a tightrope to objectively report the raging conflict, of which they are also victims. However, they have never left the ground. It is impossible to think of Kashmir’s modern history without its media and journalists.
This despite the fact that every word in Kashmir media is under scrutiny.There are allegations of phone tapping, meetings with pro-India groups or resistance leadership being closely monitored from both sides, and bank accounts and transactions being regularly checked.
Launched in 2008 as part of Kashmir Media Group (KMG), Rising Kashmir employs around 60 people, including journalists. As KMG is grappling with the crisis Bukhari’s killing has brought to the popular media house, I met one of its scribes. “My parents are worried about my safety now, which is their utmost concern,” said Daanish Bin Nabi, the op-ed editor of the popular newspaper. “The problem here is with the administration; there are around four CID personnel guarding the colony and a police station is a stone’s throw away, then how did this incident happen?” Bin Nabi asked. “Is their job only to keep a watch on journalists and report it to their higher-ups?”
For Shams Irfan, a reputed storyteller and associate editor of weekly English magazine Kashmir Life, journalism in Kashmir “is always full of risks”.
“But what happened with Shujaat sahab is beyond anyone’s imagination; it is shocking for all of us. We all know that this profession carries a certain amount of risk but no one expected that a senior journalist would be brutally killed.”
Irfan said that the current situation in Kashmir is reminiscent of that of the 1990s. “I was few metres away when I heard the gun shots. I ran towards Press Enclave thinking that it was the safest place to be, but I didn’t know that it would turn into a bloodied place.”
Two of Bukhari’s security guards, officers of the J&K police, were also killed in the attack.
When Rabia Bashir, who works with Rising Kashmir, decided to choose journalism as her profession, her parents were quite reluctant. “They (my parents) don’t listen to me anymore and are continuously taunting me for choosing this profession,” she said, adding that it was her choice. “They are more worried about me after Shujaat sir’s murder. My mom is a patient of hypertension which has added to the worries of the family… if I get late going home, I get calls that she is not feeling well.”
“This incident has given my family a reason to stop me from coming to Press Enclave, as it is unsafe now. Pens in Kashmir are suffering due to guns,” she added.
Since 1990, 19 journalists have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir, including Bukhari. Mushtaq Ali, an Agence France-Presse and Asian News International photographer was killed by a parcel bomb in 1995. Press colony, where Bukhari was murdered, is named ‘Mushtaq Ali Enclave’.
The Rising Kashmir op-ed editor wants the government to come clean on its policies regarding the media in Kashmir. “Otherwise, it will always remain difficult to work in a situation like this,” he said.
Moazum Mohammad, president of the Kashmir Journalist Association (KJA), said that journalists in Kashmir are facing pressure from all sides. “But it hasn’t prevented us from speaking the truth,” he maintained.
“Journalism is challenging but it becomes frustrating when such attacks occur. In Kashmir, journalists are facing pressure from all sides including the state,” said Moazum, who is the bureau chief of the Kashmir Reader.
However, he has a piece of advice for his juniors. “The incident has left everyone worried. But it is a conflict zone. The best tribute would be to work with determination in a clearer and louder way.”
Journalist Yusuf Jameel of BBC fame is of the view that Bukhari’s killing highlights the underlying risk of their profession, but it shouldn’t dishearten a journalist. “I was attacked six times,” he said. “But that couldn’t force me to change professions. Of course there is concern from the family, but I would suggest to my young colleagues that they have to live with it and these are professional hazards.”