Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir police’s decision to pursue legal action against scribes and photographers who come close to gunbattle sites or near scenes of clashes between forces and protesters has created a flutter in the press fraternity in Kashmir, with media bodies terming the latest decree as a “tactic to coerce journalists into not reporting facts on the ground”.
Media freedom has been frequently subject to restrictions in Kashmir and journalists often find themselves summoned to police stations, booked under FIRs and manhandled by the forces.
On Tuesday, Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s inspector general of police, warned journalists against covering operations at gun-fire sites in the real-time and printing content that “promotes anti-national sentiment”.
“The media persons should do not carry any live coverage of any encounter or law and order situation,” a local wire service quoted him saying. “The freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions that should not violate other person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21 or putting the national security in jeopardy.”
On Wednesday evening, Kumar said he has issued written directions to all district Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs) to take legal action “based on facts” against media professionals who come close to gunbattle sites or near scenes of “law and order” situations.
“I have already issued written directions to all districts SSPs yesterday. District SSPs will take legal action on facts,” Kumar told a wire agency on Wednesday, adding that directions applied to both national as well as for local media outlets.
Kumar did not entertain calls from The Wire to confirm the reports. However, another SSP-level officer said that there was no order on this front and IG police “has just quoted Hon’ble Supreme court order and Cable TV Act”. He did not specify which apex court order was cited.
The latest announcements have triggered a wave of apprehensions among Kashmiri photojournalists, who said they were unsure how security forces are going to react the next time they approach an encounter site.
“Already, police stops us at the peripheral cordon when the encounter is going on,” said Waseem Nabi, a Kashmiri photojournalist. “Only after the gunbattles end do we swarm to the site of operation. In this light, it is really confusing what the directions want to convey.”
The announcements also follow a cordon and search operation at Gulab Bagh area at the outskirts of Srinagar city on Wednesday. The 17-hour-long search operation during which forces claimed they fired warning shots to elicit a retaliatory fire from militants, ended without any exchange with reports claiming that militants may have escaped.
When journalists reached the site the next day, they discovered a white-coloured building riddled with what appeared to be marks from heavy ammunition rounds. The interior of the building was also damaged significantly.
Journalists in Kashmir have often found themselves at the receiving end of police action when anti-militant operations are underway. There are instances of journalists suffering violence at the hands of security forces during stone-pelting clashes and protests.
Last week, a police constable was filmed kicking Qisar Mir, a Kashmiri photojournalist, near a gunfight site in Pulwama in South Kashmir.
Similarly, Saqib Majeed and Shafat Farooq, two photojournalists covering clashes outside Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, claimed they were manhandled by policemen last month. Farooq, who said cops hit him with the rear end of a rifle, was later hospitalised.
Kashmiri journalists are befuddled by the choice of words used by the police. “They say we are covering live encounters when actually we have never done that,” said Syed Shahriyar, a multimedia journalist who has been published by VICE news, BBC, Independent and Al Jazeera. “We only rush to gunfight site when forces withdraw. By placing restrictions on that, maybe the police is trying to convey that we mustn’t cover these events at all.”
Coverage of gunfight sites has been an emotive issue for security agencies in Kashmir. The reports of destruction of residential or commercial structures where militants take shelter have become a source of simmering anger among the civilian population. During the last week’s encounter at Kakapora in Pulwama, video clips showing forces blowing up a house using improvised explosive devices went viral on the internet and elicited a resentful response from Kashmiri social media users.
Last month too, six houses were razed to rubble during a gunfight at Rawalpora village in Shopian. Through media interviews with the locals, it came to light that villagers were allegedly told by the army to spray their houses with combustible liquid and set fire to them. The army later issued a statement refuting such charges.
Last year, during a similar fire-exchange in Nawa Kadal area of Srinagar city, dozens of houses were destroyed. The editor of the news website that reported the extent of the destruction was later summoned by the police over his publication’s coverage.
In Kashmir, media bodies have said they feel anguished at the police’s decision to place further restrictions on covering gunfight scenes.
“If this is a part of the official policy of police then it appears to be a tactic to coerce journalists into not reporting facts on the ground,” a statement from 11 Kashmir-based media conglomerations said. “It also seems to be a part of the string of measures taken by the authorities to suppress freedom of press in the region.”
The statement said that the media in Kashmir are aware of the journalistic guidelines and ethics they must demonstrate during gunfights and law and order situations, and that they have always upheld these principles.
“Covering and reporting law and order situations in the region is one of the basic requirements for most news organisations and hence an essential part of the professional role of media professionals. Barring them from covering such events would mean stopping them from delivering their professional duties,” it said.
“Press freedom is the cornerstone of a democracy and any attack on it undermines the democratic setup of which media is the fourth pillar. Any such attack on press freedom and journalism is highly distressful.”