“Journalists coming on media tour no different than tourists,” Kashmir media reacts to govt’s ‘guided media tour’ to national media

People of Kashmir in US, protest in Washington (image course: firstpost)

By Asma Hafiz, TwoCircles.net 

Srinagar: On the first anniversary of abrogation of Article 370, two images stood out in Kashmir. One was of an Indian journalist enjoying an ice cream on the banks of Dal lake and the other was the image of the detention of a Kashmiri journalist Qazi Shibli.

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While August 5 was marked by curfew and restrictions in Kashmir with little movement of people and transport, the ‘guided media tour’ offered by Jammu and Kashmir administration for the Indian media to showcase its one year of achievements since Article 370 was scrapped has been criticized by local people and the press.

Journalists from the region said that it’s ironic that the government is giving ‘guided media tours’ to Indian media, while at the same time muzzling the voices of Kashmir media.

Senior journalist Hilal Mir has been consistently highlighting the problems faced by the local press in Kashmir.

Talking to TwoCircles.net, Hilal said that “the guided tours given to national journalists is an attempt to prevent the world from knowing the ground reality of Kashmir.”

“Booking Kashmiri journalists under anti-terror laws and airdropping cheerleaders masquerading as journalists in Kashmir has a message: Kashmiri voices don’t matter. While the local press suffers, national media enjoys special perks,” Hilal said.

The ‘guided media tour’ for Indian media by the JK administration comes at a time when Kashmir’s beleaguered media has been facing unprecedented curbs.

Since the Indian government revoked Article 370 and stripped Kashmir of its limited autonomy, journalists in Kashmir have accused state authorities, especially police of harassing and intimidating them.In April, Peerzada Ashiq, a correspondent with The Hindu, was booked for his follow up report on an encounter on Sophian. Whereas Masrat Zahra and Gowher Geelani were booked for their social media posts which were deemed ” anti-national”.

Kashmiri journalist Anees Zargar told TwoCircles.net that doing journalism has never been easy in Kashmir. “There have always been attempts to obfuscate facts. Sometimes it is done through the media itself. The state of local media in Kashmir tells us how it has been silenced,” Anees said.

In December last year, Anees was beaten up by policemen while covering a student protest at Islamia College of Science and Commerce in Srinagar. A time-bound internal enquiry was ordered but it yielded zero results.

Independent journalist Safwat Zargar, who was the first to break the news of civilian killing in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, told TwoCircles.net the Indian journalists who have come to Kashmir on the media tour organized by the government are ‘no different than tourists.’

“National media comes on a tour to Kashmir and outrightly refuses to believe that the situation is not normal. On the other hand, local media is suppressed for speaking up. It is incredible to see how even after all these repressive measures, Kashmiri journalists remain undeterred,” Safwat said.

Safwat said that during the security and communication lockdown in Kashmir after the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, movement of journalists was extremely difficult. However, many national journalists faced no issues during their travels for some of them were in support of the government’s decision. For this, they were rewarded with guided tours through the union territory to showcase normalcy.

“You hardly see a national journalist interviewing the families of those who have been detained under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA). Their nationalistic view of the situation in Kashmir never changes. Rather than talking to people who are suffering, they are busy parroting the official word about it. That is national media for you. If they see a tourist walking by the banks of Dal lake during curfew, the situation in Kashmir is completely fine for them. But what about the 1.25 crores Kashmiri people locked inside their homes?,” Safwat said.

Quratul-Ain Rehbar is a female freelance journalist based in Srinagar. After a massive security lockdown was imposed in Kashmir on August 5 last year, she could not travel back to her hometown Pulwama for a long time. Qurat decided to stay put and report on ground realities of Kashmir from Srinagar, even if that meant walking on foot for several kilometres.

“Reporting was so difficult at that time. We had no way of knowing what was happening in other parts of Kashmir. I remember we once went to South Kashmir to ascertain the situation. If we would spot someone on the street, we would ask him if there was any arrest or case of torture in his/her locality. Other than that, there was no way of getting information,” she said.

“The local press is viewed as an enemy here. For our unbiased reporting, we are slapped with charges. Ironically, national media are given special guided tours. For Kashmiri journalists, speaking the truth comes with an unbearable cost,” she said.

Qurat says the situation of local journalists in Kashmir is grim. Repeated attempts by the administration to throttle the voices of local media is hampering the smooth flow of information, she said.

Independent multimedia journalist from Kashmir Bhat Burhan told TwoCircles.net that the local media in Kashmir was suppressed even before the Article 370 revocation, adding that, “things aggravated after the government of India stripped Kashmir of its autonomy, or whatever was left of it.”

“We used to go to the Press Club in Lal Chowk with the hope to stumble upon a colleague. There we used to exchange information and with time, this became a trend. Problems would arise when we had to go to South or North Kashmir for reporting. With no phones, there was no way of informing your family that you have reached. For days together, we would have no contact with them,” he says.

Bhat Burhan recalls the day when he was beaten ruthlessly by the men in uniform. Burhan was beaten outside his office in 2018. He said that even after showing his press card, he was hurled with abuses and detained. He was released after several hours only after his editor intervened.

“Local journalists are treated like criminals while national media receives special treatment in Kashmir. If you speak for the government, you will be treated with respect. Unfortunately, this is what it has come to,” Burhan said.