“If we don’t click pictures, what will we earn?” Kashmir’s photojournalists rue new police diktat banning media coverage of gun battles

Security Forces during an encounter in Kashmir | Photo Courtesy: India Today

After Kashmir Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar issued directions to media on April 7 to “not come close to encounter sites and cases where there is a law and order situation,” Kashmir’s photojournalists see the new diktat as not only curbing press freedom but one that will impact their livelihood.

Auqib Javeed, TwoCircles.net

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Srinagar: On April 10, a photojournalist Muneeb-ul-Islam based in Anantnag district of Kashmir came to know that an encounter between armed forces and militants is going on in Semthan, Bijbehara area of the district – some 11 kilometres away from his home. As usual, he packed his cameras and rushed to the spot along with other colleagues. 

Muneeb-ul-Islam has worked as a photo-journalist with several national and local news outlets. Since 2010, when the long-drawn militancy in the region had shifted its operations from North to South Kashmir, Islam would cover almost all the encounters with telling images.

However, on April 10, as soon as Islam and his other colleagues reached the spot of the encounter, they were stopped by a top police official of the district. “Ya tou tumhara camera todu ga ya tangay, niklo yaha se (I will either break your cameras or legs. Disperse from here!)”, Islam quoted the police officer saying to scribes. 

Fearing beatings, the journalists, including Islam, decided to return home without taking any photographs from the encounter site. 

“Usually, we would stay far away from the encounter site and don’t cover the live encounter as such. But we are asked to leave the place, and we had no option but to leave,” Islam told TwoCircles.net. 

The diktat from the cops came days after April 7, when the Kashmir Police Chief Vijay Kumar advised media persons operating in the region, not to carry any live coverage of encounters and “Law and order situation”, asking them not to interfere in the professional and bonafide duty of police and security forces. 

“The freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions. They should not violate other people’s right to guarantee life or putting national security in jeopardy,” IGP told a local news agency.

He said no operational context should be carried which is likely to incite violence or promotes anti-national sentiments.

The advisory came days after a video of a cop assaulting a photojournalist in South Kashmir’s Pulwama went viral on social media. 

The advisory has drawn ire from the journalist fraternity of Kashmir who expressed resentment over the “media advisory” baring them to cover any encounter between militants and government forces.

Irfan Amin Malik, who covers security and defence beat for a local newspaper sees this as “another assault” on freedom of the press in the region. 

He says a policeman can’t decide what a journalist should report and what they should skip.

“Because of this advisory, journalists in Kashmir may not be able to show the ground situation,” he said adding that the photojournalist relies on the security scenario of the region and it will also hit their livelihood. 

The journalism of the region has been on the receiving end particularly after August 5, 2019, when the Government of Indian led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) revoked the special status of the state. 

Journalists have been booked under different FIR’s while others have been summoned to police stations further squeezing the space of media in Kashmir.

At least seven media associations from print and broadcast led by Kashmir Press Club (KPC) criticized the authorities for “stopping them from delivering their professional duties”.

“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 KPC reads adding that, “Covering and reporting law and order situations in the region is one of the basic requirements for most news organizations and hence an essential part of the professional role of media professionals.”

Islam says the new diktat by police “will surely impact his livelihood if not addressed forthwith.”

“I used to send the encounter aftermath pictures to many national and international news outlets but when I returned empty hands what will I send and what will I earn,” Islam says.

Islam maintains that photo-journalists operating from the region never covered the ‘live encounter’, which is “an impossible thing to do”. 

“We have always cooperated with the security forces,” he says. 

“Now a cop tells us that that IG sahib has issued the media advisory so you can’t even take pictures of the outer cordon,” he added.

It may be noted the government forces make several lawyers of security during the encounters to ensure the trapped militants don’t escape. The last lawyer of the cordon laid by the security forces is known as the outer lawyer.

On April 7, the IGP 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 district SSPs yesterday. District SSPs will take legal action on facts,” Kumar said, adding that directions applied to both national as well as for local media outlets.

Mehraj ud Din, president of Video Journalist Association of Kashmir has been a video journalist with the Associated Press Television Network (APTN) for the last three decades and sees the latest advisory as “not good” for journalists. “Ye chine jaan kenh. Camera che hamesh pazzar wannan (This is not good. The camera always tells the truth,” he told TwoCircles.net. 

Din however says the IG informed them in the press conference that they can cover any situation that arises. “There is a Supreme Court ruling regarding the live encounter coverage. However, the concerned SSP of the areas will brief the media about any situation that arises during the encounters.” 

The senior cameraperson said they were also barred by the police a few days ago in South Kashmir for covering the encounter. “We were stopped by the security forces and were told until the operation is cleared and over, they can’t allow the media to move on,” he said, adding that “all the orders are verbal, not written.” 

On August 29, 2012, slamming TV channels for live coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, the Supreme Court said that it was “totally wrong and unacceptable” as it made security forces’ fight with terrorists “exceedingly difficult.” 

The Bench said, “Freedom of expression, like all other freedoms under Article 19, is subject to reasonable restrictions. An action tending to violate another person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21 or putting the national security in jeopardy can never be justified by taking the plea of freedom of speech and expression,” The Hindu reported. 

Syed Shahriyar, a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in national and international media outlets including Independent, VICE News, BBC, and Al Jazeera etc is confused with the advisory saying that a journalist never telecasts the live encounter and are already restricted by the cops at a certain point.

“….but when you are told suddenly the action will be taken against you, I have to think ten times before going to cover the encounter and be very careful,” Shahriyar told TwoCircles.net.

Shahriyar says they (photojournalists) only report the “situation fairly and honestly.” 

“This diktat is going to stop journalists from reporting the situation and is very unfortunate,” he added.