Pragya Tiwari in Srinagar

From Tehelka: “Kashmir Media is being Throttled”

It was the first day of October 2010. The autumnal air was beginning to get nippy. Summer was officially over in Kashmir but its horrors were still trailing. At the crack of dawn copies of leading newspapers in Srinagar were seized before they could be distributed. The new Assembly session was about to start and several journalists were on their way to cover it. Among them were a father and son team from the Associated Press — Merajuddin and Umar Meraj. Meraj is one of Kashmir’s best-known photojournalists. This highly respected veteran has covered the ground for over 20 years but he was not prepared for what was to unfold that morning.

His car was allowed through the first checkpost, but stopped at the second. He showed the police his Assembly Pass, Press Card and Curfew Pass, but was asked to turn back and go home without any reason being provided. When he got off to talk to the sub-inspector on duty, a couple of policemen walked up to his car and slapped his son. Before he could react, the sub-inspector ordered that he be ‘removed’. He was beaten severely and a blow on his neck left him unconscious. All this while his son continued to wail and plead with the police. CNN IBN bureau chief Mufti Islah, who was passing by, tried to reason with the policemen. When his colleague took out his camera to shoot the incident, both of them were also beaten.

Ironically, while the journalists were being thrashed, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was apologising for the seizure of newspapers earlier in the day saying, “I seek an apology from the mediapersons if the action has led to any inconvenience to them.” However, what was more alarming was his statement that the government had not ordered this seizure. “I personally felt that such an action was not needed,” he said. “But I will get it ascertained why the copies were seized. I have asked Director General of Police to report to my office on the issue in next 24 hours.” This statement is hardly alarming to a Kashmiri journalist, but to the outsider it is at the heart of a perturbing question: Who is in charge in Kashmir?

Once Meraj was back home from the hospital, the CM’s aides came calling. Later, the CM himself called to apologise. All of them assured Meraj that action would be taken against the errant cops. “You will not be able to do a thing,” retorted Meraj. Seventeen days later when he was allowed to leave his house, he had to cross the same checkpoint. None of the officers connected with his case had been removed — not even the sub-inspector who had watched over the heinous act. “I fear going past that point now. They could hit out at me again for talking about it,” says Meraj. He does not see any point in filing a case against them. However, he was not always this cynical. In 2000, when he had gone to cover a mine blast near Tanmarg, he was beaten along with over 15 other journalists by a renegade leader. He registered a case against the leader. No action was taken against him. In 2006, the leader’s son came to his house to threaten him to withdraw the case. The leader goes by the name of Muma Kana. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Padma Shri despite a number of criminal cases pending against him.

Meraj has been beaten several times while reporting. He says he remembers 11 incidents vividly but has stopped counting since. Yet he insists that things were not so bad before 2008. If you were beaten there was hope that the forces in charge would face action. Threats were issued indirectly not on the ground by the personnel themselves. This time around journalists were made to feel the wrath of the forces. They would often hear things like “It is because of your reportage that the situation flares up” or “Your curfew passes won’t work with us, we follow our own orders.”

Naseem, a 24-year-old journalist with Rising Kashmir, a prominent English daily, was apprehended outside his house on his way to the office and asked to produce the day’s copy of the paper. The lead picture was of a stone-pelter’s back. The cop started yelling at him saying that they did not get his face on purpose and if they had the cops could have caught the offender. He was let of with the threat of a thrashing.”



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