The Resignation of a Senior Journalist Raises Questions About the National Media’s Coverage of Kashmir

Since 8 July, nearly 70 people have been killed in Kashmir, and over 9,000 have been injured. But the coverage of the violence in national media has petered out. REUTERS/Danish Ismail
01 September, 2016

On 29 August 2016, Naseer Ahmed, a senior journalist based in Kashmir, resigned from his post at IBN7, a news channel under Network18, which is a media company owned by Reliance. Ahmed, who previously worked as the Srinagar bureau chief for Zee News for 16 years, had been reporting for IBN7 from the valley since November 2014. In his resignation, he noted that he had had a “nice experience” during the 23 months for which he had worked with the organisation. “But during last fifty-two days’ I observed Television journalism in India has taken U turn and it portrays unnecessary, biased and partial news reports,” he continued. He added, “Nationalism to some level is fine but when an assistant professor or an ATM guard is being murdered in cold blood by government forces and one can’t report then in my opinion its no more journalism, so I have decided to call it a day.”

“My channel’s head Prabal Pratap Singh forced me to resign as he is trying to change the face of the news,” Ahmed told me over the phone on 31 August 2016. Ahmed alleged that, in July, the channel wanted him to file a fabricated report on the slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s alleged relationship with his girlfriend. “I rejected to file it. The channel got the same story done from its Jammu reporter. I learnt the script of the story was dispatched from the Delhi office,” he told me. A few days ago, Ahmed said he filed a report on a lecturer who was beaten to death by the army in south Kashmir’s Pulwama distrct. “But my report was not aired,” he said. He told me that another story about an ATM guard, who was killed by the forces in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar area in the first week of August, met the same fate. “I was told to show how stone-throwers block school-goers in the valley. No such incident occurred yet the channel wanted me to file a false report,” he said.

“All news channel reporters send their reports to Delhi, but it gets edited according to their own guidelines,” Ahmed added. “Sometimes we are ashamed once we see our reports on the screen.”

Ahmed said that though he did not have any “hard feelings” towards the channel, he recalled the respect journalists held during the 1990s, when the armed militancy was at its peak in the region. “People used to respect, greet and hug journalists,” he said. “Now the situation is different. If you go to people they can beat you to death because Kashmir is being wrongly portrayed, especially by the news channels.” He recounted how, while he was doing a walk-through on 28 August, the fifty-first day of the ongoing uprising, at Lal Chowk, a local called him a “bastard, for showing normalcy.” Ahmed added: “It is not journalism, but jingoism.”

At 7.22 pm on 1 September 2016—the day on which The Caravan had published this story on its web-exclusives platform, Vantage—Network18 sent The Caravan a legal notice. Through this notice, it responded to and categorically denied Ahmed’s allegations. The notice stated that, in the past few months, Ahmed had “completely failed to perform his official duties and his journalistic performance was terribly wanting.” “He had been in repeated breach of the terms of his appointment,” it continued, “Amongst other employment norms, Mr. Ahmed failed to attend the daily editorial con-calls, submit weekly MIS, or even respond to emails from his superiors. In fact he even failed to cover several important events of national interest.” Ahmed’s lack of response, the notice stated, had led to the Srinagar bureau of the channel failing “to produce even an average performance over the last few months even as the Kashmir Valley occupied centre stage in National News.”

According to the notice, Ahmed “chose to completely ignore the said issues” when they were brought to his attention “by way of repeated emails, telephone calls, interactions and oral requests and reminders. Subsequently, the notice stated, the human resources department of the organisation called Ahmed and asked him to provide a verbal explanation for his actions, “failing which, he was told, disciplinary action would be initiated against him for breach of employment conditions.” Ahmed, the notice alleged, did not respond and sent the resignation letter instead. This letter, the notice stated, cited “two completely false and fabricated reasons, viz. that he was not permitted to pursue two stories of a Professor and an ATM guard being murdered in the valley.” “We categorically deny that Mr. Ahmed was ever stopped from pursuing any story relating to Srinagar Bureau,” the notice added, “or that our channel in any way demanded him to “fabricate” reports (which he did not allege in his resignation email).” Ahmed, the notice continued, was attempting to “divert the real issue which relates to his professional indiscipline and breach of employment conditions and, instead, sensitize the matter by linking it to reporting on the Kashmir Valley.” Ahmed told me that he stands by the account he had narrated to me and the allegations he had made in his resignation letter.

Over the past few weeks, a consistently fraught relationship appears to have developed between the national media’s coverage of Kashmir and the situation on the ground. Protests and killings have continued unabated in south Kashmir following the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s death on 8 July—at least 70 people have been killed and over 9,000 have been injured. But during this time, several incidents of violence at the hands of security forces have gone largely unreported in the national media. Though news stories on pellet injuries made headlines for a few days, they have also petered out.

Now, most reports on the state in mainstream newspapers and channel concentrate on political stances. Events such as the Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s two visits to the state, and the statements made by the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as well as the prime minister have been covered extensively. But in most mainstream national media, the space given to ground reports on the violence has decreased steadily over time. Most people in the valley believe that those stories that have appeared have often been inaccurate. While residents in Kashmir have come to harbour a deep mistrust of mainstream media, several journalists and media observers believe that the state government too, does not inspire confidence. According to their accounts, the state government has recently begun to make attempts to encourage journalists to tone down their coverage of the violence, and to toe the line followed by the national media.

On 11 August 2016, in a ward at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, I met an 18-year-old woman, who lay reclined on a bed, wearing black glasses. An ophthalmologist who had performed surgery on the 18-year-old woman, later told me that she suffered from “retinal detachment”—a severe injury to her right eye. Her injury was caused by firing from pellet guns. The chances of her regaining her eyesight in that eye were bleak, the doctor said.

The young woman recounted what had led to her injury. A day earlier, on 10 August, at about 3.30 pm, as she was washing dishes by the banks of a rill in Awoora village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, a contingent of security forces came by. On seeing the troops, the 18-year-old said, a few boys, who had been milling about on the banks, vanished into nearby houses. The troops asked her why the boys had fled, and she said she didn’t know. This seemed to anger one of the men, who she said belonged to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “He dropped his shield and hit me twice on the shoulder,” she said. “Then he opened his pants in front of me.”

The 18-year-old told me she ran to a house, which belonged to her cousin, in the nearby village. Her mother, who sat by her side at the hospital, chimed in. She told me that the security personnel “ran amok” in the village, and began breaking window panes and beating up bystanders. The 18-year-old’s cousin tried to stop them, her mother said, but he was beaten up as well. The young woman’s family—her mother, cousins and uncles and aunts—came out to protest. Then, the 18-year-old said, the security personnel “replied with a hail of teargas shelling and pellets.” “They injured eight of our family, including a one-year-old baby,” she told me. “I found blood oozing through my right eye and since then I cannot see through it.” Her face and neck were pockmarked with pellets.

The 18-year-old is not the only one to face harassment and then violence at the hands of the security forces. In mid-July, security personnel belonging to the CRPF allegedly stopped a woman who, along with her brother, was accompanying their mother to a hospital. Theyreportedly stripped and molested the woman. When police personnel attempted to rescue her, the CRPF officers allegedly threatened the policemen. “These men crossed all limits while dealing with the trio,” a police officer named Mohammad Ashraf Paul told CNS. “Our heads hung in shame.”

These are two of many incidents of violence and harassment in the valley that have found little or no space in the national media’s coverage of Kashmir. Of the stories that did appear, some have been alarmingly inaccurate. Take for instance, a Times of India story dated 7 August 2016 which stated that Muzaffar Wani, Burhan’s father, addressed a rally at Pampore in south Kashmir. The report claimed that Muzaffar “arrived in a Bolero” and was escorted by several armed militants, and that he told the protestors that after “sacrificing” two of his sons—Burhan and his brother,who was killed in 2015—he was still willing to sacrifice his daughter for the cause of azadi—freedom. The report named Muzaffar the “new face” of the stir in Kashmir, and pitted him against a resistance group led by separatist leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik. The newspaper Deccan Chronicle carried a similar report.

But, according to both a local news report and an interview he gave to the news website, Muzaffar did not lead the rally. “The reality is that since the martyrdom of my son, I have never moved out of my village,” he reportedly told the local daily Kashmir Reader. “I am a common man like any other Kashmiri. I just want these national channels and newspapers to stop cooking up stories and spreading lies for their interests.”

In another instance, on their 14 July telecast, the news channel India Today TV carriedan exclusive showing the video of a young man. In it, the young man says that he was paid by Geelani to throw stones at the security forces in Kashmir. The India Today news announcer added a “small caveat” to the telecast: she said that the channel had been unable to verify the video independently and that it had been released to them by their police sources. On 9 August, the news website Newslaundry reported that according to Bilal Ahmad Dar, the young man in the India Today video, the video was shot in 2008 and under duress. Dar said that during unrest in Kashmir in 2008, men belonging to the CRPF detained, tortured and forced him to record a statement.

“My arms and legs bled but a CRPF officer forced me to claim I was paid money by Geelani,” a rotund Bilal, who now stitches leather jackets for a living, told me when I met him on 28 July. He said that he was beaten up in the Chattabal area of Srinagar, about five kilometers from Lal Chowk, the centre of the city. “I have never met Geelani. I visited India Today TV’s local bureau in Srinagar and asked them about my fake video but they have neither removed the video nor apologised.” Neither Times of India, nor Deccan Chronicle, nor India Today TV has responded to queries regarding the allegations against the veracity of these stories.

Many in Kashmir believe that the coverage took a turn for the worse after Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s first visit to the region since the uprising began. Singh visited Kashmir for two days beginning in 23 July, to hold talks with stakeholders such as trade and business bodies—but they refused to meet him. At the time the death toll stood at 46. A Kashmir-based journalist working with a leading news channel told me that, after the visit, his head office in Delhi asked him to “go slow” “Even if I file the situation, they don’t broadcast it,” he said.

Danish Nabi, a PhD scholar at Kashmir University who studies the media and has conducted a comparative analysis of the national and local media coverage of Kashmir from 1990 to 2010, said that, though Indian media initially covered the protests in Kashmir, after Singh’s visit, it lessened significantly. This “cannot be a coincidence,” he said. The patterns of coverage he looked at, Nabi said, suggested that the national media “are being dictated.” “It is not how much they cover but how they cover it. They follow the official line that Pakistan is sponsoring ongoing protests, while the death of Burhan, who was called as a terrorist, triggered it,” he added. “Even with so many pellet injuries and incidents of brutal state repression, this pattern has not changed. Indian media continues to be jingoistic and narrowly nationalist in its depiction of Kashmir,” Gaurav Dikshit, the assistant editor for the Kashmir Reader said.

In early August, I reported for the Kashmir Reader on how the state government appeared to be putting pressure on the media houses on which it holds some influence, urging them to report stories that show the government in a favourable light. In the report, I noted that in the first week of August, the Chief Minister’s Office summoned two regional news unit heads of the state-owned Doordashan broadcasting network and the government-controlled station Radio Kashmir. The duo was reportedly told to not carry reports on the ground situation, and instead “help” the government steer out of the crisis.

I reported in my story that Mushtaq Tantry, Radio Kashmir’s regional news unit head, alleged that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s principal secretary, Naveen Chaudhary, had asked him to “help” the government. According to Tantry, Chaudhary said that Radio Kashmir’s coverage “should be different from private media.” This directive, I noted in my report, was followed by a change in command: RN Mishra, the additional director general of the news service division of All India Radio, was dispatched to Srinagar to oversee Doordarshan’s news bulletins.

A Srinagar-based journalist told me that towards the end of August, the state’s information and public relations department issued a verbal diktat to local newspapers to not carry a protest programme issued by the resistance leadership on their front pages. The newspapers conformed to the directive by carrying the protest programme on the inner pages.

On 25 August, during Singh’s second visit to the state since the unrest began, Mufti wound up a press conference abruptly after local journalists asked her questions that appeared to displease her. A journalist asked her about the 2010 uprisings, when, as a leader of the opposition, she had criticised the then chief minister Omar Abdullah’s government for the rising civilian death tolls. “Don’t compare the two situations,” Mufti told the journalist. Soon after, she got up to leave, bringing the discussion to an end.

Her seemingly hostile attitude has not escaped the notice of her supporters. “We voted for Mehbooba-ji’s party but now I realise casting vote does not help,” the 18-year-old’s mother told me when I spoke to her at the SMHS hospital on 11 August. Her usage of the term “ji” to refer to the chief minister drew jibes from the surrounding patients and visitors, many of whom were pellet victims themselves. “If Mehbooba can lay her blood with tar on our roads, still we won’t forget her crimes. She is unacceptable to us,” one said. Many implored her to not address Mufti with respect. “I will accept Mehbooba if she can sacrifice her right eye for my daughter,” the 18-year-old’s mother declared.

A short while later, I left the hospital. On my way out, in the corridor leading away from the ward, I walked past a handwritten sign that read: “Indian dogs and Indian media not allowed.”

Corrections: 1) An earlier version of this article implied that Naseer Ahmed had resigned on 30 August 2016 and not 29 August. 2) It quoted from a story that was published by the news agency CNS and reported that Ahmed had resigned from his position at IBN7 because of the channel’s demand for “fabricated” stories. Ahmed has not made this claim in his resignation letter. Excerpts from this letter have been included in an updated version of the story. 3) Network18’s response, as stated in its legal notice to The Caravan, has been included in the updated version of the story. The Caravan regrets not getting in touch with Network 18 for a response before publishing the first edition of the story.4) The sentence, “Ahmed’s account points to a consistently fraught relationship between the national media’s coverage of Kashmir and the situation on the ground” has been changed to, “Over the past few weeks, a consistently fraught relationship appears to have developed between the national media’s coverage of Kashmir and the situation on the ground.” The Caravanregrets the errors.