The names of several Kashmiri journalists crossed my thoughts before beginning this feature and after waiting for 2-3 months trying to get their responses. Kashmiri journalists who are intimidated and kept under fear, do not back out from reporting the truths overground and in exposing the abuses of the forces. Rather knowingly most of them give way for mental stress, constant threats and false charges risking their own lives on covering encounters and conflicts.
‘‘It is a struggle for me to attend funerals each day. It takes a toll on one’s mental health. It became worse when one of my close friends, whom I grew up with was also killed. And I had to report it, but I could not write a story on his case. It was devastating for my mental health.” shared one of the forefront journalists who writes for The Guardian. He also said that all the journalists in Kashmir, self-censor themselves to great extent. “We are a part of this society and our families are here. Personally, I try to assess the situation, if it lands me in trouble, should I put myself at risk, put out a tweet or should I do a proper investigation for a bigger story?”
Journalists in Kashmir are constantly under pressure and threatened by the Government forces regarding the stories they cover, the photos they take, or the views in adherence to their resistance against the revocation. Nevertheless, the path of Journalism and the hardships to be confronted the moment you step into the streets are not a new thing. But recently, the scrapping down of Article 370 and the army summoning journalists frequently have made this worse than ever.
Out of a study conducted among Kashmiri journalists, 62% of them suffer from depression and anxiety, 9% from post-traumatic disorder, and others from hypersomnia and bipolar disorders and 19% with no observable mental health issues. In this, half of them have 1-5 years of experience and only 19% were found to have more than 10 years of experience on field. While 38% want to seek medication help, only 9.5% undertake it.
Sheikh Shoib, a psychiatrist in Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital, Rainawari in Srinagar, who receives many journalists approaching him for treatment, said that most of his journo patients were suffering from anxiety disorders and face excess fear and stress due to a difficult job profile. “Few suffer from sleep-related and depressive disorders. I recently came across a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had witnessed an encounter, where he was reporting”. Said Shoib. Though Sheikh Shoib did not share the actual number, he said that photojournalists and those who work more with conflict come more often for treatment than other media journalists and also more women seek treatment than males.
In June 2018, when a civilian who is also an orphan was killed in Srinagar and his sisters weeping near the corpse, a reporter says that it triggered his anxiety. Other statements said how one will gradually internalize the traumatic narratives they encounter and how it will persist in their lives ever after. “While I can’t boil down to a specific experience, but it often happens that one carries the painful stories of victims of conflict in their memory for a long, long time.” says another one.
“I have faced many issues while covering a story. I reported a story of ABC* wining DDC Candidate from Bandipora. He was addressing a public gathering during which he said that ABC would bring back article 370 if people vote for them. Following this, I filled a story with the same words. Exactly a day later, he was summoned up by the police and questioned about mentioning Article 370. He later denied it, saying he never told that and started speaking against me that I have miss quoted him”. Narrates one of them.
One of the forefront photojournalists in Kashmir refused to give an interview as he got arrested once, claiming his involvement in a stone-pelting incident. But he was soon released under bail after the court could not state any valid evidence for his involvement other than being a journalist shooting the conflict. “My lawyer and friends have advised me not to give any interviews now and you know why”. He said. Despite the threats, he has been on the field doing a remarkable job even after he was severely beaten up by the forces a few months back during a ground reporting.
Some other journalists also mentioned how they were wrongly pictured as terrorists and cheaters when they try to photograph the encounters and exposing themselves to be imposed as stringers working for the forces or as terrorists having the pictures and videos right in their hands.
Getting beaten up by the police and armed forces, being thrashed up in custody and frequent interrogations were the most shared traumatic experiences. One of the journalists overwhelmingly said, “I was thrashed too badly three days after the abrogation of Article 370 at Chanapora. But due to the communication blockade, I couldn’t raise a voice. Similarly, I was beaten up three more times for doing my job.”
While speaking with political analyst and spokesperson Peerviqarul Islam, he shared the concern that after the abrogation of Article 370, journalists are threatened and harassed frequently and this had tremendously affected their mental health and career. They are afraid to pen down the truths directly for which they will be detained and abused.
On asking about the different narratives of many issues in Kashmir, often fabricated ones and how is it difficult for a Kashmiri journalist to find the truth behind it, he said “the Government do not propagate any misinformation or fake narrations, but they conceal the reality and the truths” and that journalists are beaten up if they try to find the truths. “One of my photojournalist friends recently got thrashed up, and his camera was broken. They are kept away from the actual spot of an incident if it doesn’t favour the government. But those who do stories on the developments of the government are given full support and accessibility.”
It is inevitable to quote Asif Sulthan, winner of the National Press Freedom Award of USA. He was arrested in August 2018 for his feature on the death of Burhan Wani, a militant who was killed in an encounter with the forces. Asif had to leave his 3-month-year-old girl when he was allegedly charged for providing support to the militants. Despite a call from International media communities, he had been jailed since then, while the police could not give a shred of strong evidence against the allegation even after 2 and half years. His case has been delayed with multiple shutdowns in the valley thereafter and following the reading down of Article 370 in August 2020.
The enforced incarceration of Asif Sulthan led me to a report of Human Rights Watch, which mentions the attack on a veteran journalist Zafar Mehraj who was kidnapped on December 8, 1995. He was shot thrice on his way back after an interview with a militant leader and the kidnappers revealed themselves as members of a militant group. His colleagues who were with Zafar later identified the kidnappers as renegades of the forces, when the army trucks filled with soldiers unperturbedly passed by, while the trio who were visible with AK-47 in their hands stood at the middle of the road freely. This incident subtly shows that both Asif and Zafar Mehraj had to pay their lives for just doing their jobs.
For Kashmiri journalists, carrying out or abstaining from their jobs will not save them from the daily struggles of their homeland. One has to overcome the deadly impediments to live in peace without the fear of losing their dear ones. But being the only medium to let Kashmir connect with the world, unbiased true journalism in the valley is inevitable at any cost to break the stagnating stalemate of the valley. When I asked one prominent Kashmiri journalist whether the circumstances pull back them from reporting, he shared Ghalib’s shayari, “dard kahanse guzr jane hai dawa hona’(When (oppression) use all the tactics of pain, it makes us more brave.”
*Names of the journalists who provided their experiences and mental health records are not mentioned in order to protect their identity.
Hana Vahab is an independent journalist.