Despite India’s press freedom being under threat, Kashmiri journalists win Pulitzer

AP Photo | Dar Yasin

Three journalists from Kashmir — Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan, Dar Yasin — were declared winners of Pulitzer prize for feature photography earlier this month. Some of the award winning pictures were taken after 5th August 2019, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of the autonomous status guaranteed under the Indian constitution. The official website of the Pulitzer prize board states that the award has been presented “for striking images captured during a communications blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory as India stripped it of its semi-autonomy.”

 

AP Photo | Mukhtar Khan

 

The abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution of India was executed with help of a curfew, snapping of phone and internet in the region. The movement within and from outside the state was highly restricted. Hundreds of people including politicians, journalists, lawyers were arrested without providing any reasons. One can only imagine the challenges that the Kashmiri journalists reporting at the time must have faced. Khan, Yasin and Anand have recounted the struggles that they faced in documenting the realities in Kashmir post August 2019 in a report with the Associated Press. As the internet and phone connections were snapped, they had to send pictures in memory cards and pen drives to the New Delhi office of AP with the help of travellers. 

Sanjay Kak, a flim-maker and writer, told the Indian Cultural Forum that “For news photographers the Pulitzer is an acknowledgement of their ability to create great images amidst the chaos and deadlines of the daily news cycle. In this particular case, the Pulitzer board also takes note of the difficult circumstances in which the team from AP has carried the story out from Kashmir, as the Indian Government had tried to impose a complete communications siege on the place – no phones, no internet, nothing for several months.” He adds that in Kashmir this award was seen as “validation of the stories that had made it out of Kashmir to the world, and as a salute to all those who report the stories that the state does not want carried outside.”

 

AP Photo | Channi Anand

 

Press Freedom In India

The fact that reporting from the heavily militarised state of Jammu and Kashmir is challenging should not come as a surprise for many reasons. The mere presence of thousands of armed forces personnel everywhere can be enough to intimidate any person. Earlier this month, just before the Pulitzer awardees were announced, India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index dropped from 140 in 2019 to 142 in 2020. 

Reporters without Borders (RSF), an international NGO based in Paris, that prepared the global press freedom index, stated that “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased.” According to RSF, there have been constant press freedom violations in India including police violence against journalists. India’s rank in global press freedom index has been steadily declining since 2016.

 

AP Photo | Dar Yasin

 

Crackdown on Journalists in Kashmir

While the press freedom all over India is under threat, journalists in Kashmir face peculiar challenges as they traverse militarised spaces and communications blackout to report stories of people living with conflict. The RSF attributes the drop in India’s rank to the situation in Kashmir since August 2019. It states that the communications blackout imposed for months made it “virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison.”

In a report released in March, RSF documented cases of intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of phones, cameras and other equipment that more than 14 journalists from Kashmir have faced since August 2019. Last month two journalists, Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were slapped with cases under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for their facebook posts. Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with The Hindu, was questioned by the police for a news report published in The Hindu. Even today, when the entire world is grappling with a pandemic and the circulation of information becomes vital to avoid the risk of contracting the virus, Kashmiris only have access to 2g speed internet. 

Speaking about the meaning of a Pulitzer for journalists from Kashmir and its effect on global perception of the Kashmir conflict, film-maker Sanjay Kak said that the global perception of the situation in Kashmir has seen a massive shift, and more so after the abrogation of its limited autonomy. He said that “Kashmir is not a secret any more, if it ever was. The fact is that even the Pulitzer citation acknowledges the conditions, and that is only one of the many ways in which the world is signalling that it is watching what happens in Kashmir.” 

In the midst of this crackdown and massive control of the Indian government over information that pours out of Kashmir, the Pulitzer gives recognition to stories that Kashmiris wish to tell the world.