‘Rising Kashmir’ faces a leadership void

BY MOAZUM MOHAMMAD| IN Media Freedom | 21/06/2018
…Even as journalists in Srinagar face fear and uncertainty, and no credible clues emerge to Shujaat Bukhari’s assassination.
MOAZUM MOHAMMAD reports

 

Srinagar

A week after the editor of  Rising Kashmir  Shujaat Bukhari was assassinated, fear is palpable in Srinagar’s busy Press Enclave where the senior journalist along with two bodyguards was attacked. Gatherings of journalists gossiping over tea in shady corners have vanished. Everyone tries to avoid staying for long, and they rush to their assignments despite police intensifying vigil in this colony which houses Kashmir’s major publications. As one journalist puts it it is a “dreaded colony” after the attack.

In the Rising Kashmir office, the silence is deafening, with gloom overwhelming office as well as team. The newsroom chatter has fallen quiet so has noisy television. The first floor chamber where Shujaat would sit and where he had emerged from before being shot dead, is closed. The staff avoids going to that place. Everyone believes the slain editor, a frequent traveller has gone out of India and would return shortly. “None among us went to that floor. We still feel he is among us,” said Danish Bin Nabi, the paper’s online editor. 

Shujaat launched Rising Kashmir in 2008 as a daily newspaper from Srinagar and subsequently also language papers such as Buland Kashmir, the weekly Kashmir Parcham and Sangarmal. Among them, Rising Kashmir was the most promiment and was considered as a competitor to Kashmir’s leading daily Greater Kashmir as Shujaat’s three decades long experience in reporting Kashmir gave the paper an edge over others. 

He was a recipient of the World Press Institute (WPI) USA fellowship and Asian Centre for Journalism Singapore fellowship.  The slain 50-year-old journalist’s  career  took off with Kashmir Times in the 1990s and he reported on Kashmir for The Hindu from 1998 till 2012. Then he quit to focus his time and energy on the paper of which he was the ‘soul’.

As has become normal for the Kashmir media, the paper was facing pressure  from all sides. On the one hand, it was accused of “receiving funding from Indian agencies” and on the other, the government of India blacklisted it for advertisements. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) led by Mohammad Yasin Malik proscribed the paper from carrying its press statements. “In 2016, we inadvertently skipped a JKLF press release and next day the JKLF banned us from publishing their statements,” says Rising Kashmir political editor, Faisul Yaseen.  The paper couldn’t have afforded to skip news of the separatist organization, they got nod from a JKLF activist to carry their releases but the next day Malik sent his man to the office asking RK to refrain from using them, he said. 

"As has become normal for the Kashmir media, the paper was facing pressure from all sides. "

 

After former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death delayed formation of the government, the paper carried a story in 2016 on the Bharatiya Janata Party courting support from four top PDP leaders to checkmate Mehbooba Mufti. It triggered a buzz in political circles and when one of the named legislators was dropped from Mehbooba’s maiden cabinet, PDP MLA Haseeb Drabu picked a fight with Faisul. “I did the story on my own but Haseeb blamed Shujaat sahab for doing story against Altaf Bukhari to favour his own brother (Basharat Bukhari, a former minister in the PDP-BJP government)."

These challenges in a conflict zone makes journalists often suspect in the eyes of people as well as invisible hands on both sides. But come what may, commitment to truth is what the paper wants to stick to. to carry forward the baton of Shujaat.

The morning after Shujaat was killed, Rising Kashmir boldly announced over the black and white portrait of the slain editor over a black front page, “….We won’t be cowed down by the cowards who snatched you from us. We will uphold your principle of telling the truth howsoever unpleasant it may be...RIP”. A former editor who came rushing across to the office hearing about his ex-boss’s attack made that front page. “The rest of the content for that day’s edition had already decided by editor-in-chief Shujaat Bukhari and all we had to do was to change lead copy,” said RK sub-editor Ishfaq Shah who received the  last email from his former editor at 6:45pm.

The paper is staring at void that nobody believes can be filled, as the reporters say 30 years experience apart  from Shujaat’s influence won’t be matched by anyone who can take over his role. “Newspaper won’t stop. It didn’t stop the day he was killed. But his invaluable presence won’t be there,” said a journalist at the paper wishing not be named.

In 2017, the slain journalist suffered a stroke and was bed-ridden for two months. After joining office, he complimented the staff for taking over the responsibility and making no mistakes. Currently, that responsibly has fallen on the shoulders of staff.

“In an institution, everyone has a role. He had assigned that to everyone. But yes, the direction won’t be there. If there was a problem, he would handle it on his own,” said Faisul.

Shujaat was the nineteenth journalist to fall to bullets in the Valley. Earlier killings numbered 18, six by security forces, five each by militants and unknown gunmen, and two in blasts,  said the International Federation of Journalists in its situation report last year. Long before finally being  felled by bullets, Shujaat was abducted by unknown gunmen in in 2006 from Srinagar Residency Road. He managed to escape unhurt from their clutches when the pistol of the gunmen got jammed. Since then, he had been living under police protection with two bodyguards accompanying him. The instigators and perpetrators of this kind of attack are rarely caught in Kashmir, he had told Reporters Without Borders about the attack. 

In 1996, Shujaat was among 19 journalists were abducted by government-sponsored gunmen of notorious Ikhwan in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag. The  journalists were traveling together from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, to a press conference that had been called by the Muslim Mujahideen, one of several Indian-backed militias in the region. “They were intercepted at Anantnag by gunmen of another Indian-backed militia, the Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan, and taken to the nearby headquarters of Ikhwan commander Hilal Haider,” reported The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

The militia leader wanted eight prominent papers to give Ikhwan coverage.  And when 19 journalists went to Anantnag, six journalists were from the dailies which had not followed his diktat. The notorious militia leader separated these six journalists including Shujaat and threatened to kill them. Finally after protests, the Indian army was forced to secure journalists from Ikhwan, which they supported.

An avid traveller, Shujaat was a social netizen as well and would post photos and news updates on his social media handles. The last pinned tweet on his Twitter page is his photo at Global Editors Summit in Lisbon. On June 14 when the United Nations published its first ever 49-page report on Kashmir painting grim picture of India’s human rights record in the Valley, he shared it quickly on Twitter. Before that he retorted to accusations of a speaker at the Indian think tank ORF, “It is unfortunate that a credible think tank like @orfonline should allow this diatribe in absence of the person referred to. In Kashmir we have done Journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on ground”. 

So who killed him?

When thousands of people turned up for his funeral, everyone was asking in hushed voices who killed him. But nobody has found a clear answer, not even the state itself which has  established a team of police to probe. But so far except for arrest of a suspect, little headway has been made to crack the high profile case.

"I am not the type to direct killing of journalists. This is all propaganda, tell Shujaat to be relaxed"

 

A peacenik, he would be part of Track Two conferences with Pakistan and would push for peace initiatives such as ceasefire, dialogue and reducing violence. In 2017, a Dubai conference was organized by the British NGO Conciliation Resources in which top political actors, and civil society activist members participated. Shujaat was a participant of the three-day conference, which recommended “cessation of hostilities”. The militant outfits Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba sharply criticized it and termed it as “futile exercise” and dubbed its participants as “working on payrolls”.

 Before the Dubai Conference, his longtime Pakistan-based friend Ershad Mehmood revealed in an Urdu publication that Shujaat had said the government had informed him he might be shot dead and he must seek help from Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin about it. “I am not such a kind to direct killing of journalists. This is all propaganda, tell Shujaat to  relax,” Salahuddin had replied when asked about this. After that Shujaat  relaxed, Mehmood wrote.

 But as Omair Ahmad, a Delhi-based journalist who has been part of series of peace building initiatives between India and Pakistan from 2009 to 2015 wrote in The Caravan, “Such speculation, based largely on hearsay, only distracts us from finding the culprits behind Shujaat’s murder, and the murders of the two policemen accompanying him”. He was referring to reports about his being part of peace initiatives resulting in his killing.

“The history of assassinations in Kashmir and that of Track Two conferences suggest that Shujaat’s murder is unlikely to have been for so petty a reason as a conference, especially given that numerous Track Two conferences are still taking place, in which many people say things that are meant to push specific agendas.  Shujaat’s journalistic peers would honour his memory far better by doing evidence-based reportage rather than writing prose more befitting a mystery thriller than real life,” he wrote.

Moazum Mohammad is a journalist based in Srinagar. He works with Kashmir Reader.

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