Recently, the Chairman of The Press Council of India wrote to Omar Abdulla, Chief Minister of J&K, about the increasing assaults on journalists by the State police. He said that if any violence is committed on press personnel, the Press Council of India would launch criminal proceedings against the State aggressors. The concern was shown by Justice Markandey Katju after four journalists were thrashed by Kashmir Police while they were covering local protests after Friday prayers. Showkat Shafi , a freelancer with Al-Jazeera along Yawar Kabli,photojournalist; Shahid Tantray of Dainik Jagran; and Umer Mehraj, videographer for Associated Press, were beaten ruthlessly on November 25.
In a response to Justice Katju’s letter, Omar Abdulla said, “We have no such code binding on journalists in this country. Perhaps the time has come for the PCI to frame such a code in consultation with States and the media fraternity.” He suggested that Journalists who wish to plunge into the crowd should wear bright-colored jackets /bibs so that they are easily recognised by the police. Defending the State police, he said these mistakes might happen again unless PCI and the journalists come up with some code of conduct. The PCI chairman and the Chief Minister have been wrestling with the problem over the last week. (The Hindu, Dec 3, 2011)
However, merely wearing bright jackets will provide little help to avoid victimisation of journalists. There have been situations where identification was never a problem for police and paramilitary forces for the actions they took and the violence they inflicted on media personnel. Certainly, this was not for the first time these men were roughed up by either police or paramilitary troops operating in J&K. Twenty five -year-old Showkat Shafi had been beaten only few months ago while he was taking pictures of street protests in Srinagar’s Nowhatta locality. He kept on saying that he was just doing his job. But, no heed was paid to his pleas. He was caught along with Narciso Contreras, Mexican photojournalist, beaten, and detained. A cash amount of Rs.50,000 was also snatched from the Mexican national. His camera was also snatched and broken into pieces.
When fellow journalists called a senior police official about the incident and sought his intervension for his immediate release, the official said, ‘’What was he doing on the protesters’ side?” A foreign woman was also present there, taking pictures; she was hit with batons and chased away. She was not the part of protests and neither was this a case of mistaken identity.
The Chief Minister also said that there was almost no difference between a camera bag and a bag full of stones. However, this argument seems to hold only little weight while considering the whole situation of beating and detaining journalists. There is a lot of time to figure out what the bag really carries.
The challenges faced by the media personnel, especially photojournalists, are much bigger. According to Showkat, “when we are in the crowd, the police question our credibility, and when we are covering from the police’s side, we always face danger of being roughed up by protestors who often mistake us as State’s spies.” Many protesters have been caught with the help of photographs and footage shown on television or internet. These men are identified, their houses raided and then taken into custody, thus making media presence unpopular among the local people which in turn leads to further complexity in the job carried out by the journalists.
The chairman of PCI has precisely warned police and paramilitary forces in all the States and union territories to vehemently avoid targeting the press. This is one of the bravest directions that came from PCI and not only in Kashmir but in the States of north- east, particularly Assam and Nagaland, where a greater risk is attached to the lives of Journalists. In Jammu and Kashmir and Assam alone, more than twenty persons associated with the press have died in as many years as reported by Nava Thakuria, Assam- based journalist and by Kashmir Life, weekly newspaper in Kashmir. Several cases are still pending. The Committee to protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York- based media rights body, reports that India is among the first thirteen most dangerous countries where journalists are killed and the State (willingly or unwillingly) is unable to prosecute the killers.
In addition to objectivity and impartiality, the conflict zones are most vulnerable for the lives of journalists. “No story is worth your life. Be very careful with the steps you take”, they are told. But, in a situation where Showkat and his colleagues are stuck, it often ends up as double-edged sword for them.