Kashmiri photojournalist Mehraj ud Din has covered the official Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations in Srinagar since 1979. This year was an exception. On Saturday, he was among six local photojournalists barred from the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium, where the function was taking place. The security wing of the Jammu and Kashmir police claimed there was an adverse report from the Criminal Investigation Department about them. This despite the fact that the six journalists had been issued security clearance passes by the police.
An order from the police’s security wing, signed by Additional Superintendent of Police, read: “The CID [Criminal Investigation Department] report in respect of below mentioned persons belonging to Media group have been found adverse and you are directed not to permit them inside the venue as their media card for Republic Day 2019 treated as cancel [sic].”
In addition to Mehraj ud Din, an accredited journalist who works with the United States-based Associated Press Television Network, the other journalists were Umar Mehraj, also from that news agency, Danish Ismail of Reuters, Tauseef Mustafa of Agence France Presse, ANI bureau chief Bilal Ahmad Bhat and Aman Farooq of the Daily Kashmir Uzma.
In protest, many journalists decided not to cover the function.
“It was humiliating,” said Mehraj ud Din. “During my career, I have seen the tenure of seven chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir and a number of director generals of police. Even during the peak of militancy, we used to get an invitation from the authorities to cover these functions. But this is the first time in my career that this has happened.”
‘We followed procedure’
Following the outrage among journalist about the incident, K Vijay Kumar, advisor to Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik, said that the matter “shall be looked into”. “The entire process of security clearance for issuance of passes to journalists shall be reviewed for better coordination in future,” he said.
Like every year, the state government’s Department of Information and Public Relations sent a list of accredited and non-accredited journalists to the security wing of the Jammu and Kashmir police several days ahead of Republic Day. “It is the police that asks us for the list,” said Tariq Ahmad Zargar, director of the department. “Once we send the list, police carries out the verification. After the completion of verification, the police issues security passes in their names, which they have to collect from our office.”
Zargar added: “In this case, all of them were issued security clearance passes by the police. I don’t know why were they not allowed [in].”
According to the Jammu and Kashmir police website, the security wing of the state police is devoted to “providing security to protected persons, vital installations and to secure venues during sensitive events”. It is this wing, along with the Criminal Investigation Department, which also issues passes for official events.
“All the passes for any official event or VVIP visit, get vetted by the CID,” said a senior police officer. “They give their comments on the persons based on past records. Verification agencies work with different things. Apparently, when this verification was done and sent with all the names, there could have been a little effort to do it in a more systematic manner.”
Jammu and Kashmir’s Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh said the barring of the six journalists was not deliberate. “It has happened due to maybe some communication gap between various agencies,” said Singh. “I am not in Srinagar but the district administration must look into the matter and ensure it does not happen again.”
‘Are we criminals?’
But Mustafa, a photojournalist associated with the Agence France-Presse for 27 years, was sceptical about the adverse report from the crime branch. “It is confusing,” said Mustafa, who has covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. “They are not telling us anything clearly. Kashmiri photojournalists are used to beatings and injuries during protests and gunfights, but this a completely different thing.”
He was also unconvinced by Kumar’s assurance. “We get assurances every time,” said Mustafa. “If they fail to take any action in the Republic Day incident, there is no use of the government’s accreditation cards for us then. We will return them to the government.”
Mehraj ud Din, who has faced harassment and beatings by security forces through the course of his career, also believed that it was unlikely anyone would be held accountable. He felt the blacklisting was also a form of intimidation. “When they are restricting seniors like me, we can imagine what will happen to youngsters in the field,” he said. “This only means that they want to suppress us or they do not like our work. Am I a thief, ruffian or a killer? At least tell me what have I done on the basis of which you are giving me the adverse report. There is no explanation.”
Apart from the blacklisted six, other journalists were denied security clearance passes without any explanation, “I was waiting till the morning of Republic Day but they did not give me any pass,” said Habib Naqash, a photo editor at Kashmir’s leading English daily, Greater Kashmir. “When I called them [the information department] a day before Republic Day, they said they will send it by evening. They did not.”
A letter of protest signed off by various journalists’ associations in Kashmir said columnist Yusuf Jameel, Ashraf Wani of Aaj Tak and Firdous Wani, a video journalist with News-X, were denied passes on the basis of adverse remarks.
“These are the journalists who have been working in Kashmir since the last 30 years, if there was no problem during all that time, why now?” asked Shuja Ul Haq, president of the Kashmir Press Club and senior special correspondent with India Today. “People work in difficult circumstances in Kashmir. Every other day, our photographers or videographers face situations like these. During stone-pelting they are injured or their cars are attacked. It is from both sides. From the state, at least, we can expect some sort of support. We do not want any favours but at least do not make our jobs difficult.”
Last week, four local photojournalists were injured when security forces allegedly fired shotguns at them during protests at a gunfight in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. Two days later, journalists on their way to cover militant funerals in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district were stopped by the police and asked to go back.
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