Kashmir – Losing Its Charm

International news organisations are slowly winding up operations in Kashmir. Is no news from Kashmir good news?

ByShujaat Bukhari
Kashmir – Losing Its Charm
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Imagine four to six journalists ready to cram into a single room of Ahdoos Hotel in the early 90s to get coverage of the unrest in Kashmir. Ahdoos was then the only hotel operational in Srinagar. Militancy was spread all over the Valley and huge amounts of armed forces were on the streets. Compare that to international news organisations now winding up their operations in Kashmir – virtually deeming it a dry spot.

Kashmir was a flashpoint; hence, all the news organisations around the world would dispatch their journalists to cover the raging conflict. Both the national and international media had a strong presence there for over 15 years, with Kashmir splashed over front pages and dominating radio and TV headlines. From day to day shooting incidents, abductions, firing on processions and the cases such as the Kunan Poshpora gang rape, there was hardly any area untouched by overenthusiastic news reporters. Kashmir’s local media was under tremendous pressure. Though Srinagar based journalists remained associated with the outside media outlets, most of the time journalists would air-dash to Srinagar to cover a crisis like Hazratbal, the Charar-e-Sharief siege and other events which changed the course of militancy and separatist politics in the state.

Obviously all the organisations had a stake in news related to Kashmir. From BBC to Voice of America to Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) to wire agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press and AFP, all the leading outlets set up their permanent Bureaus in Srinagar and later extended the operations to the Jammu region as well. In the initial years of militancy, some of journalists like Yusuf Jameel, Mark Tully, Satish Jacob, Qaiser Mirza, Harinder Baweja and Shiraz Sidhva had becomes household names in Kashmir for their impartial and unbiased reporting of the events which had left strong impressions in the minds of the people. Despite having a perceived pro-establishment slant in their news coverage, the Indian media too could not help but have a full-fledged team of reporters and photojournalists in Kashmir, though their presence was a fact much before the armed rebellion took over Kashmir in 1990.

Kashmir was a conflict which had international dimensions and ramifications. With Pakistan directly involved in it and the bloodbath that entailed various political dimensions, the international media could not shut the eyes to it. It had a different place in the list of international conflicts, as Afghanistan had not flared up the way it did after September 11 attacks. The attack on vital installations in United States and the follow up in the shape of “war on terror” completely changed the dynamics of political situation in South Asia. This, to a large extent had an impact on Kashmir. And the way Pakistan tried to wade through the crisis certainly delinked the issue from the priorities the international community set for itself.

With the decline in militant violence, partly due to the counter offensive by the security forces and partly due to the sense of discouragement shown by the Pakistani government then headed by Pervez Musharraf, it was normalcy which started dominating the discourse in Kashmir. Almost for every new event, the media would tag it with a new line “for the first time in last 20 years”. Notwithstanding the political unrest for three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010, the media returned to the normalcy buzz. It was obvious since the situation had shown a discernable improvement with over 1.4 million tourists visiting Kashmir valley in 2012.

As of now there are apparently no takers for the news from Kashmir. People’s alienation has not gone down, nor has been any let up in the hard measures the government has continued for the last over four years. Slapping of Public Safety Act (PSA) even on minors is routine, and the cry for impartial probes into the massacres, allegations of rape and unmarked graves has grown louder. But the media seldom picks up the Kashmir dateline stories.

While Srinagar remained one of the busiest media capitals in India for nearly two decades, today the media organisations have shut their bureaus. The latest one is the London-based news agency, Reuters, which laid off its staff and said “good bye” to Kashmir. Earlier, the BBC too wound up its office for radio and TV and confined its operation to its web edition. Deutsche Welle also discontinued its operations in Kashmir, as has AFP. Its “war time” correspondent, Izhar Wani died of cancer early this year, but the position has not been filled up and the bureau has been shut.

Other international publications and outlets like TIME, Guardian, The Times, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and some Arab newspapers are also not showing much interest in picking up news from Kashmir. Except for the unrest in 2010, when some of the outlets covered the events, Kashmir is missing being even sporadically in the news despite the political unrest that has been continuing in the state. Even the Pakistani media has changed its priorities and Kashmir only figures in inside pages of the leading newspapers.

Among the international organisations only Associated Press has continued its operations in Srinagar where it has a fairly large bureau. The reason for this observers believe, is Washington’s interest in keeping itself in the loop in view of Kashmir’s larger connection with Afghanistan, and the presence in Kashmir of militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba which has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) by the US State Department. “Obviously their interest is limited to this subject so they would continue”, said a senior journalist, adding that Voice Of America also has a representative here but the pick-up of news from the state is minimal. In fact, Kashmir’s linkage with the situation that emerged after 9/11 was seen as part of the “so-called international terror network”, and thus taken off the news hook.

Not only has the international media ignored Kashmir lately, the Indian national media also has not shown much interest in covering the happenings here for its national audience. The Indian Express made a drastic curtailment in its otherwise large news bureau in Srinagar, leaving it with just two staffers. The Hindu also did not pick up a representative for nearly 11 months after I left it in January last year. The coverage of Kashmir in the national media has always been subject to criticism since it has a definite slant linked to so-called “national interests”, but now even development stories do not find much space in the national columns.

One positive development has taken place in the past one year. That is the arrival of Chandigarh-based Tribune which launched its Srinagar edition. But this was done only to reinforce its presence in Kashmir with a widened scope to cover local issues, and not to project them before the national audience.

With just a few positive stories like the inauguration of a five-star hotel in Gulmarg hitting the national pages and odd hour slots of TV channels, the Kashmir coverage is definitely not something which the international media craves like it did in the early 90s. Though this may sound like good news for Kashmir, making it seem “normal”, the political unrest hasn’t shown any let-up, even if news coverage has.

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