On Tuesday afternoon, five photojournalists were hit by pellets in the Valley as government forces carried out an anti-militancy operation in a militant hotbed in Shopian district. The gunfight which erupted in Shirmal village ended with the killing of three militants. However, it also hit headlines because of the use of pellets on photojournalists who were covering the operation when forces—CRPF and Jammu & Kashmir Police—and civilians clashed near the site.
The five injured photojournalists were identified as Waseem Andrabi of Hindustan Times, Nissar ul Haq of Rising Kashmir, Mir Burhan of Asia News Network, Aijaz Ahmed of Kashmir News Service, and Kaisar Mir of local news agency Kashmir Crown.
Hindustan Times’s Waseem Andrabi says a battery of photojournalists were carrying out their professional duties near the gunfight site when they were directly hit by the pellets. “After we crossed a barricade—erected by protesting youth who were pelting stones near the gunfight site—we showed our cameras from a distance to the government forces, who were busy in handling the law and order situation. As soon as we started to move towards them, they showered pellets at us.”
Andrabi told Newslaundry that showing cameras to the government forces and then proceeding towards the gunfight site is a normal routine. “We only followed the already existing procedure.”
Eight pellets hit Andrabi’s lips, forehead, throat, head and earlobes. He was treated at a local hospital in Shopian and still has a pellet in head. “The doctors have advised me not to plug it out since swelling is there.”
Significantly, Andrabi had helped a CRPF man, Pranam Singh, during a high voltage gunfight in Budgam last November, in which militant Naveed Jatt was killed. He’d received praise from the CRPF DG RR Bhatnagar at the time, who said: “We are grateful to the photo-journalist who helped our injured personnel. A letter of appreciation and a cash reward would be given to the photographer.”
Senior journalist Harinder Baweja highlighted this irony on Twitter after the Shopian attack, saying Andrabi had now been on the “receiving end”.
Kashmir-based human rights defender Khurram Parvez also condemned the attack.
Andrabi has been covering the Kashmir conflict as a photojournalist for the last 10 years. He says, “I am thankful to Allah that my eyes are safe. Had pellets hit my eyes, my life would had turned upside down. The forces are playing with our lives. The Governor should intervene and take note of the incident.”
Rising Kashmir’s Nissar ul Haq described Tuesday’s incident as “guns versus cameras”. The pellets hit his left eye. “Around 10 to 15 pellets hit my left side. My left eye has lost 60 per cent vision. One pellet is still in my eye. Five to six pellets hit my face while nine pellets hit my left hand. They (the government forces) are even afraid of cameras. It guns versus cameras in Kashmir now.”
Haq says the government should either give them the liberty to work without fear or shut down the media fraternity in the Valley. “We carry out our professional duties without harming the law enforcing agencies. Why are they after us? Do they want us (the media) to also pick up guns? Will they not allow us to our work?”
Senior photojournalist and former president of the Kashmir Press Photographers Association (KPPA), Farooq Javed Khan of European Pressphoto Agency, was also hit by pellets. However, he avoided injury because the pellets hit his jacket. “I had a ‘fatten up’ jacket. I was saved by Allah’s grace. It was a narrow escape,” he told Newslaundry. Asia News Network’s Mir Burhan wasn’t as lucky—he was hit by 9-12 pellets on his face, legs and left hand. “I am still in shock and don’t know what our fault was. The only relief I have is that my both eyes are safe,” he says.
The National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and the Congress condemned the assault on the photojournalists. The PDP said “violence against journalists as an attack on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression of the media and press in the state”. The Congress called the attack “unacceptable, deplorable and extremely unfortunate”. The grand old party National Conference asked the Governor to initiate an inquiry into the matter to “bring the culprits to justice”.
Bangalore-based journalist Laxmi Murthy, one of the founders of the Free Speech Collective, told Newslaundry that photojournalists are at the frontline of newsgathering and at greater risk of attack. “The unprovoked and uncalled for attack on photojournalists who were attempting to do their duty of covering an encounter and conveying the news to the public, is an outrageous attempt to crackdown on freedom of the press.” She emphasised that their safety must be ensured by their employers. Various Kashmir-based journalist organisations also condemned the attack, including the Kashmir Press Photographers Association, Kashmir Video Journalists Association, Kashmir Press Club and Kashmir Working Journalists Association.
Last year, Reporters Without Borders listed India in the top five countries that are most dangerous for journalists. The organisation condemned the “unacceptable” violence that had taken place on Twitter, calling it a “blatant attack on press freedom”.