Celebration to castigation: Indian media’s reaction to Pulitzer for J&K journalists had it all

Newspapers in the region were united in their praise for the three photojournalists, but criticism and controversy dominated the coverage in Big Media.

WrittenBy:Ayan Sharma
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On Tuesday, three journalists from Jammu and Kashmir won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature photography. The Indian media’s coverage of the news varied from jubilation to outrage. The three Associated Press photojournalists – Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand – were honoured for documenting the aftermath of the India government’s dismantling of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy last August.

Here’s where the controversy emerged from: the citation said the award was for “striking images of life in the contested territory of Kashmir as India revoked its independence, executed through a communications blackout”.

While major newspapers published from Jammu and Kashmir hailed the trio on their first pages, so-called national newspapers were more muted, moving the reports to their inside pages. Then there were TV channels, which did their best to manufacture “anti-national” controversies.

Here’s a round-up of all the reports and rants.

J&K media

“Curbs, Concealed Cameras, Couriered Chips: How Kashmir Won Pulitzer.” This was the headline of the Kashmir Observer on its front page. Calling the award a “global recognition of the challenging journalistic work in Kashmir Valley”, the report explained how the photojournalists worked under a tremendous communication blackout to send their stories to the world outside.

“From hiding their cameras in vegetable sacks to courier their chips to their New Delhi office through some airborne travellers, the two Kashmir journalists did it all to picture Kashmir during its worst communication crisis last summer,” it said.

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The front page also carried an interview with Mukhtar Khan, one of the awardees, who had worked at Kashmir Observer for three years before joining the Associated Press in 2000.

An editorial on the Opinion page was also devoted to the award, with the headline “Honour for Kashmir journalism”. It said: “The Kashmir they captured is unfiltered and unmediated by the words or a fleeting video and their implicit and explicit politics. People got to see and experience the situation in Kashmir like it is, not how it has to be seen and experienced.”

Rising Kashmir, a major daily from the region, put the news on its front page too: “Pulitzer Prize for 3 photojournalists from JK”. Calling it the “biggest prize in journalism”, the report included reactions from Khan, Yasin and Anand, as well as messages from former chief minister Omar Abdullah and Iltija Mufti, daughter of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.

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Greater Kashmir, on its front page, pointed out that this is “the first time that any journalist from J&K has bagged the biggest award in the world of journalism”. The report said the award is in “recognition of their hard-hitting pictures”, and included quotes from the three winners and congratulatory statements from politicians and press clubs.

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Kashmir Times had the news on its front page too. About the three journalists, the report said: "They often found themselves in a precarious position while capturing images and happenings during the lockdown and had to often negotiate roadblocks and take cover in strangers’ homes. They also had to conceal their cameras while covering protests and security forces’ action."

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Big Media

The celebratory mood was conspicuous by its absence outside Jammu and Kashmir. Most major English newspapers in the country refrained from giving lead coverage to the award-winning photojournalists.

But there were a couple of exceptions, most notably the Telegraph. The newspaper’s front page printed one of the 20 photos selected by the Pulitzer jury: an image by Mukhtar Khan of a six-year-old Kashmiri girl who was hit in the eye by a marble ball shot allegedly fired by paramilitary forces last August. “What the clampdown could not hide,” the Telegraph said.

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The front-page story was headlined “Pictures boots can’t crush”, and detailed the photographers, their work, and their feelings after the win.

Known for its sharp digs at the current political dispensation, the newspaper also lashed out at the Bharatiya Janata Party. It noted the “official stony silence” of Prime Minister Modi and others to “the uncommon accomplishment by three Indians”.

The report said: “The BJP seized on the word ‘independence’ in the Pulitzer announcement to say that anyone applauding the feat is ‘anti-national’ and promptly conferred that label on Rahul Gandhi, one of the few leaders outside Kashmir who congratulated the three winners.”

On Page 5, the Telegraph carried a special section showcasing “the winning work” by Khan, Yasin and Chand.

Likewise, the Mumbai Mirror reported on the Pulitzer-winning journalists as its cover story. Headlined “Three Kashmir photographers win Pulitzer Prize”, the report detailed the photographers’ experiences, their work as acknowledged for the prize, and the number of laudatory messages and wishes showered upon them.

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Explaining the difficulties the journalists faced, Mumbai Mirror said there was an “unprecedented lockdown” following the abrogation of Article 370, and the photographers worked “under great constraints and threats to their wellbeing”.

Mirror also pointed out that the award comes at a time when journalists in the valley were being pulled up by the police for purported “anti-national activities” — a reference to the recent police action against Peerzada Ashiq, Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra.

Other leading English newspapers were not as generous with their coverage.

The Indian Express, for example, reported on the award on Page 7. The report clubbed the three Kashmiri journalists with two other Indian journalists, Anushree Fadnavis and Adnan Abidi, who had jointly won the Pulitzer in the “Breaking News” category alongside several colleagues at Reuters. Reuters won the award for its coverage of the citizens’ protests in Hong Kong last year.

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The Hindu’s report on the win, which figured on Page 14, was based on inputs from agencies AFP and PTI. Headlined “3 Indian photographers win Pulitzer Prize”, it concluded: “The Associated Press was awarded the feature photography prize for images showing life in Kashmir as India revoked its semi-autonomus state”.

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The Hindustan Times featured the news on the bottom of Page 11, its business page. While citing the winners’ reactions and various congratulatory messages, it also reported on the controversy that erupted over the language used in the citation. After quoting BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet on why the journalists accepted the award, it said: “Journalists in the Valley called it a watershed moment in the history of Kashmir.”

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What was a passing reference in the Hindustan Times report became the lead angle for the Times of India.

On Page 8, the country’s highest circulated daily reported on the awards with the headline “Rahul praises J&K Pulitzer winners, faces flak from BJP”. The report did not mention the celebratory atmosphere among Jammu and Kashmir journalists, nor contained quotes from the photographers or details of their experiences. Instead, it focused on the hoo-ha between the BJP and the Congress, with the former attacking Rahul Gandhi for congratulating the winners on Twitter.

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The report quoted the BJP’s Sambit Patra too: “Rahulji, the award winning photograph caption says ‘India occupied Kashmir’. Do you agree with it?” Except the caption Patra cited didn’t actually use the word “occupied”. It said “controlled” instead, but the Times of India did not clarify this.

TV news

If a couple of newspapers merely reported on the “controversy”, TV news made it their primetime fodder. Barring on a couple of channels, primetime segments on Tuesday were abuzz with anchors shouting and lambasting the Pulitzer citation. The winners were questioned for accepting the awards, anchors and panellists discussed whether Rahul Gandhi supported a “Pakistani theory” while congratulating them – it was chaos.

In the process, the photojournalists and their work were all but forgotten.

First up: Republic TV. “Gandhi has formally endorsed Pakistan’s line on Kashmir,” declared Arnab Goswami. “When Pulitzer says India revoked Kashmir’s independence, Rahul Gandhi gave a thumbs up to this theory.”

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It should be remembered that for some time now, Goswami’s tirades have been directed against the Congress party, which he believes is responsible for orchestrating the Palghar lynching. As Newslaundry reported earlier, the accusation was without any merit. Multiple FIRs were filed against Goswami. Soon after, yet another FIR was filed against Goswami for allegedly communalising the gathering of migrant labourers in Bandra last month.

Perhaps worried by this sequence of events, Goswami seemed impatient to hit back. Devoid of logic, Gandhi’s simple congratulatory message to three Indian journalists was portrayed as an approval of Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Goswami was sure that Gandhi needed to apologise to the nation. “This is at a time when we’re battling Covid on the one hand and Pakistan on the other,” he affirmed.

Similarly, on Times Now’s Newshour, Rahul Gandhi was the flavour of outrage. Sample some of the tickers running on top of the screen:“Rahul puts Pulitzer over patriots?”, “Backs prize for ‘anti-India’ story”, “But Rahul champions separatism”.

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One of the panelists, Dr Suman Sriraman, tried to counter the outrage but with little success. “If the citation spoke of Kashmir as a contested territory, then the fault for it lies with the Pulitzer organisation for giving the Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “And your ire should be directed at the organisation that called this.”

But before Sriraman could finish, the BJP’s Sambit Patra jumped in, with anchor Navika Kumar waving him on. The rest of the show followed much of this pattern: blaming the photographers and Rahul Gandhi, and shouting down anybody trying to present a counter view.

On Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhury went a step further. Chaudhury, who has a penchant for running a DNA test on almost anything under the sun, saw an anti-India design behind the award.

His segment last night was titled “DNA test of anti-India agenda”. Here’s how he began: “It requires utmost courage to look at pictures of wives and children of martyred soldiers. But no award goes to such pictures. Only those pictures are awarded where these real heroes of our country are projected as villains and the image of our country is maligned.”

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Some of the prize-winning photos then flashed on-screen, including a picture of a stone-pelter attacking a security force vehicle, an image of a burnt vehicle in the distance, and the picture of the six-year-old girl. Chaudhary said these images were an attempt to show that India’s security forces “create atrocities” on the Kashmiri people.

Such images, he argued, found a great acceptance among some “intellectuals” in the world who were against India.

Chaudhury’s monologue against the three photojournalists and the Pulitzer jury went for about 10 minutes. He seemed upset that the photos of the ground reality in Kashmir last August were acknowledged by a prestigious platform of journalistic brilliance. And yet, the photojournalists were capturing what they saw, not what Chaudhary would have liked to have seen.

Importantly, Chaudhary and his cohorts never questioned the government over Kashmir experiencing the longest communication blackout that has ever been seen in any democracy in the world. He himself called the Pulitzer the “biggest award in journalism”, so he probably knows it is meant for a fair and fearless journalist, not cheerleaders of the powerful.

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