Kashmir’s story, ravaged by misreporting and state-sponsored journalism for more than three decades, has now been pushed to an extreme, with the local populace hardly getting any representation in media to speak for themselves and question the narratives crafted in the studios thousands of miles away. The traditional mass media usually tends to lack inclusion of community voices, as the control, ownership, and authorship lie only in the hands of a few. Editors decide what is read and who is heard and who is not.
The free press is already struggling in Kashmir due to slow internet connectivity, and further intimidation and harassment are adding to hamper the smooth functioning of media. Journalists have been targeted more frequently in the past eight months. With this ongoing crisis, media too evolved—what didn’t change is the regular harassment, including summoning journalists to police stations and booking them under different draconian laws.
The advent of social media and digital means of communication revolutionized the way people in the world communicate and share information. It became part of the 21st century society; everything in the society is affected by digital media. The storytelling in the media industry evolved and became easy for the people who otherwise would remain unheard of.
A few years back we were so accustomed to traditional media studios and print media coverage, that only a handful of people, usually privileged ones would have access to become journalists and tell stories, set agendas and prioritize the content, and decide what people shall read in the morning or watch during the prime time TV shows. The previous decade changed just that; internet and mobile phone technology revolutionized the very concept of storytelling. It flipped the profile of storytellers and media makers; we saw hundreds of online news outlets coming to the fore.
Internet and social media had the potential to flip the coin, it allowed a wide range of people to produce news and tell stories. In 2014, after the Kashmir floods, a few like-minded activists, media students and I started Kashmir’s first community news platform “Kashmir Unheard” with the help of Video Volunteers India. Instead of joining any other media outlet after our studies, we established a platform that would open doors for the communities to tell the stories which never became a headline or were buried under hundreds of narratives.
The media landscape was led by communities with basic training of film making on their smartphones. We trained more than a dozen men and women from every district of Kashmir in a year. An alternative landscape like many across the globe with the potential to bring out real narratives from ‘media dark’ areas of the valley was all set. We at Kashmir Unheard managed the gender balance and trained ten women in storytelling.
These community correspondents not only reported on issues which their communities had been suffering from for a long time, but also used their deep understanding of the issues to involve local authorities for action. In the past few years, Kashmir saw more and more people joining media organizations and starting their initiatives. This filled the information vacuum and offered a possibility to do journalism and storytelling in different formats.
Journalism can only be improved only when local journalists are allowed to improve and work freely. I believe, if the world wants to understand a conflict better and work towards its resolution, its people have to be empowered to speak.
August 5, 2019: With the abrogation of Article 370, everything changed for Kashmiris politically; we witnessed thousands of arrests, internet blockades, communication lines were shut and media paralyzed. Kashmir Unheard and many other online news outlets were silenced the same day.
In the past five years besides trying to explain what causes conflict in Kashmir, we had been trying to give voice to all perspectives—including non-governmental organizations and people from all parts of civil society. We reported on different efforts made to resolve the issues, looking closely at all sides, to make people from our communities and elsewhere aware of the real stories of Kashmir. The main aim was to report from all diverse communities of Kashmir, not just a few, as journalists must report about the whole society, not one half.
August 2019 brought a very difficult phase for journalism in Kashmir. Hundreds of people lost their jobs after many online outlets had to shut down, and journalists are being harassed regularly. While the media remains under threat in Kashmir and strategic attacks against them continue, the number of journalists is doing down.
As free journalism disappears from Kashmir, its stories are expected to remain buried. If a journalist who is living through the conflict and experiencing it writes something, it would be much more in-depth. We would not only see a greater chance of getting people to engage with the story but it increases the authenticity as well. During this pandemic, we need more freedom of press. If a journalist’s movement are curbed, it would keep us unaware of the ground realities. Free flow of information in desperate times is a must, which is only possible when the people associated with this fraternity do not feel intimidated.
The Kashmir conflict has affected not only Kashmiris in particular but people across South Asia as well. I believe conflicts do not end by themselves unless all parties are involved. Ground reporting from Kashmir by Kashmiris is a must for all the parties to understand different perspectives but also learn what this community is looking forward to. By putting real people in the story, all the parties can understand how this conflict affects them. We know that news reporting is still not the only means to resolve anything, but who reports and what is reported has the potential to change how we all look at things.
The real stories need to be heard, and they can neither be told by the mainstream TV studios of India, with a jingoistic attitude and its demonization of Kashmiris, nor can they be told by the print journalists coming from outside of Kashmir. Instead, it is such platforms, alternative media platforms that can do justice in real sense. An indirect ban on online media by restricting the internet speed is a punishment for the whole society and is adding to the wounds of Kashmiris amid these crises; the muzzling of freedom of the press is a question mark on the face of democracy.