Perils of journalism in Kashmir

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SRINAGAR, India - On an afternoon in 1995, a woman whose face was hidden by her burqa delivered a book for Yusuf Jameel, saying the package had been sent by a Kashmiri women's organization.

Jameel, a stringer for BBC radio, arrived a couple of hours later. He opened the package, looked at the title, Kashmir Under Sultans, and put it on his desk. As Jameel turned away to make a phone call, photographer Mushtaq Ali opened the book.

It exploded, filling the tiny office with smoke and destroying the ceiling. The blast tore open Ali's chest. It also punctured Jameel's right eardrum and sent shrapnel ripping into his back. A few days later, Ali died.

Here in Kashmir, journalism is a dangerous business. When armed groups dislike an article, they are more likely to issue a death threat than write a letter to the editor. Getting to the bottom of a story in Kashmir's murky, violent world sometimes means risking your life.

The 1995 bombing was but a part of a long, violent campaign against Jameel. Indian soldiers had abducted him, unknown assailants had launched grenades at his house, and militants had issued death threats against him.

Jameel isn't sure what triggered the bombing. Perhaps it was a radio piece in which he reported that villagers had blamed government security forces for burning hundreds of homes. The deeper reason, though, is one that threatens a good journalist in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

"I tried to report things objectively," says Jameel, a mustachioed 42-year-old with a dry wit.

Kashmir, the Himalayan region disputed by India and Pakistan, is one of the world's most dangerous places. Since insurgents began a campaign of terror in 1989 aimed at wresting it from India's grip, tens of thousands have died in bombings and shootings.

The battle for Kashmir began as a political movement by militants seeking an independent state. Later, the conflict took on a religious tone as Pakistani-based Muslim militants joined the fray to try to bring Indian-administered Kashmir under Pakistan's control.

Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India have fought two wars over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which Pakistani leaders believe should have become part of their country when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947.

In the past month, Kashmir has again been at the center of world attention after a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi. India blamed the assault on Pakistani-based Islamic militants fighting for Kashmir. New Delhi sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the Pakistani border and threatened war if Islamabad didn't crack down on cross-border terrorism.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf responded by arresting 2,000 suspected militants and banning three Islamic fundamentalist groups and two guerrilla groups.

Tensions have begun to ease in the past couple of weeks, but the enormous risks involved in the Kashmir dispute remain clear as the armies of South Asia's two nuclear powers continue to face off along their 1,800-mile border.

Since violence started to beset this valley a dozen years ago, reporters have been among the casualties. In addition to Mushtaq Ali, five other journalists have died.

They include Mohamed Shaban, editor of Srinagar's Urdu-language daily Al-Safa News, who was gunned down in his office one morning in 1990. Also among the dead is Lassa Kaul, a pundit and head of the government-run television station in Srinagar, who was shot to death in 1990 as he was about to enter his home.

When the situation was at its worst, in the mid-1990s, death threats against reporters were common. Some groups acted out of frustration because newspapers would not print all their statements verbatim. In one incident, the counterinsurgency group Ikhwan abducted about 20 journalists. The reporters refused to submit to their demands and were freed through mediation.

"Our argument was: If we publish your statements, the militants will kill us," recalls Sajjad Haider, now editor and publisher of the Kashmir Observer. "And their argument was: If you're afraid of their guns, why aren't you afraid of ours?"

The challenges reporters face here are a test of press freedom in India, the world's largest democracy. Under pressure from pro-Indian local officials, the Indian military, pro-Pakistani militants and independence advocates, editors must watch what they publish.

Haider's experience serves as a lesson in the limitations on journalism. Haider, who was a stringer in Srinagar for the Tehran Times, decided to start the Observer five years ago with college friends. Haider dreamed of an English-language broadsheet that would cater to educated readers, including government officials and students.

Srinagar is the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, as India formally calls the section of Kashmir it controls. A city of more than 1 million in the foothills of the Himalayas, Srinagar has more than 20 newspapers, most in Urdu and none with a circulation of more than 10,000.

The newsy Observer has three full-time reporters and a circulation of about 5,000. The front page includes stories on local issues, including a corruption investigation of the former tourism director and snow-removal problems.

The newspaper's most consistent feature, though, is an almost daily drumbeat of death.

"Grenades Galore in City," reads one of the punchiest headlines this month above a lead story in the Jan. 3 issue about explosions that injured 27 people. "Ailing militant killed in custody," reads another.

Haider has found that candor has its costs. Government advertising accounts for 20 percent to 25 percent of his revenue. When local officials are unhappy with the Observer, they sometimes cut ad space from a high of 39 inches to a low of zero, Haider says.

Officials rarely explain their reasons, but Haider recalls a conversation with a top official who encouraged him to bury bombing stories on the back page.

"I told him, 'If you stop the violence, we'll stop reporting it,'" says Haider, 36, warming himself by a coal-burning stove in the Observer's tiny second-floor news office.

Despite defiant talk, there are lines Haider does not cross. For instance, he can report on charges of extrajudicial killings by soldiers, but investigating them would almost certainly bring reprisals. In news stories, he can quote separatist leaders espousing independence from India, but he could never do so on his editorial page.

The government would shut the Observer down.

The Observer operates under extraordinary conditions by U.S. standards, but Haider's ambitions for it are traditional. "We trying to make it number one," he says.

Jameel operates out of the same office where the bomb exploded six years ago, only now he is a correspondent for Asian Age, a New Delhi-based newspaper.

By all accounts, reporting here has become safer in recent years. Some journalists attribute that to the deployment of hundreds of thousands of Indian security troops and the subsequent retreat of militants from cities. Jameel thinks militants and the government learned that killing reporters isn't worth the bad publicity.

"Both sides, I think, have realized that this is not going to work," says Jameel, sitting in front of his laptop in his chilly office on a recent Saturday night. "They won't achieve anything by killing an editor or a reporter. It doesn't pay."

Whenever Jameel walks through airport metal detectors, the shrapnel that remains in his back sets off alarms. Despite such reminders of the dangers, he says he couldn't give up journalism.

"I thought that if I had quit it would mean that I had succumbed to these pressures," says Jameel, wearing a phiran, a woolen herringbone tunic that is traditional Kashmiri winter attire. "I would not have liked to have been called a coward."

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