TRT World speaks to the Kashmiri journalists awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
On May 3, which marks World Press Freedom Day, social media was filled with posts from journalists in Kashmir.
Long Twitter threads; videos of colleagues being roughed up by government forces, photos of those charged under draconian terror laws and the accounts of being stripped naked in jail described how the job is becoming increasingly difficult amidst mounting concerns of police action against journalists.
The despair, however, did not last long.
The next day a wave of happiness ran through the fraternity when news broke that a 2020 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to three of their colleagues from the region.
The three photographers who work for the Associated Press (AP), a US-based news agency, are Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand. They have been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for their coverage of the Kashmir siege of 2019 when the Indian government stripped the region of its autonomy.
The Indian state imposed an unprecedented military lockdown, including a communication blackout. In the initial weeks, sending news out of Kashmir was impossible, but some managed to overcome the digital barricades and successfully showed the situation in Kashmir to the world.
The trio became the first journalists in the strife-torn region to be honoured with what is generally regarded as the highest award in journalism. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the prize winners were announced online on Monday.
Instead of the usual ceremony at New York's Columbia University, the Pulitzer board administrator, Dana Canedy, declared the winners from her living room via a live stream on YouTube. The photographers were selected for their "striking images of life" in the region under Indian control.
The work produced by these photographers took place at a time when all means of communication—including phone and internet—were completely shut down and government forces were fanned across the region. Thousands of people, including politicians and activists, had been arrested.
Amid the virtual blackout, the journalists managed to file their work through extraordinary means. They would store their work in flash drives and hand them over at the airport to the people travelling to the Indian capital, New Delhi, where their offices would collect it.
The AP described the trio's struggle in getting the photos out of Kashmir amidst the digital siege in these words: "Snaking around roadblocks, sometimes taking cover in strangers' homes and hiding cameras in vegetable bags, the three photographers captured images of protests, police and paramilitary action and daily life — and then headed to an airport to persuade travellers to carry the photo files out with them and get them to the AP's office in New Delhi."
"It was always cat-and-mouse," said Yasin, who was born in 1973 in the region's capital, Srinagar, describing the situation they were working in.
"These things [the challenges] made us more determined than ever to never be silenced."
A life in pictures
Yasin spent his life in Kashmir before he moved to study computer science and technology in Bangalore, a city in southern India. In 2004, he joined AP as a freelance videographer. Two years later, he joined the agency as a staff photographer.
In his 16-year career, Yasin has covered several other important stories including the war in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, aside from a host of stories from mainland India. His globally acknowledged work has conferred him with over a dozen international awards.
Like Yasin, another winner, Mukhtar Khan, was born and raised in Srinagar and started working for AP in 2000 as a freelancer and became a staff photographer by 2004.
Over the last two decades, the 38-year-old Khan has documented the situation in Kashmir. He was awarded the Atlanta Photojournalism Award in 2015.
Their colleague, Channi Anand, was born and raised in the southern border city of Jammu. He started working with AP in 2000 and became a staff photographer with the agency just four years ago. Anand has extensively covered the army skirmishes on the Line of Control (LoC)—the border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. He has also worked from Siachen Glacier, the highest battleground in the world.
“I have spent my career documenting the war on the border,” says the 49-year-old Anand. “When I was watching the award announcement, outside the guns at the border were rattling.”
The restrictions imposed by the Indian government were extremely taxing on journalists in the region.
“It was very hard,” Khan said, but, “we managed to file pictures.”
As every means of communication was blocked, it was the luggage-toting people on the way to the airport which caught the attention of the photographers, Khan says. This made Yasin recall how, when an armed insurgency broke out against Indian rule in Kashmir in the 1990s, he was asked by a relative of his, who was also a photojournalist, to deliver film to New Delhi.
For Yasin, other than a professional feather in his cap, the award is personal.
“It’s not the story of the people I am shooting, only, but it’s my story,” Yasin says. “It’s a great honour to be in the list of Pulitzer winners and to share my story with the world.”
The pictures selected for the prize included: homes destroyed in gunfights, Kashmiri protesters engaged clashing with the government forces, victims of violence, the deserted roads with coils of concertina wires blocking them, and other gory scenes from the conflict.
Journalism under occupation
The first Pulitzer award for Kashmiris has enthralled the journalist fraternity as it comes at a time when the press in Kashmir is facing unprecedented challenges as the state targets journalists and hits them with charges under terror laws.
Just in the last month, three journalists have been booked by the police, two among them under a controversial terror law, for their social media posts. The charges carry a punishment of seven years in prison.
Asif Sultan, a 31-year-old journalist, and the assistant editor at a local magazine, the Kashmir Narrator, was booked under the same stringent anti-terrorism law in September 2018 and has been in jail since.
The American National Press Club awarded him the Press Freedom Award in August last year. Another journalist, Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir-based journalist and editor, was recently released after a nine-month stint in prison in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), another controversial detention law, under which a person can be detained for up to two years without trial.
Consequently, India’s rank in the global press freedom index has taken a hit. In the latest annual report from Reporters Without Borders, the world’s largest democracy dropped two places and now stands at 142 out of 180 countries.
Media watchdog, the International Press Institute, just hours before the Pulitzer was announced termed Kashmir as one of the “world’s most repressive spots for the press.”
The Pulitzer has brought some hope to these journalists.
Masrat Zahra, the 26-year-old photojournalist from Kashmir who was recently booked under a terror law for uploading her work on social media, says after learning the news she couldn’t sleep through the night because of the excitement.
“The photographs depict the reality of the ground. But the state is trying to repress us by charging us under stringent laws and term these pictures fake and manipulated,” said Zahra. “Today, the truth has won. It is a win for every Kashmiri journalist.”
Another journalist, Gowhar Geelani who has also been booked under the same law for his social media posts termed the Pulitzer win as: “a massive acknowledgement of the body of work produced by native Kashmiri storytellers,” despite the “unprecedented challenges and grave risks to their lives.”
The tribe of journalists has been growing, not only in number but in quality, in the region since its first encounter with a smattering of international journalists in the 1990s when the armed insurgency was at its peak.
Kashmiri journalists have been successful in telling their own story in the most prestigious global media outlets despite fatal attacks which have claimed the lives of 21 journalists so far.
However, the recent crackdown against media had undoubtedly induced a sense of despair. Increasing self-censorship had started creeping in, compromising the principles of journalism which Kashmir's media has always upheld. Observers say the Pulitzer is not just an acknowledgement of the work of Kashmiri journalists, but can also boost the confidence of the media fraternity.
Parvez Bukhari, a senior journalist who covers Kashmir for AFP, said: "It's a huge achievement for the three Kashmiri photojournalists and a heartwarming recognition of their work. This recognition will also go a long way in cementing the courage of other Kashmiri journalists reporting the conflict."