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Thursday, July 8, 2010

First time in 20 years: Embedded journalism introduced in Kashmir

Kashmir becomes out-of-bounds for Kashmiri scribes; Curfew passes canceled, cameras seized, phones on scanner

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

SRINAGAR, Jul 8: For the first time in over 20 years of conflict, Government in Jammu & Kashmir state has imposed media emergency as the capital city has become out of bounds for all Kashmiri mediapersons and American-type embedded journalism has been introduced for convenience of the journalists pouring in from New Delhi.

With the National Conference-Congress ruling coalition falling in the panic mode and the Army being in the ‘stand-by mode’, Government has, for the first time in over two decades of armed strife, invoked an undeclared media emergency by barring Kashmiri mediapersons from reporting the current situation. Like the Americans did in war time in Iraq and Afghanistan, government has introduced embedded journalism to selectively facilitate New Delhi-based journalists’ maneuvering in Srinagar.

Correspondents and camera crews of national television news channels, particularly NDTV, CNN-IBN and News X, besides representatives of some national newspapers pouring in from New Delhi, were ferried today in armoured vehicles of the Indian Army in Srinagar. While reporting the “Army take over”, that was, in fact, nowhere in place in Kashmir valley, national television news channels succeeded in creating a fear-psychosis by repeatedly playing images of a brief flag march of Army on the National Highway Bypass. Like on Wednesday, a convoy cruised its way from Badami Bagh cantonment to Rawalpora and back to its barracks.

Watching the flag march on their television sets, residents in this capital city of 1.50 million people chose to confine themselves to indoors as they widely believed that Army had taken over and the JKP-CRPF combine they had crippled with months of stone pelting and slogan shouting had been replaced. It helped the authorities learn that the angry and outraged Srinagar populace was desirably responding to strong arm methods of riot management. ‘Yes, we have had some psychological dividends without actually going for the controversial intervention of military deployment’, admitted a senior official who was still worried over the idea of continuing curfew on Friday followed by Meraj-un-Nabi, one of the most important dates of Islamic calendar, on Saturday. Normally, over 200,000 Muslim devotees throng Hazratbal shrine around the anniversary of Prophet Mohammad’s spiritual ascendancy to Heavens.

Select journalists from New Delhi were provided all facilities by Police and armed forces. Many of them were picked up from their hotels and ferried to the spots of their choice in armoured vehicles of Army as well as police transport. Television crews were even taken to the strictly curfew-bound downtown and facilitated interaction with the bereaved family of 18-year-old Tufail Matoo who was the first youth to have died in teargas shelling by Police on June 11th.

On the second consecutive day today, New Delhi-based journalists kept comfortably shuttling between Police and Army formations, offices of senior government functionaries and residences of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and the opposition PDP President, Mehbooba Mufti. On the other hand, Kashmiri correspondents of the national television channels and newspapers were not allowed to budge an inch out of their offices and residences. One of such journalists, who was covering the situation from his office, was directed by Police to pack up and shift his camera to a dingy interior on the premises. Only two of the Kashmiri mediapersons, working for national TV channels, were allowed to accompany their New Delhi-based seniors on an embedded operation.

Enforcing curfew strictly on the third consecutive day, Police and CRPF columns prevented all mediapersons of Kashmiri domicile from moving around and discharging their professional duties. While Srinagar District Magistrate, Meraj Ahmed Kakru, maintained that all curfew passes, previously issued to mediapersons, had been canceled on the advice of law and order agencies, he made it clear that no fresh passes were being issued from his office. Approached repeatedly by the aggrieved journalists, he did not respond to phone calls today. There was no statement on this divide of Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri journalists either from Police or from the headless Department of Information.

As this scheme of discrimination had been unfolded by officials yesterday itself and none of the local journalists were permitted movement in the capital city, editors of all daily newspapers were constrained to freeze publication. It was after many long years that no newspaper was published in Kashmir. Distributors of national dailies and weeklies, Abdullah News Agency, told Early Times that they had asked the publishers to stop sending their dailies, weeklies and magazines to Kashmir. According to them, it was for the first time in about 18 years that newsstands were closed and not a single publication was in circulation. On most of the 1572 days of curfew and bandh since 1990, newspaper publication and circulation had remained unaffected in Kashmir.

While a number of editors complained that their offices were being “raided”, sources, believed to be informed, claimed that telephones of certain Srinagar-based mediapersons had been put under surveillance by Police and intelligence agencies. Short Message Services on mobile phones have been suspended since last week. Internet and e-mail services are however operating without disturbance. A number of local camerapersons working for cable TV channels and even national news agencies complained that Police had roughed them up, raided their offices and seized their cameras.

In a host of statements, issued separately, Press Guild of Kashmir, Kashmir Press Association and Kashmir Journalistic Corps, as also some New Delhi-based unions of journalists have condemned current blockage of media in Valley and compared it with the Emergency days of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government in 1975-77. Others have dismissed it as ‘Marshal Law’ and urged Chief Minister Omar Abdullah as well as Government of India to immediately issue curfew passes to Kashmiri journalists and let them operate like their New Delhi-based colleagues.

Meanwhile, declared and undeclared curfew remained in force all over Kashmir valley on the third consecutive day today. Srinagar, Sopore, Baramulla and Anantnag have been reeling under curfew since last week. Reports said that thin groups of demonstrators violated curfew and clashed with Police and CRPF at around 30 places in Kashmir today. However, there were no reports of any major violation or clash. In downtown Srinagar and few other townships, anti-India, pro-Azadi and pro-Islam slogans were played on public address system of mosques.

However, no tension was visible today in certain uptown localities in Srinagar where Police and CRPF allowed a many private vehicles’ movement without curfew passes, scores of people were seen back on their morning and evening walk and public parks were packed to capacity with youngsters playing football and elders enjoying rest.

Official sources said that the central team, led by Union Home Secretary G K Pillai, concluded its visit and returned to New Delhi with an assessment of the latest political and security situation. They said that the team would submit its report to Prime Minister for further discussion in a meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security. Sources said that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah would discuss the situation with legislators of the ruling coalition here on June 11th before an all-party meeting on June 12th.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Army’s flag march brings calm to curfew-bound Valley

Bar chief Mian Qayoom detained under PSA, lodged in Heera Nagar Jail

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

SRINAGAR, Jul 7: Even as it returned to barracks within one hour, Army today brought total calm to Kashmir valley with a flag march in this curfew-bound capital city amid day-long confusion over deployment of regular combat troops. In the face of indications of a fresh crackdown against actors of current political turbulence, Omar Abdullah’s government has detained High Court Bar Association (HCBA) President and influential separatist leader, Mian Abdul Qayoom, under Public Safety Act (PSA) and lodged him in a jail at Heera Nagar in Jammu.

Defence spokesman, Col J S Brar, told Early Times from Srinagar headquarters of Army’s 15th Corps that in response to a communication from the state government, Army today conducted a flag march in Srinagar. He made it clear that it was a brief military intervention and troops returned to the barracks within an hour. He admitted that Army was in a “stand-by mode” and would move out within minutes when required but asserted that it was not meant to deal with law and order situation.

SSP Srinagar, Syed Ashiq Hussain Bukhari, endorsed the assertion of Defence spokesman and explained that a convoy of some eight vehicles conducted a flag march from Badami Bagh cantonment to Srinagar Airport and back to its formation through Civil Lines in the forenoon. He said that there was absolutely no deployment of Army in Srinagar as the thin convoy with all the troops had returned to the barracks. He also disputed the volume of Police and paramilitary deployment in the capital city and asserted that the statistics projected by national news channels (35,000 men) were wrong. According to him, total number of Police personnel on duty in Srinagar district was around 5,000 and 3,000 men drawn from six battalions of CRPF were assisting Police in maintenance of law and order.

With the wire agencies and national news channels reporting deployment of Army in Srinagar and broadcasting special programmes on “Army’s first take over in 15 years”, this correspondent did not find a single trooper or Army vehicles during his extensive tour in curfew-bound capital city from 1300 hours to 1900 hours.

Surprisingly even the Union Minister of State for Defence, M M Palam Raju, told mediapersons in New Delhi that troops would return to the barracks as soon as there was improvement in the situation. He asserted that it was a short term military intervention. On one point of time, District Magistrate of Srinagar, Meraj Ahmed Kakru, told Early Times that the civil administration had requisitioned for Army deployment. He said that troops would move out in a while as all decks had been cleared for their deployment. However, no deployment or movement of regular combat troops was in sight anywhere in the capital till midnight.

In the evening, a high level official delegation from New Delhi arrived in to assess the latest obtaining security scenario in follow up to today’s meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs, presided over by Prime Minister. The team, headed by union Home Secretary G K Pillai and Director General of Military Operations held a series of meetings with senior government functionaries, defence and intelligence officials till late tonight. Sources revealed that CCS would take a final decision with regard to J&K Government’s requisition for Army deployment on the basis of the report likely to be submitted to Prime Minister on Thursday.

Late evening reports from Delhi said that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah spoke to both, Prime Minister as well as the Union Home Minister, and apprised them of the latest political and security situation in Jammu & Kashmir.

In apprehension of largescale street demonstrations, clashes and violence over death of four more youth in different incidents of firing and baton charge on Monday and Tuesday in Srinagar, authorities today enforced curfew strictly. Curfew was officially declared in Srinagar, Anantnag and Sopore but remained in force without a formal announcement in some other major townships and rural district headquarters. Reports said that barring few minor clashes and incidents of stone pelting on Police and CRPF in interior localities, there was no major violation of curfew today. One-odd disturbance in Srinagar was yet again in Batmaloo interior where scores of people came out and engaged Police and CRPF in a clash.

Official as well as independent sources maintained that nobody was killed or injured in today’s clashes and demonstrations. According to these sources, there was calm in Srinagar and entire Kashmir valley even as some minor incidents of stone pelting were reported from Baramulla, Sopore and Manigam area of Ganderbal. Amarnath Yatra proceeded smoothly as no untoward incident has been reported since the day annual pilgrimage commenced earlier this month.

Apparently casting a psychological impact, Army’s brief flag march in Srinagar also brought calm to rest of the Valley which was on the edge yesterday. Contrary to pro-Azadi, pro-Islam and anti-India slogans over the public address system of scores of mosques last evening, there was total calm in the curfew-bound Valley towns today. Police and CRPF enforced restrictions strictly. Even as most of the mediapersons were permitted to carry out their duties, a number of them complained that CRPF roughed them up and did not allow their movement as DC Srinagar refused to issue any curfew passes to the journalists.

Meanwhile, in a significant development, Police today arrested HCBA Chairman, Advocate Mian Abdul Qayoom, detained him under PSA for two years, shifted him to Jammu and late tonight lodged him in a sub jail at Heera Nagar. An influential and audacious separatist leader, Qayoom has been arrested and detained under PSA for the first time in nearly two decades of the secessionist movement. With his arrest, Omar Abdullah’s government seems to have sent a tough and terse signal of crackdown against the actors of current turmoil in Valley. Sources, believed to be well informed, said that Police and other government agencies had launched a manhunt for over 100 more separatist activists, notably the detained Hurriyat Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s confidante, Massarat Aalm, and Dukhtaraan-e-Millat chief, Asiya Andrabi. However, according to these sources, there were currently no plans of detaining head of another faction of the Hurriyat Conference, Miwaiz Umar Farooq, Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, Bilal Gani Lone, Maulvi Abbas Ansari and Aga Syed Hassan.

Lawyers’ fraternity in Srinagar has taken exception to the arrest of HCBA chief and announced boycott to all court proceedings in Kashmir for the next three days. HCBA spokesman Ghulam Nabi Shaheen disclosed that the lawyers’ forum would announce its fresh resistance programme over Qayoom’s arrest at a news conference here tomorrow.