Kashmiri Photojournalist

Guilty of Holding a Lens to Society

Did the little ones feel deep sorrow and loss, or, was it a sense of pride and joy, as the audience gave them a standing ovation as a tribute to their father, Danish Siddiqui, ace news photographer, who died so young, ‘on duty’, clicking pictures till the last moment of his life? Or, did they feel a synthesis of mixed emotions, as their father’s memories loomed inside their pure hearts?

So why did they allow the little ones, Yunus, 6, and his sister, Sarah, 4, to visit New York recently to collect the Pulitzer Award, when, without any explanation whatsoever, they denied another young and brilliant photographer, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, from going to America to receive the award, despite a legitimate visa? Is it because she is a Kashmiri?

The ruling dispensation in Delhi, the nation-state, the civil society and the media should have rejoiced this great achievement of journalism whereby four Indian journalists and their sensitive and brave photography was honoured and showcased for the entire world to see! Though the death of Danish kept stalking the collective inner-self, is the sense of fulfillment and pride at this achievement by young photo journalists not another form of love for the nation? So, should we not feel proud simply because Danish is a Muslim from Delhi, and Sanna is a Kashmiri Muslim from the Valley?

Indeed, the silence on the death of Danish within certain quarters in Delhi and India, despite mourning across the world media, has been stunningly shocking. So, even in death, should all humanity be suspended?

Those who compulsively celebrate sectarian schizophrenia driven by xenophobia and hate politics are doomed to be eternally ghettoized, hate-driven and frustrated, despite the pseudo self-glorification of fake greatness, and the pumping of chests every time India defeats Pakistan in a T-20 game. If this is not a clear case of warped nationalism, then, what is? How can we obsessively suppress this proud moment and suppress it, when we actually want to do just the opposite – to clap and applaud this journalistic achievement?

And, how can a nation achieve anything worthwhile if it is all branded in polarizing categories as a Pavlovian reaction, and, thereby, quickly measured in terms of religion, caste, identity, ideology? Should we then turn mum, if a Hindi litterateur, who has got the Booker first time for Hindi literature, happens to be also deeply secular, cares strongly about injustice, and is ready to speak out about young, brilliant Muslim scholars rotting meaninglessly in jail under draconian laws? Is it wrong to be secular and feel strongly about injustice in contemporary India?

Or, is the religion of a sportsperson more important or her great talent on the ground? Or, if a tribal athlete from the remote interiors of indigenous India, breaks all hitherto records – should we hold our joy because she/he had earlier spoken about tribal rights?

“It is so unjust and unfair,” said Sanna. “I am heartbroken.”

“I am actually trying to understand why this has happened to me. I am looking for the reasons. Since I think they have nothing against me, I tried to reach out to officials since I was last barred (in July), but I got no response,” Sanna, 27, told The Telegraph. “I think the right to travel is the basic right of any individual, why deny me the same? I was like so much looking forward to receive it. It is really very traumatic… It is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for me. My family and I were so excited about it, but, sadly, I am not allowed to collect the award.”

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She was part of a Reuters team that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography. In a bizarre move, she was not allowed by the immigration authorities in Delhi from flying to New York to receive the award, despite a valid US visa and ticket. In July, earlier this year, she had to face another heart-break – again for reasons not known to her. She was not allowed to travel to Paris for a photo show and book launch, even while she was one of the proud winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant, 2020.

If this does not sound and look like a witch-hunt, then, what is it? Reminds me of the media under all forms of dictatatorships,  as in Russia now and Soviet Russia in the past, China, under a totalitarian regime, camouflaged as a communist party, Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, among similar dispensations. It also reminds of the hounding of liberals, dissenters, Leftists, in a democracy – the McCarthy-driven witch-hunt in America during the Cold War, whereby no one was spared, from celebrity playwright Arthur Miller to Charlie Chaplin, among others. 

So what was the crime of Danish, Sanaa, and their photo journalists’ team also comprising Adnan Abidi and Amit Dave? They documented the mass tragedy during Covid in India, especially the thousands of deaths and mass cremations during the deadly Delta wave, including in Delhi, when the entire medical infrastructure had collapsed, there were no oxygen cylinders, beds or medicine, people were gasping for death and dying here, there, everywhere, public parks and streets were turned into cremation grounds in some places, many relatives disowned their own – both, living and dead, and the current regime in Delhi, especially its top-heavy leadership, all but disappeared from the devastating scene! 

Danish had also covered the heart-rending long march of the thousands of emaciated, hungry and thirsty migrant workers, walking on the highways under a scorching sun, left to their fate, yet again by the central government, after the prime minister had announced a sudden and draconian lockdown at 8 pm on March 24, 2020.

Significantly, Danish had won the Pulitzer in 2018 for documenting the tragedy of Rohingya refugees who were subjected to genocide by the Burmese army, backed then by Aung San Suu Kyi. He was also out there covering the ‘invasion’ of Taliban at the Son Boldak crossing in July 2021in Afghanistan, when he was killed.

The US has said that it is closely tracking the developments on Sanaa not being allowed to travel. US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said, “We are committed to supporting Press freedom. And, as the secretary has noted, a shared commitment to democratic values, including the respect for the independence of the press, is a bedrock of the US-India relationship.”

It is reported that she is on a no-fly list along with other journalists in Kashmir. Anyway, journalists in the Valley have been going through a horrible time since the army clampdown and abrogation of Article 370. According to the Human Rights Watch earlier, “at least 35 journalists throughout Kashmir have experienced police questioning, raids, threats, physical abuse, limitations of freedom of movement, or concocted criminal charges for their reporting,” since August 2019.  According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index, among 180 countries, India ranks 150.

Meanwhile, when movie theatres were reopened in Srinagar after years recently, this reporter called up a veteran journalist in Kashmir. “Tell us your memories about the film culture in Kashmir earlier? Did you see films of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Guru Dutta, Waheeda Rehman, Dev Anand? Did you see Pakeezah, Bobby and Sholay when you were young, first day, first show?”

He said he has vivid memories of watching movies in Srinagar those days. However, he said that he is ready to go down the memory lane only on one condition – that his photograph and name will not appear with the interview. “Please understand,” he said. “At this age, I don’t want to go to the police station.”

Pegasus and Beyond: Press Freedom at Stake

As a rogue religious fanatic stood outside Jamia Milia Islamia, gun pointed towards students, a Danish Siddiqui stood in his direct range to get the perfect shot. He wanted to document a story from the point closest to action. He told the Guardian once, “I shoot for the common man who wants to see and feel a story from a place where he can’t be present himself.”

Siddiqui is not alone. Often in crisis situations when the world runs away from a threat, journalists run towards it. Such madness. Such risks. Such passion. Consequently, when some don’t live to tell their stories, others take up their cause.

However, in the recent years a pattern has been observed – a rise in right-wing populist nationalism across the globe and an increase in intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression.

The last decade, in particular, has been chilling for the profession. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to never come out. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left. It can safely be said that Khashoggi’s wife, who was waiting for him right outside, would disagree.

Allegedly, the currently infamous Pegasus spyware had a role to play. NSO (the company that owns the spyware) denies its use even as it says it doesn’t keep a list of targets – current and potential. How does one wrap their head around such conflicting statements?

Worldwide, 937 journalists have been killed in ten years. About 50 were killed in 2020 and 54 held as hostage in the same year. Some are missing. While journalists have been killed in cold blood, arrested for speaking out inconvenient truths and spied upon for decades now (maybe since the start of the trade), let’s not for one second feel that it is a normal order of the world – whatever it is that we are seeing right now, a lot of which is coming from conservative/right-wing populist and hyper-nationalist countries.

In Singapore, as the conservative centre-right party continues to rule, the “Switzerland of the East” has been painted black on the map of World Press Freedom Index. Journalists are sued left, right and centre and defamation suits are the order of the day. The cherry on the cake? Citizen Lab, the academic research lab that focuses on global security, human rights and communication technologies, found Pegasus infections here.

ALSO READ: Pegasus, What’s New About It!

The international organization protecting the right to freedom of information, Reporters Without Borders, says that this city-state is not far-off from China when it comes to suppression of Press. Self-censorship prevails and government decides what is incorrect in News. Words like democracy, press freedom, independence come to mind but not in a positive way.

Moving on. The United Kingdom, currently governed by the Conservative party, is considering changes to the Official Secrets Act of 1989 that could lead journalists reporting on matters that embarrass the government to be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  

Now, some would say that the core of journalism hinges on holding the government to account. The Home Office told the National that reporters would remain free to do so but it’s not yet clear how. The National Union of Journalists has responded with a staunch opposition, some calling it “actual fascism”.

But fascism comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looks like a friend. Technology, for instance, has created immense sophistication in our lives. There is so much to be thankful for. But some of it is operating on legal and ethical boundaries of personal freedom and private lives and some of it has crossed those boundaries. Pegasus belongs to the latter category.

After the Pegasus scandal erupted, BBC reported that about 50 countries could be clients to NSO, the firm behind the spyware that can collect some of the most personal and private information of people it snoops upon.

It’s critical here to understand that its commonness does not make it ok for it to be used world over. It should become more alarming. The fact that there is a community killed, mutilated, and treated as dispensable and that it has been handling spyware attacks at the same time because it is so common is not ok. What’s needed is support for it to thrive and not vile programs used by vile governments for vile purposes.

This very community in its varied image (good, bad, and ugly) is a major pillar of any democracy. Snooping, especially, at the level that the Pegasus operates on – the excessive and unaccountable surveillance – is antithetical to the essence of democracy and to the spirit of journalism.

While some governments can use surveillance for national security, at one point it must show prosecutions that show actual breach of this security or an attempt to justify such action. It cannot be a “snoop till eternity and without any basis”.

ALSO READ: Press Freedom In India Is A Myth

However, in India, the Pegasus scandal does not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to overall downgrading of press freedom. In 2020, India had slipped nine points in the press freedom index from 133 in 2016. That’s nine points in four years. Among 180 countries, we now stand at 142.

Our close neighbour Pakistan, which is ruled by a “centrist”, Islamist and populist party, ranks 145. It is also in the list of countries where infections associated with Pegasus operators have been found.

In India, though, the blow on this fourth pillar of democracy and subsequent fall in press freedom ranking is not in a vacuum. The assault on democracy has been duly noted and in the annual democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020, India slipped two places down.

What looks like a mere journalism problem to the world right now might be a bigger democratic problem and now would be a good time to focus on this deepening crisis of freedom of speech, overreach of power and sustained assault on a major institution defining some of the most influential global powers.

At home, we need the fix the Pegasus issue. Our government must come clean. Did they buy Pegasus? Did they use it? Yes or no, with or without proper authorization? It is confusing for the common man to understand why a government would not do it already but give logically erroneous responses like other countries do it too, it’s an attempt to derail the data protection bill (oddly!), and how our surveillance is never illegal (help us believe it?).

To wrap up, the list of countries with populist governments leaning to the right and allegedly using Pegasus is not as short as some would like. The declining press freedom in most of these nations is concerning. The relationship needs to be examined. But, before we root for an Orwellian world, knowing what’s at stake might only be proper. 1984, anyone?

Why Do Indian Media Treat PM Modi With Kid Gloves?

Assume for a moment that Mr Donald Trump, President of the United States, was in the habit of changing his clothes four times a day; assume also that he was extra fastidious about what he wore, carefully coordinating colours, choosing headgear to suit an occasion, and always paying obsessive attention to his sartorial appearance. If all of that were true, how do you think America’s media—mainstream or otherwise—would have portrayed these attributes? Yes, they’d have a field day. Late night talk show hosts would lampoon him with delight; cartoonists would go to town; and, in general, the media would get enough fodder to go berserk.

America’s media, like Britain’s, enjoy degrees of freedom and the constitutionally protected right to express one’s views like few do in other countries. In many places, undemocratic or simply authoritarian governments clamp down hard on what the media can say. In others, such as in India, the censorship is less visible yet quite effectively imposed. Take the stories about the sartorial obsessiveness of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unlike Mr Trump who favours bland and boxy Brioni suits and doesn’t change his clothes four times a day, Mr Modi’s penchant for wearing carefully considered clothes is quite well known. In 2015, when the then US President Barack Obama visited India, Mr Modi wore a custom-tailored suit (which was later auctioned for a reported sum of Rs 4.3 crore) with pinstripes that were inscription of his name embroidered in gold thread. And later that year, while visiting the US, in Silicon Valley, he changed his clothes, choosing different ensembles, four times in a day.

It’s more than a little ridiculous that the executive head of a country as vast and as beset with complex issues relating to governance and development to grapple with is seemingly obsessed with the way he dresses. Yet, the response in India’s mainstream media is typically one of fawning. This month, on Independence Day, when Mr Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of New Delhi’s Red Fort, one report in a leading Indian newspaper gushed about how “he swapped his typical white short-sleeve kurta for a crisp full-sleeve kurta pyjama set and finished the thing off with a complementary stole and a vibrant saffron and red turban, once again proving he knows his way around bright Bandhini print headgear. Modi’s latest Independence Day attire is a refreshing way of dressing like a prime minister and a masterclass in festive Indian dressing”. No irony; no satire. Only unbridled adulation.

National leaders, including prime ministers and presidents, even if they dress well, usually keep things simple in order to focus on other, more important things. Mr Obama, for instance, usually wore his trademark navy blue suits and sober ties; his successor, for all the ridicule and criticism flung at him otherwise by the US media, dresses in suits that are far from flamboyant.  CEOs of giant companies do the same. Apple’s late Steve Jobs was always clad in a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers. It saved him the trouble and time everyday of thinking about what to wear. He had more important things to think about. Many have followed his example.

But Indian media’s indulgence for Mr Modi’s sartorial flair is only one example of how mainstream press, TV and other channels have come to treat those in power: with deference instead of a demand for accountability. That trend has intensified in the past few years and it is probably not coincidence that this has happened after Mr Modi’s government took charge in Delhi in 2014. But by no means is it a new trend. For long, India’s mainstream media have thrived on what is known as “access journalism”, a form where you do stories, articles and interviews in exchange for access to the rich and powerful, which also means that what you are able to publish or broadcast is usually approved by those who give you that access. Recently, there were several interviews with Mr Modi published in leading Indian newspapers, some of them via email with softball questions that were presumably pre-vetted by his office. Questions pre-approved by the interviewee, especially a powerful one, are a common phenomenon in Indian journalism. But what is inevitably lost in such an exercise is journalistic objectivity, which gets traded in for the all-important access.

India’s senior journalists and editors, particularly in the older, traditional media establishments, enjoy a hail-fellow-well-met familiarity with those they report or write about, or interview. Such familiarity is obviously not conducive to objectivity in what is published, which is usually weighted in favour of the people who ought to attract more journalistic scrutiny but because of the “relationship” with the journalists, don’t. An affable senior member of Mr Modi’s cabinet of ministers is known for his good relations with editors and other senior Delhi journalists, often hosting them at his residence for informal freewheeling discussions and trade in political gossip. Such coteries can and do effectively shape the course of political journalism and influence editorial opinion at some of India’s biggest media establishments.

Even a casual observer of the current state of India’s journalism can easily note the emergence of disturbing trends. India’s mainstream media—the newspapers, news TV channels, and magazines—abound with journalism that is roughly in line with what the government wants to project. Such “positive” treatment can be observed in the coverage of most issues—government schemes and projects; and Mr Modi’s speeches and utterances and those of his colleagues. There’s a varying degree of that “positivity”, of course. Some outlets, notably a few news TV channels, take it to a fan-boy level of adulation for the government in forms that can be downright harmful. Others resist from delving too deep into critiques of controversial decisions—such as Mr Modi’s surprise, and possibly hasty, decision to demonetise large currency notes. Or of whether there is some sleight of hand in his government’s claim of GDP growth and employment generation.

When it comes to investigative journalism—such as the non-transparent deal to buy Rafale fighter aircraft from France for billions of dollars—the mainstream media’s coverage is lukewarm, superficial, or worse. The instinct to play it safe and leave powerful feathers unruffled has sadly become the mainstay of the mainstream media. Indian journalists love to crow about and ridicule the shortcomings of US president Trump and his regime. But just look at the relentless and hard-hitting critique that his country’s established media metes out to him, scrutinising in detail every controversy that arises. There is not even a semblance of such scrutiny and diligence when it comes to controversies embroiling the government at home.

Yet there is a silver lining. The rise of small and independent digital media publications in India has filled the gap that old and established media conglomerates are leaving. In recent times, these are the places to look for if you seek objective, meticulously put together probes and analyses that hold the government and people in power to task. Many of these new media endeavours are refreshingly free of vested interests; neither do they seek “access” and bonhomie with those whose affairs they report and write about; and several of them have quickly won for themselves credibility and the trust of their readers. There is hope.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan  ]]>


New Delhi: A delegation of journalists calls on Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi on Oct 4, 2017. (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Yet the Sridevi episode and how 24-hour TV news channels breathlessly covered it is a symptom of a larger malaise that has begun affecting Indian media. For a better sense of what it is that has struck newsrooms across India, it would be wise to look for what Indian mainstream media are not doing stories on rather than what they are covering. Let’s take the print media. Even a desultory survey of publications will show that besides the stray op-ed pieces in some newspapers, stories that are even mildly critical of the government are strikingly rare. And when they’re published, they seem to be underplayed in terms of their prominence in the publications. In contrast, milquetoast stories on the government’s achievements, favourable interviews with its ministers, and platitudes, often in the form of the prime minister’s utterances are given bigger play. [caption id="attachment_24266" align="alignleft" width="463"] What happened after four Judges raised serious questions about Judiciary?[/caption] Last month when the president of the regime’s main political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, took ill while touring a southern state, a newspaper earlier known for its indisputable credibility, ran a story that listed items that he ate while sick and how long he rested. And, not very long ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man not particularly defined by his academic achievements, wrote a book for high-schoolers on how to tackle the challenge of exams, many publications chose to run a story replete with plaudits on their front pages. Compared to those, you’d be hard-pressed to find well-researched reportage on the plight of India’s burgeoning youth, millions of who stare at a bleak jobless future. Or the real effect that demonetisation had on small traders who eked out a living in a cash economy with little resources to fall back on when currency notes were abolished overnight. The same is true for issues such as the deep trouble that India’s institutions such as the judiciary faces. When four dissenting judges of the Supreme Court held an unprecedented press conference and raised serious questions about the functioning of India’s apex court, there was frenzied reporting about the event. And then it stopped with little or no follow up of what those senior judges had brought to the fore. There are scores of such instances where India’s mainstream media have appeared to hold back. Few of the channels that were exercised over knowing the “truth” about Sridevi’s death have shown similar zeal in investigating the mysterious death of a judge who was presiding over an alleged “fake encounter killing” in Gujarat in which one of India’s most powerful politician could be involved.  In a democracy that prides itself for having a free press and where one of the key roles of the media is to hold a mirror to authority and provide constructive criticism, India’s mainstream media every so often appear to pull their punches and look the other way when they ought to do the opposite. Curiously, this is true even in the absence of any formal governmental gag order to control India’s media. Last month, The Washington Post reported that India had slipped to 136 in 2017 on the World Press Freedom Index rankings, finding itself below Afghanistan and Myanmar (neither country a paragon of press freedom) and quoted the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders as saying that this was because of “growing self-censorship and Hindu nationalists trying to purge ‘anti-nationalist’ thought.” It is true that unlike in the era of “emergency” that was declared in the 1970s by the then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when press freedom was formally curbed and newsrooms subjected to rigorous censorship there is no government-sponsored ban on the press or other media. Yet, in recent years in many Indian states, as the Post story mentions, journalists have been subjected to threats, imprisonment, or worse. India’s ruling regime at the Centre is not known for its tolerance towards criticism and even mild censure of its actions by media has been known to cause displeasure of those who are powerful in government. Many of India’s media barons have interests in other businesses whose fortunes can be dented by official retaliation and it is not uncommon for the publications or TV news channels that they own to take extra care not to ruffle important feathers. [caption id="attachment_25483" align="alignleft" width="832"] Jaipur: Journalists stage a demonstration against Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill that was tabled in the Rajasthan assembly in Jaipur on Oct 24, 2017. This bill amends the Criminal Code of Procedure, 1973, and also bars the media from naming the public servant till the Rajasthan government allows the case to be investigated. (Photo: Ravi Shankar Vyas/IANS)[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_25488" align="alignleft" width="416"] New Delhi: Conference of Senior Editors, (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Self-censorship or tacit pressure on media from those in power make for an unfortunate trend in a country where readers and viewers of news media run into hundreds of millions. If covering stories that raise questions about the government’s functioning, or the effectiveness of its policies, or the the truth about its achievements become no-go areas for media then media outlets will have no choice but to do grotesquely inane stories such as the ones they did when Sridevi died and reporters will, like the poor chap from the TV channel, have to clamber into bathtubs or do worse.]]>