Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Saturday, 9 October 2010 11:59 UK

Journalism threatened in Kashmir protests

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Srinagar

Since July 2010, more than 100 people have died in clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstraters in Indian-administered Kashmir, and sometimes it is the journalists trying to cover the demonstrations that have become the targets themselves.

(Photo from 8 September 8, 2010) Police chase demonstraters in Srinagar
An indefinite curfew has been in place in Srinagar since September

When I met Farooq Shah he was lying under a blanket in the corner of his living room in obvious discomfort.

Friends and neighbours were sitting on cushions scattered across the floor. Someone was serving tea and biscuits.

Farooq had a broken arm and stitches on his head.

The previous evening, when he heard that the curfew had been relaxed, he had made the mistake of wandering down to the main road at the end of his lane.

The police were beating passers-by with long wooden sticks, he recalled.

He told them he was a journalist - a photographer with a local newspaper, Rising Kashmir. So they beat him, too.

It has been a long, hard summer for journalists who ply their trade amid the beguiling beauty of the Kashmir Valley.

They have had to cover the deaths of civilians from their own communities, while dodging bullets, rocks and tear gas shells.

Blows 'raining down'

Months of street clashes have seen more than 100 young men lose their lives - nearly all of them shot dead by the police.

(Photo dated from 10 September, 2010) A protester prepares to throw a missile at police in Srinigar
Resentment has been growing against Indian rule

And for some time now, the police have been turning on the people who are telling this story to the world.

Curfew passes have been ignored or torn up.

Journalists have been threatened and intimidated. And the national press in India has not paid a great deal of attention.

The BBC has not been immune. Our Urdu service reporter, Riyaz Masroor, was beaten earlier this year, a hairline fracture on his arm courtesy of a police baton.

And last week - the latest victim: Merajuddin, a veteran TV cameraman working for the Associated Press, was trying to reach the state assembly with his son Omar, another cameraman.

TV news channels have been taken off air, and newspapers have been prevented from publishing or distributing for weeks at a time

The police ignored their passes and when they protested the blows came raining down. Merajuddin took one on the side of the neck which left him lying in a heap on the road.

Colleagues helped him away before further damage could be done.

Kashmir's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, rang him to apologise. In fact he said sorry three times, which is all well and good.

But there seem to be plenty of people in the valley who do not want the local media to get their stories out.

TV news channels have been taken off air, and newspapers have been prevented from publishing or distributing for weeks at a time.

Vendors have been threatened, and copies seized from street corners. The chief minister says it is nothing to do with him. Which begs the question - who is running the show?

"I've covered Kashmir for more than 20 years," said a leading local journalist Shujaat Bukhari, "and I've never seen such restrictions."

"For us, the last three months has been the worst period ever."

Overbearing security

Efforts to suppress the news have not really worked. Newspapers have been out every day online, and social networking sites have been alive with angry debate.

An Indian paramilitary soldier demolishes a security bunker in Srinagar
It is hoped that reducing the overt security presence will calm tensions

Still the campaign against the news providers seems to be continuing.

And that is sad, because there have been positive developments in Kashmir recently.

An all-party delegation from Delhi visited Srinagar to listen to local complaints and suggestions.

As a result, people detained for throwing stones have been released from custody.

And now a number of police posts and bunkers in the centre of the city have been dismantled and removed. Confidence building measures they say.

It has been pretty obvious for some time that the overbearing security presence in Srinagar had become counter-productive.

The militant insurgency of the early 1990s has long gone, but at times it seems as if the authorities have not got the message.

Armed police stand guard at every street corner - enforcing curfew, searching bags, and acting as a visible reminder for the weary local population - Life here is not normal.

I spent an hour or so at one police post in the old town a few weeks ago, sandbags and barbed wire surrounding a pretty ramshackle hut.

Stones thrown by teenage protesters were rattling off tin rooftops and bouncing into the shuttered shop-fronts of an empty street. Not desperately threatening, but a constant irritation.

"It's their game," sighed the policeman on duty, staring down a rubble-strewn back-lane at the silhouettes of the stone-pelters.

"It's like this every day."

"So what would happen if you weren't here?" I asked.

"They'd probably be playing cricket instead," he replied. "Problem solved."

If only Kashmir as a whole were that simple.

It is not, and it has been a tough time for everyone in the valley over the last few months.

But blaming the local media is not part of the solution.

Don't shoot the messenger. And don't beat him up either.

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