At 28 years old, independent multimedia journalist Ahmer Khan has already been nominated for an Emmy for his work alongside a team of reporters on the film “India Burning.” The film, which is part of a series produced by VICE News and Showtime, spotlights the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country.
Khan was born and raised in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. He has been reporting since 2013, when he was still in high school. Since then, Khan has worked on projects for various publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Radio France Internationale, Time, Buzzfeed and the Los Angeles Times covering conflicts, human rights and natural disasters.
“From natural disasters and humanitarian crises, to human rights, I have done it all. But I'm sure there’s still a long road ahead because I'm only 28,” reflected Khan.
In 2019, Khan won the Agence France Presse Kate Webb Prize honoring journalists working in difficult conditions in Asia. He also won the 2018 Lorenzo Natali Media Prize after discovering the contest on IJNet.
Also through IJNet, Khan took part in the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’s annual four-day crisis zone reporting course. During the program, 16 freelance journalists received training on risk assessment, digital security and emergency first aid to prepare them for reporting in hostile environments.
We spoke to Khan about his career as a young freelance journalist and his experiences reporting throughout Asia.
IJNet: How did you begin working as a journalist?
Khan: I was 18-years-old in 2010 and, being from Kashmir, I saw public protests begin happening for the first time. Before this I had only heard about the militancy or public unrest in the 90s, in the early days of my life because I was born ‘92. I started my journey when I was in high school, and in college I did freelance work. [It] started with Al-Jazeera in 2014, and then there was no turning back. In my first year of college I went to Nepal to cover the 2015 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people over there for VICE News.
I think the reason I went into journalism was because I saw a lot of trouble in my region in Kashmir, which prompted me to do some sort of reporting to report the truth from our region. I have always worked with international media, which is not as biased as national media in India, and I wanted to be a part of truthful and accurate journalism.
Has growing up in Kashmir affected your work reporting on conflicts?
Having a conflict at home, in your backyard, you tend to learn the trade tricks and what to be aware of. I’ve carried that with me into all my reporting. I've traveled across South Asia to report on other countries, for example, the Rohingya crisis, the crisis in Sri Lanka or Nepal and in mainland India.
I also need to work on a lot of other stories which are unfolding in front of our eyes because South Asia is rapidly changing in every country right now.
Have any particular stories uniquely impacted you or your work?
I think the crisis which unfolded last August in Kashmir really impacted Kashmiri journalists in the sense that a lot of things have changed for journalists in Kashmir. For example, there's a Kashmiri journalist who was rounded up by police and then assaulted and slapped twice in the police station in the main city of Kashmir.
Because our work had become so restricted, I was traveling in 2019 between Kashmir and Delhi to get information and just to use internet connection because we had no internet at that time for several months. The government set up a small media center in Kashmir for the journalists to use, but there were hundreds of journalists and only four computers — state surveilled computers — allowed for us to use. I decided not to use them and I went to Delhi at least 16 times in the first two weeks. I used to come in the morning and go back in the evening, but we had to wrap up everything by four o'clock in the evening and then take a five o'clock flight because the airport security is a big hassle. It takes hours for us to get through the security check in Kashmir. That was really hard, but my work was awarded a couple of times earlier this year, including by AFP, which really brought me happiness.
What advice would you offer young independent journalists?
I've always said one thing: “If you're really good, or if the story is really good, it will be sold out no matter who you are or where you are.”
Editors are always out looking for good stories. Obviously, budget cuts have happened recently, but that's everywhere, not in one part of the world. I think young journalists around the world need to understand that they don't need to think so much about their limitations and instead should think more about their work. Obviously there's a lot of competition out there, but if you believe in yourself, if you believe in your story and if the story is original and you touch the human part of it — because every story has a human part to whether it’s culture, sports, economics, human rights or conflict — I'm really confident that you'll be able to sell your story.
There's a lot of cutthroat competition out there, there is no denying that, but if you do good stories, I think you’ll go far.
Chanté Russell is a recent graduate from Howard University and a programs intern at the International Center for Journalists.
All images courtesy of Ahmer Khan.