During the conflict between India and Pakistan, opposing narratives in news coverage regarding the people of Kashmir have worked to silence their voices.
Prior to August 2019, Kashmir valley was the most militarized region in the world according to several sources, with one army unit stationed for every seven civilians. This presence was further augmented two years ago with almost 40,000 additional troops, deployed to silence civil society, bringing life in Kashmir to a standstill. In addition to a direct ban on local and national media organizations, international outlets have also been granted little access.
Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy: empowering citizens to participate is essential for a democratic society to survive, transparency to thrive and human rights to be upheld. For more than 30 years, however, Kashmiri journalists have endured the consequences of military conflict between India and Pakistan. Reporters suffer regular attacks that can escalate to kidnapping and killings.
Upon becoming a journalist, instead of joining a mainstream media outlet, I decided to launch a community news network called Kashmir Unheard. This community journalism platform gives voice to marginalized sections of Kashmiri society, building off the work that Video Volunteers had been carrying out across 18 states in India through its India Unheard program.
A project of Video Volunteers, Kashmir Unheard uses a hybrid advocacy-journalism model to resolve societal issues and hold the government accountable. We report and offer solutions on systemic issues in local communities that otherwise fall through the gaps of daily reporting. Raising awareness helps drive change: this is what drives our reporting.
An initiative that began in 2012, with one student of journalism reporting from the ground, today has grown into a network of 22 empowered Kashmiri voices. Kashmir Unheard community correspondents produce video reports on critical issues in their communities. To mobilize change, the piece is then screened to local authorities and shared on social media accounts and websites.
One community correspondent, Pir Azhar, has been reporting from the line dividing Indian-controlled Kashmir from the Pakistani side. This highly militarized area has in the past three decades suffered tremendously; situated along a major route that militants take to cross over to Pakistan for arms training, the villages in the district are filled with stories of pain and destruction. Yet, the media has long overlooked the region.
“After the 2019 lockdown, the work came to a halt, my income was badly affected, local issues remained unreported and I couldn’t travel amid these crises,” Azhar said. His reporting has pushed authorities in the Kashmiri district of Kupwara and the surrounding area to address issues with water supply and road improvements, among others. He feels this is the strength of communities coming together and building their news outlets.
While mainstream outlets often cover incidents of violence in isolation, community media outlets like Kashmir Unheard are able to more comprehensively report the stories of eyewitness accounts and victims and survivors of the violence. They amplify community voices in order to inspire empathy and raise awareness around the world.
Another community correspondent, Rafiqa Bano, has reported on women’s issues, the environment and human rights since 2017. She also experienced the challenges of the 2019 lockdown. “There was complete mistrust among the people once things slowly started opening up in March 2020. People would hardly trust the media, [and] the government had come up with a new media policy making it difficult for reporters like us to work or build trust with common people and sources,” she said.
Meanwhile, web-based tools, social media and smartphones have made it possible for news outlets like ours to flourish. According to Basharat Amin, another community correspondent, the internet is the backbone of the organization’s work. When 2g internet services were restored after the complete internet shutdown, it still took “12 to 14 hours to upload a two-minute video on YouTube,” he noted, adding that it stayed this way for a year until 4g internet was fully implemented. Amin has been a human rights activist in Kashmir for the past 10 years. His association with Kashmir Unheard allows him and the outlet to exchange skills and knowledge to document human rights abuses.
With a focus on people’s stories, Kashmir Unheard is helping broadcast the realities of Kashmir, empowering ordinary people to report and document organic narratives. Amid challenging technological and press freedom conditions, Kashmir Unheard enables local communities to merge activism and journalism to amplify calls for human rights and equality.
Sajad Rasool is a journalist based in Kashmir, he manages Kashmir Unheard - a community news initiative supported by Video Volunteers India. Sajad's work is focus areas are digital journalism, documentary film making and solutions journalism.
Photo courtesy of Sajad Rasool.