Kamran Yousuf a Journalist or Terrorist? Kashmir Photographer Is Jailed, Pending Answer

Feb 21st, 2018 | Category: Articles

Kamran Yousaf is a Journalist

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — He is known as one of Kashmir’s gutsiest news photographers covering the intensifying hostility in his home region, and when violence broke out he was always among the first to the scene.

But the photographer, Kamran Yousuf, 21, has been stuck in jail since September — the victim, his friends and family say, of the Indian authorities’ strange and harsh definition of what a “real” journalist is.

Those officials insist that Mr. Yousuf is part of an international terrorist gang conspiring to wage war against the Indian security forces in Kashmir. They said he could not possibly be a journalist because he never takes any pictures of government developmental projects or the inaugurations of hospitals, schools or bridges.

Journalists have rallied to Mr. Yousuf’s cause, claiming that the charges have been cooked up and that he is being punished simply for what he covered: explosive antigovernment protests and militant activity, two real forces that have been haunting Kashmir for years.

“It’s absurd,” said Syed Shujaat Bukhari, one of Kashmir’s most senior journalists. “Kamran’s a genuine journalist, and it’s not a government agency’s business to tell a journalist what to report or not report.”

For decades, Kashmir has been the subject of a brutal territorial dispute between India, which controls much of the territory, and Pakistan. It lies right on the border, and tens of thousands of people have died here among the ruggedly beautiful mountain slopes and endless apple orchards.

The conflict ebbs and flows, but in the past few years, Mr. Bukhari said, the predominant feelings among many young Kashmiris have hardened from “anti-India to hate India.”

Mr. Yousuf, who hails from a small, apple-growing town, dropped out of college to document Kashmir’s conflict. He is tall and thin, with thick black hair and a black goatee on a cherubic face. “Hungry” is the first word his friends use to describe him.

He could often be seen racing around on his grandfather’s motorbike, backpack stuffed with camera gear, business cards, notepads and wires, getting to the action often before anyone else. He is known for his pictures of fiery riots, militant funerals and smashed-up cars.

Though young and relatively new to journalism, he had already become a specialist in capturing rage. And his friends say that is why the security services went after him.

“The police don’t want stone-pelting highlighted, and he was highlighting it,” said Younis Khaliq, another photographer.

Stone-throwing is a serious problem in Kashmir. When army trucks rumble past, or police officers show up at a mosque, the result is often a huge group of young men hurling rocks at them. These confrontations can turn deadly; just a few weeks ago, soldiers in a convoy shot and killed three stone-throwers.

Mr. Yousuf has been charged as a stone-thrower.

The National Investigation Agency, a counterterrorism force that in some ways is similar to the F.B.I., is accusing him of being part of a “well-planned criminal conspiracy” run by terrorists in Pakistan to wage war against India.

Kashmiri journalists say the accusation is ridiculous. Still, if the intent of Mr. Yousuf’s arrest was to intimidate journalists, it is already working.

Mohammad Abu Bakar, another young Kashmiri photographer, said he has taken fewer pictures of stone-throwing and more of dry official events. He recently showed up at a news conference about the arrest of a drug dealer, which he said made for a very boring picture.

“I know the pictures won’t be used, but I want to show them that I’m here, don’t worry, I’m on your side,” he said.

Mr. Yousuf worked as a freelancer, making a few hundred dollars during good months. His freelance colleagues said that the newspapers that used many of his photos have abandoned him, declining to pay for his legal fees or to help his family.

Kashmir’s rank-and-file journalists have taken to printing posters that say: “I am Kamran Yousuf. I am caged for fair journalism.”

While the Indian authorities have lumped Mr. Yousuf in with a militant network they say is supported by Pakistan, they have also acknowledged in prosecution documents that Mr. Yousuf did not have any international phone numbers on his phone — and that he used it mostly to talk to his girlfriend.

The investigators also seemed to have definite opinions about what journalists in Kashmir should be doing. They said that it was a journalist’s “moral duty” to “cover the activities and happenings (good and bad) in his jurisdiction” and that Mr. Yousuf had neglected to photograph government programs like skill-building workshops or blood drives.

Alok Mittal, a spokesman for the National Investigation Agency, said investigators had “sufficient evidence” that Mr. Yousuf had participated in stone-throwing. He said the agency had “the highest regard for press freedom and there is no question of any intimidation to any journalist.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit organization, is urging that Mr. Yousuf be freed. Steven Butler, the group’s Asia program coordinator, said Mr. Yousuf’s conflict photographs are “a public service in the best spirit of journalism.” Mr. Butler also said India’s National Investigation Agency “is way out of its league” in telling journalists what to cover.

On Wednesday, a judge in New Delhi, India’s capital, is scheduled to rule on whether Mr. Yousuf is entitled to bail.

“We long for him to get out,” said his mother, Rubeena Tasin, who broke into tears just going through his backpack. When an uncle recently visited him in jail, Mr. Yousuf had a worrisome eye infection and looked thinner than usual. He also seemed stressed.

“Every day I told him to leave the job, every day,” his mother said. “But he wanted to earn money. And get some fame.”

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