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Masrat Zahra

Srinagar, Kashmir, August 21, 2020
Masrat Zahra

Masrat Zahra, winner of the 2020 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

I felt a responsibility to tell it.

The compelling responsibility to bear fair witness as one of the rare women photojournalists in Kashmir came for Masrat Zahra with the ever-present fear of being unequal to the task. It’s a fear that can often serve as an antidote for the best reporters in overcoming official repression and intimidation.

“I was afraid of failing to tell the story,” more than she was of the authorities or the occasional harassment from other journalists disdainful of the presence of a Muslim woman determined to cover the unrest in Kashmir.

“It’s our job to work and show the truth,” and “you have to take risks” to do it, Zahra said in a Zoom interview from Srinagar with the Peter Mackler Award.

“There is no excuse that you will stay home and do the reporting – you have to be there,” she said, despite the attempts of such entities as the “Cyber Police” in Srinagar or India’s “Directorate of Information” to suppress her work.

“I feel that as a female journalist, I have a privilege” to tell the stories that have been ignored of Kashmiri women caught up in a conflict zone, Zahra said. “You have to speak on their behalf.”

Her constant concern is that if she doesn’t take the photos, doesn’t do the reporting, then “nobody will come to know about this. As a Kashmiri, this is my story too. I feel a privilege working in my community.”

She has seen the posts on social media, heard the whispers as she went about her work that she was a “mukhbir,” a government informer. “People stare at me because they are not used to seeing a woman with a camera,” she said.

Still, she had gone to the home of Firdous Ahmad Khan, a laborer killed in the unrest, on her first news assignment to document the void left for his family. “I was worried that his family would not speak to me, or that security forces would stop me,” she said.

“But when I met Firdous’ widow Ruksana, then 25 and soon to give birth to their second child, “she hugged me and cried and told me about the pain of losing her husband. She was burdened and desperate to speak, and could open up to another woman.”

Masrat Zahra, during confrontations between Indian government forces and students protesting civilian killings on Lal Chowk square of Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Umer Asif

Masrat Zahra, during confrontations between Indian government forces and students protesting civilian killings on Lal Chowk square in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Umer Asif

For telling that story, for telling others of the women of Kashmir, Masrat Zahra has been chosen as the 12th recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for courageous and ethical journalism.

The Award is a project of the Global Media Forum Training Group (GMFTG), a 501 (C) (3) organization. Partners include the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, Reporters Without Borders and Agence France-Presse.

“Masrat Zahra exhibits the very qualities that my late husband, Peter Mackler, fostered in the new generation of reporters whose path he crossed. Masrat’s complete dedication to reporting the story, no matter the risks, along with her mental fearlessness and creative approach to use any medium at her disposal to bear witness to the world made our choice easy,” said Catherine Antoine, president of the Global Media Forum Training Group and founder of the Peter Mackler Award.

In the course of her work, Zahra has been summoned by the police and accused of spreading “fake news” and giving support to enemies of the state.

In April, Zahra and another journalist in Jammu and Kashmir were cited under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

The Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir, charged in a press release that Zahra’s postings could “provoke the public to disturb law and order” and “glorify anti-national activities,” according to Amnesty International.

“Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India.

Masrat Zahra at work, during clashes between protesters and Indian government forces at the end of Friday prayers at the Jamai Masjid mosque in Srinagar. Photo: Bilal Ahmad

Masrat Zahra at work, during clashes between protesters and Indian government forces at the end of Friday prayers at the Jamai Masjid mosque in Srinagar. Photo: Bilal Ahmad

She now faces the additional burden of laboring under a new law enacted by the New Delhi government in June that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has described as “Orwellian.”

The “New Media Policy” of the government for Jammu and Kashmir “assumes the right to harass journalists and media judicially and economically if they publish content it doesn’t like. It amounts to prior censorship,” RSF said.

The new law openly aims to “foster a genuinely positive image of the government,” and gives Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) the de facto right to exercise control over journalism before and after publication for the next five years, RSF said.

“Any individual or group indulging in fake news, unethical or anti-national activities or in plagiarism shall be de-empaneled besides being proceeded against under law,” with “de-empaneling” meaning that the journalist will lose accreditation.

“As there is no definition of what constitutes fake news or anti-national content, the government has absolutely infinite interpretative leeway to censor any journalism it does not like and to impose its own narrative,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

The law set up new obstacles for Zahra to navigate past as a 26-year-old Muslim woman on a mission to tell the story. “I was born and raised in Srinagar’s old town, where I would often watch street clashes play out between Indian security forces and Kashmiri protesters,” she said.

“The photographers who came to cover the protests in my neighborhood were always men. Whenever I saw them, I imagined myself like them, taking pictures of the scenes before us.”

“But photojournalism is still not considered an acceptable career choice for women in Kashmir, where society expects us to stay at home or work in jobs with office hours,” she said in an op-ed for Al Jazeera.

Her ambition to become a journalist was driven by her need “to show women’s perspectives, and to explore my own, too,” she said.

  • Women looking out to the Muharram procession on 28 October 2017 in Srinagar. The religious tradition that has been mostly banned by the Indian government since the 90s. The celebration is often marred by clashes with the police. Photo: Masrat Zahra
    Women looking out to the Muharram procession on 28 October 2017 in Srinagar. The religious tradition has been mostly banned by the Indian government since the 90s. The celebration is often marred by clashes with the police. Photo: Masrat Zahra

“The stories and perspectives of women have largely been ignored and buried in the Kashmiri and international media. They have hardly been spoken about — their losses, their resilience.”

Zahra simply wanted “to document the untold stories of women and to talk to them.”

Richard Sisk

Masrat Zahra award acceptance speech – Srinagar, Kashmir, September 24, 2020

Camille Mackler’s address – New York, NY, September 24, 2020

The ceremony was organised, online via Zoom, by the Newmark J School at City University of New York.