The life and times of a seized scribe

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 23/05/2003

The life and times of a seized scribe


The arrest last fortnight of Kashmiri journalist, Ghulam Mohuidin Bhatt, in Delhi under POTA highlights the state of journalism in the Valley.


Mannika Chopra


In many ways 35-year-old Ghulam Mohiudin Bhatt`s life`s story reflects the fragile state of the media in Kashmir. His transition from a flourishing entrepreneur to an aggressive journalist took place against the background of the insurgency movement that has wracked the Valley from 1989 onwards. His biography is riddled with reports of quick money, proximity to militant groups and anonymous quotes --- all combined under a patina of belligerent, market-oriented journalism.


The middle son of an apple orchard owner, Mohuidin`s initial association with the media began through his elder brother, Muhammad Amin Bhatt. Around 15 years ago, Muhammad started as a newsagent in Handwara, a town located in the Kupawara district of North Kashmir, distributing local Kashmiri papers throughout the Valley.  Close to the Pok border Kupawara is known as a militancy-dominated area.  Like so many other newsagents in the Valley, Muhammad doubled as a stringer feeding stories to a clutch of Urdu papers. By all accounts the newsagent business thrived well enough for Muhamamad to start a tabloid together with his brother Ghulam: A litho publication, Tameel-e-Irshad was edited by Muhammad but owned by the two brothers. The weekly, not really known for its standards of journalistic excellence, was nevertheless good enough to compete with existing Urdu publications.


High on the power of the press, and according to some Srinagar-based journalists, in all probability aided with some dubious funding, three years ago Bhatt decided to start a news service---the Kashmir Press Service  (KPS). Supported by an extensive network of stringers, contributors and reporters, the news service was prolific and used by most Kashmiri papers. Indeed even the national news agencies, PTI and UNI subscribed and used its feed. " At Rs 150 per month KPS was always one step ahead of other news outlets especially when the news was connected with militants, " says a Valley based journalist. For instance, it was KPS that told the world which group took responsibility for the recent attack on Radio Kashmir.


KPS `s coverage of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), the militant group stationed in Muzzafarbad in Pok was also suspiciously cutting edge. "Anything that the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, wanted to publicize first appeared in KPS. You got the feeling that the news that the agency gave about militants was totally accurate and that KPS had close contacts with groups across the border, " confirms a reporter.   


By being ahead of the pack, KPS actually left other Valley based news agencies behind. Competitors, the older Current News Service (CNS) and the relatively younger NAFA  (News and Feature Alliance) were not as popular or spread out as KPS.


Buoyed by the success of the news service the Bhatts decided to convert their paper into a daily four-page broadsheet last year. The paper followed the marketing strategy of Al Safa, the largest circulated Urdu daily in the Valley, by distributing it free. (Previously Al Safa in order to corner the market had priced its paper at 25p for about six months.)  Besides being gratis, the new paper was distributed so effectively that it began to slowly catching up with Al Safa, The rivalry between two publications became the stuff of media gossip. Hawkers from both camps would be attacked and reporters intimidated. 


This was not only a simple circulation war there was also regional rivalry. Both the owners of Al Safa and Tameel-e-Irshad originated from North Kashmir: The former from Sopore and the latter from Handwara. Each paper wanted to establish its supreme rule in its home territory and the enmity between the papers took on brutal regional overtones.


Not surprisingly Bhatt was not everybody`s favourite kind of journalist. Brash, cocky and a bit of a know it all; he often rubbed colleagues and seniors up the wrong way. Having barely finished his 12th standard, he used to boast to veterans in the profession that the day when his paper was going to be number one in the Valley was not far off. He said he was in the process of buying a colour printing press so that he could compete with Al Safa which was already printing in four-colour. 


Bhatt`s editorial staffers were also known to have unsavoury reputations. Some cases of blackmail had been registered against them. A few months ago KPS reporters threatened a petrol pump owner in North Kashmir with negative publicity if he did not hand over some money. The petrol pump owner complained and the reporters were arrested but subsequently freed.


So was Bhatt`s arrest by the Delhi police on May 10 justified or was it another case of police muffing things up as they did in case of Iftekar Gilani, Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times, who was arrested last year?  Or was it, as Bhatt`s family maintains, a part of a well planned conspiracy laid out by the state?


A random survey of the media community in Srinagar seemed to suggest that given the circumstances, the arrest was legitimate. Though nobody knows for sure, there was a general suspicion that groups located across the border were funding Bhatt. " How could he distribute his paper for free unless he had some solid financial backing ?" queried one scribe. His flashy lifestyle, numerous cars and well appointed office were also seen as tell tale signs of prosperity, contrasting sharply with the almost penurious state of most journalists in the Valley.


It was well known that Bhatt used to visit Pakistan quite regularly and openly; each visit was via the official visa route. After his last visit in late 2002 he brought a wristwatch with a hidden camera and bragged to friends that next time he would get a watch equipped with a video camera.


Mostly, every one quotes Bhatt`s close connections with Syed Salahuddin, HM chief and the head of the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation to which 15 militant organizations are affiliated. Bhatt`s proximity to the militant was evident during the Abdul Majid Dar/ Salahuddin face-off. Dar, a former area commander of the HM, had been largely instrumental in propelling a HM ceasefire in 2000 so that peace talks with the Centre could begin. For this `unilateral` stand, the HM leadership in Muzaffarbad, Pok, expelled Dar.


Later, talk of friction between Salahuddin and Dar and the clash between their two camps began doing the rounds. Two months ago Dar was assassinated in his hometown of Sopore. It was the brave journalist who supported and reported on Dar. Parwaz Mohammad Sultan, editor and owner of NAFA, and KPS rival, did. He was killed in February in Srinagar`s press enclave. Other newspapers which took a `line` also received threats.


Significantly, unlike the arrest of Gilani, Bhatt`s arrest did not bring forth an outpouring of anguish from the media community in Kashmir. No protest marches took place; no petitions went to the state chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Syed or to the Union Home Minister, L.K.Advani. In fact, hardly any reportage of the arrest and its aftermath appeared in the local press. Some cynical journalists concluded that had Bhatt been the son-in-law of a prominent Hurriyat leader, as Gilani was, then the reaction would have been very different.


Unfortunately, in the public eye, the wrongful arrest of Gilani set a precedent. Now the detainment of any Kashmiri media person-- justified or not-- is seen simply as yet another example of a fascist Indian state quashing the Kashmiri`s freedom of expression. But amongst the local press the general consensus is that Bhatt`s arrest could be the welcome beginning of weeding out unprofessional elements that have entered the Kashmiri media over the past 14 years.




The Case So Far


Ghulam Mohuidin Bhatt, editor of the Srinagar-based news agency, Kashmir Press Service was arrested in Delhi on May 9 by the Special Cell, Delhi Police. The police claimed that a sum of Rs 6.5 lakh and a mobile phone was seized from Bhatt when he was arrested. Aside from the money, the police said, that Bhatt was also carrying a pistol made in China and 16 cartridges. He was charged under the Arms Act for possession of an unlicensed weapon and was later booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for alleged links with the Kashmiri militant organisation, the Hizbul Mujahideen.


According to the police, the money Bhatt was carrying was part of a hawala transaction that was meant to fund militant activities in the Kashmir Valley. Shortly after the arrest a team of police officials went to Srinagar and raided Bhatt`s residence. They also searched the office of the Urdu publication, Tameel-e- Irshad, which Bhatt edits. Police alleged that Bhatt used to monitor the activities of various journalists in the Valley and keep Pakistani intelligence informed about them. Based on information provided by him, terrorists allegedly intimidated journalists who did not write favourably towards the separatist campaign raging in Jammu and Kashmir. Two days ago Bhatt`s elder brother, Muhammad Amin Bhatt, was also arrested in Handwara but has now been released.


Bhatt was produced in the court of designated POTA judge, S.N. Dhingra on Saturday, May 17. The judge extended Bhat`s police remand for eight more days. The police claimed in court that several documents recovered during the raid revealed his links with militant groups. The documents seized from Bhatt`s office included a fax message which, the police said was sent by a Hizbul commander directing Bhatt to go and collect hawala money in Delhi for the militant outfit. Bhatt has denied the allegations against him.


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