Award-Winning Photojournalist Masrat Zahra Talks About Documenting Life in Kashmir

In early June, Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra won the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her work documenting the humanitarian crisis in the region. 

Just two months earlier, the Jammu and Kashmir Police booked her under what Zahra described as a “draconian law,” the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Zahra had been documenting the humanitarian crisis when she was accused by police of uploading “anti-national” posts to social media and trying to “[cause] disaffection against the country.” There has been no progress in the case since then.

As the first female recipient from Kashmir, winning the 2020 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism meant a lot to her, Zahra told MediaFile in an interview late last month.

This award is the courageous award and for me this means a lot because I was going through a tough phase in my life,” Zahra said. “I was booked under [UAPA] when the state government in India said that I am not a journalist.” 

In August of last year, India’s Hindu nationalist government revoked Kashmir’s special status, reining in some of the state’s autonomy and reorganizing it as a union territory. The government also imposed a harsh communications blackout, controlling the flow of information into and out of Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has eased sanctions but continues to impede journalists in Kashmir through intimidation and force.

Though the government makes it difficult for Zahra and her colleagues to effectively do their jobs, it has not been able to stop journalists from documenting Kashmiri lives and disseminating their stories to the rest of the world. On August 5, 2019, the day the communications blackout was imposed, Zahra got right to work. 

“I continued my work. There was only one thought in my mind that I have to document whatever will happen,” Zahra said about the communication blackout. Even though Kashmiri journalists knew that they might not be able to send footage over to publishers, they continued to document everything they could. 

“We went to [the] airport, we smuggled [inaudible] drives, SD cards to an unknown person at the airport and wrote down [our] name and phone number.” Reporters would then wait by computers in a government operated facility called the Media Facilitation Centre to check if their stories had been published, Zahra added.

“Nothing was working, there was a total communication blackout,” she said, adding that reporters were working in groups to collect information. “We were relying on the word of mouth. There was a fear that you would get arrested, that the police will torture you. There was this fear among the journalists that your name is on the list with the police.”

Later, when the journalists finally had access to the internet, it would still take a day to upload their work to the computer because of the continued restrictions on communication. But Zahra has faced more obstacles than just the restrictions placed on journalists in Kashmir; she also faces the difficulties that come with working in a male-dominated profession in a traditional society.

Zahra says she experienced prejudice toward her choice of profession even among her own family. During religious festivals, when she was expected to join her family in observing time-honored traditions, Zahra was often busy working and putting herself in danger. While covering annual Eid festivities last August, Zahra was hit by shotgun pellets fired by local police.

“I remember on those days I was hit by pellets and my family came to know about it through social media and they were calling me and saying, ‘everybody is home celebrating and you are out and you are a girl and who will marry you,’” Zahra recalls.

But reporting through the perspective of a woman has its benefits, Zahra says. Though she has personally faced discrimination, she says that her work offers a reflection of the female viewpoint on the Kashmir conflict, rarely seen in her male counterparts’ work. “There are those intimate stories that I feel a female can only tell,” she said.  

“Rape is a weapon of war in Kashmir, there are those videos of militants, daughters of rebels in Kashmir,” she said. “I feel that they can share their stories with me.”

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