The unsolved assassination of a journalist

Ahead of India’s national elections, the mystery of Shujaat Bukhari creates a climate of fear and censorship

People carry the body of Shujaat Bukhari. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

On the evening of June 14, 2018, the editors of Rising Kashmir were rushing to prepare the next day’s issue. It was the night before Eid-ul-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, and the newspaper was short staffed. Many reporters were already home with their families. Outside, as the sun went down, shoppers hurried to finish making purchases before the stores closed.

The second-largest newspaper in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Rising Kashmir occupies a multi-story office building in Srinagar, the region’s largest city, in a neighborhood known as the press enclave, where media organizations are clustered. Faisul Yaseen, the acting editor, was working upstairs when he heard what he thought were fireworks. He looked out the window and saw people running. Worried that there had been a grenade attack in Lal Chowk, the crowded shopping district nearby, Yaseen left the office and descended to the street. He turned the corner to the market and saw a windshield riddled with bullet holes. It was the SUV of Shujaat Bukhari, Rising Kashmir’s founding journalist.

Bukhari had left the office only minutes before, flanked by two bodyguards. As soon as he entered his car, three gunmen on a single motorcycle drove by and sprayed Bukhari and the guards with dozens of bullets.

Bukhari was fifty years old, with a thick mustache and rectangular glasses—one of the most recognizable faces in local journalism. He had built Rising Kashmir, training and mentoring hundreds of journalists, and the paper became one of the most widely read news sources in the region. In a conflict zone where warring factions sought to suppress unfavorable coverage, Rising Kashmir published a nuanced and balanced version of events.

The next day, as Eid began, the roads to Bukhari’s ancestral home were jammed with thousands of drivers hoping to attend the funeral service. Rising Kashmir’s front page featured a dignified black-and-white portrait of Bukhari. The extent and intensity of the mourning were commensurate with the public’s respect for Bukhari—his reach and network were unmatched by any other Kashmiri journalist—but the implications of his death were troubling for his colleagues.

Kashmir had never been a safe haven for the press. Bukhari reported, for the BBC, in 2016, that “threats to life, intimidation, assault, arrest, and censorship have been part of the life of a typical local journalist.” But before his murder, the last assassination of a journalist in region had taken place a decade prior. The press had learned to proceed with caution, yet they worked without fear of death. The bold, public killing of Bukhari was a devastating shock. “The brutal nature in which he was assassinated was unnecessary,” Aiyaz Hafiz Gani, Bukhari’s brother-in-law and Rising Kashmir’s publisher, says. “They did not have to do it this way.”

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Almost a year later, on the eve of India’s national elections, it is still unclear who was behind the murder and what, exactly, provoked it. Any party—Pakistan, India, or Kashmiris—might be at fault. Pakistani militants might have sought to stamp out a voice that pushed for negotiating peace with India. Indian nationalists might have wanted to suppress calls for peace with Pakistan. And Kashmiris might have seen Bukhari as a sell-out whose journalism was diluting the cause for independence. Some speculate that Indian or Pakistani intelligence agencies were involved. With no clear answers, reporters in Kashmir are suspended in fear. Zahid Rafiq, a Kashmiri freelance journalist working in the region, tells me, There was always a gun being held to journalists in Kashmir, but now it’s been shot.”

There was always a gun being held to journalists in Kashmir, but now it’s been shot.

 

Kashmir Valley, set within the Himalayas, is famous for its serene landscape, of which Amir Khusro, a fourteenth-century Sufi poet, is thought to have said: “If there is ever a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” But the region is at the center of an ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars over control of the land since the end of British rule, in 1947. After the partition went up, the Kashmiri people were promised a referendum that was never held. That denial, of the right to self-determination, has been an enduring source of frustration and anger for Kashmir. Today the idyllic landscape is dotted with bunkers, army checkpoints, and Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers. It’s one of world’s most militarized zones, and the site of some 70,000 deaths.

Journalists have long been caught in the conflict. They are under pressure from Indian state authorities, as well as separatist groups, to publish biased coverage serving opposing agendas. Journalists are regularly intimidated with legal action, surveillance, interrogations, physical threats, arrest, abduction, and assassination. When tensions have been especially high, the publication and distribution of newspapers has been halted, TV and radio channels taken off air, and the internet and mobile services shut down. A 1995 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists described those in Kashmir as working “under a state of siege.” In the nineties, militants would show up at newsrooms wielding guns and demanding control of stories. At the same time, state authorities charged reporters or news outlets that published the perspectives of militants with threatening national security. Today, many journalists told me, threats from militants are less severe, though they continue to face harassment and intimidation by groups with warring agendas.

Locals have virtually no confidence that police will conduct a credible investigation of Bukhari’s murder. Years of human rights abuses have fueled anger and mistrust from locals at all levels of authority in the Valley. There is little faith in the judicial system. And India has a dismal record of prosecuting the murders of journalists. Out of thirty-five journalists killed in India since 1992, only two cases have resulted in conviction.

Last summer, a special investigative team, assembled by the police, quickly established a theory of Bukhari’s murder: that Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group, was responsible. (LeT has denied involvement.) Officials released images of four suspects—all militants who had long been on their radar. Then, in November, police and the army killed one of the primary suspects, Naveed Jhat, in a shootout. In Kashmir, this was a familiar sequence of events: name a militant commander as a suspect in a case, orchestrate an encounter killing (a police killing of a suspected gangster or terrorist in supposed self-defense), and declare the case closed. Every Kashmiri I spoke with had predicted that this would be the outcome of the Bukhari investigation.

Bukhari’s case has not been closed, but nearly nine months after his killing, there have been no more updates. Police have kept his two phones in their custody without releasing findings; there has been no outline of charges, suspects, or motive. Though the police’s theory is plausible—they pointed to the use of AK-47 and INSAS rifles as indicative of militant involvement—there are a number of questions about the investigation that remain unanswered: How did three militants armed with assault rifles, one well-known to authorities, manage to go undetected in the middle of the heavily populated and surveilled downtown? Where is the bike? Where did they spend the night? Also, an apparent failure of security in the press enclave that evening meant that the police car normally posted at the entrance was missing, police security cameras and CCTVs had either been moved or were not functional, and police did not arrive at the scene for more than twenty minutes. When militants are accused, the judicial process receives less scrutiny. Journalists wonder if the police are holding up an official narrative of the crime that serves the interests of the Indian state.

 

In September, I went to speak with police about Bukhari’s case. An officer told me and a colleague that he had no doubt that Pakistani militants were responsible. He also suggested that the murder was a response to Bukhari’s activism at a recent conference in Dubai. Bukhari, having covered decades of ceasefire negotiations between India and Pakistan, was one of the most prominent voices for peaceful moderation between Kashmir separatists and the Indian national government. He sought a resolution to the conflict through Track II diplomacy, a non-government effort. In Dubai, he spoke about the merits of that approach; Hizbul Mujahideen and United Jehad Council, a pair of militant groups, accused him of undermining separatist voices.

But there had also been an ongoing hate campaign against Bukhari. In an interview with my colleague, Inspector General S.P. Pani pointed to a blog called Kashmirfight and a series of social media posts. They were written by Sajjad Gul, he said, a militant he believes was the mastermind behind the murder. These campaigns smeared Bukhari as a person who was “betraying the Kashmir struggle.”

Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that Kashmirfight had caused problems for Bukhari. Vitriolic trolling on Facebook and Twitter had haunted him for several years; after the conference in Dubai, the intensity increased. Kashmirfight and social media messages accused him of taking money from both Pakistani and Indian intelligence agencies, painting him as an agent working against the cause of Kashmiri independence. “Social media is threatening everywhere, but in conflict zones, it can be deadly,” Naseer Ganai, a journalist with Outlook, says. “Here things go through social media scrutiny, not through editors. Everything has a consequence.” Riyaz Wani, a journalist for Tehelka, tells me, “Nobody knows who will use the narrative that’s been built against you.”

Bukhari was so worried, in fact, that he filed a defamation case against Madhu Kishwar, a right-wing pundit who had accused him of taking money from Indian and Pakistani intelligence services. He alerted Facebook and Twitter to the defamatory posts and registered complaints with the Jammu and Kashmir police. He began raising the matter with friends in the government, to try to find who was behind the posts. Just a few days before he was killed, Bukhari met with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and requested increased security. It wasn’t granted—it’s unclear why. His mood became tense. Bukhari’s wife, Tehmeena, told me that in the weeks before his death, something felt off. She sensed that he was refraining from telling her something so as not to worry her.

 

Bukhari started his career in journalism young: in middle school, he set up a small news agency in his village, Kreeri, about 25 miles northwest of Srinagar. His first job was in accounting, but he was known to skip out on work in order to chase a story. Eventually he pursued reporting full-time, with the Daily Bombay. The day he resigned his accounting job “was one of the happiest I’ve seen him,” Basharat Bukhari, his older brother, says.

Bukhari went on to report for the Kashmir Times, then The Hindu, one of the largest newspapers in India. He became the Srinagar bureau chief, establishing himself as a national authority on Kashmir. He reported on the height of the conflict and the Kargil War, as well as on social and political developments in the region, and is credited for the resurgence of Kashmiri language education. He became a national TV commentator as well as a frequent contributor to international outlets, and his visibility and reputation grew.

At the same time, he began to receive threats on his life. In 1996, he was among a group of nineteen journalists who were kidnapped by an India-backed militia. Bukhari saved the day: he had a knack for memorizing phone numbers, and managed to use the landline in the room where they were being held to call a colleague. The journalists were released safely. In 2006, Bukhari narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when his attacker’s gun jammed.

He was not the only Kashmiri journalist who faced assassination during that time. Still, he continued reporting, saying after the incident, “You know how this job is. You have friends and you have enemies.” When Tehmeena would worry, he’d reassure her, saying, “What will they do to me? What have I done? I’m neutral, I’m nobody’s agent.”

The message from every side is: behave.

Many journalists believe that Bukhari was killed because of his outspoken advocacy for an end to the conflict. But others point out that Bukhari had not had a major role at the Dubai conference, and that journalists with similar views have not targeted. “Shujaat did not have a major role at the Dubai conference, nor did he say anything controversial,” Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist, tells me.

With Bukhari silenced, his colleagues have been hesitant to conduct field reporting. Some are considering leaving the profession. “We don’t know who actually killed him,” Yusuf Jameel, a Kashmiri journalist, says. “But the message from every side is: behave.”

 

Jammu and Kashmir and Indian state authorities have taken advantage of journalists’ fear. Since Bukhari’s death, police have questioned at least six reporters. Some were called in on the pretext of questioning in Bukhari’s case, but instead were asked about their reporting, their headlines, recent travel to Pakistan, and their choice to cover stories of conflict over economic development in the region. It’s unsubtle pressure on journalists to portray a more positive image of Kashmir.

In July, a journalist named Zulkarnain Banday was interrogated about his website, Lost Kashmiri History, which provides background on the Kashmir conflict. He was told that his posts contained strong undercurrents of sedition, and he was asked to reveal the terrorist organization he worked for. His electronic devices were searched and he was detained—without having been charged—for five days. The same month, India’s National Investigative Agency interrogated a Kashmiri reporter named Auqib Javeed for three days about an interview he had conducted with a separatist leader. Another journalist, Aasif Sultan, has been detained since August on charges of “harboring terrorists” and having “incriminating material” on his laptop. The month before, he had published a story on the death of Burhan Wani, a popular and charismatic militant. During local elections last October, CPJ documented nearly a dozen cases of police beating journalists or obstructing their movements.

Despite its vast security apparatus, India is losing its hold on Kashmir. The separatist movement, which had been largely funded by Pakistan, has, in recent years, become increasingly supported by locals. Dead militants are celebrated by the public as martyrs, drawing thousands of spectators to their funerals. The attention further fuels the cause for independence.

To combat this, India is attempting to control the narrative of conflict in Kashmir more strictly than ever, continuing to claim that the region is an integral part of the country. (The state media of Pakistan makes the same claim.) Historically, India has vilified militant activity in Kashmir, using violent incidents as an opportunity to amplify nationalist rhetoric in the rest of the country. This was on display in Indian national media in February, after a suicide bomber in Pulwama killed forty Indian paramilitary police, and retaliatory airstrike by the Indian Air Force struck a terrorist camp in Pakistan. Amid this rapid escalation of tension, national papers put out of flurry of bombastic coverage that failed to investigate government claims or ask how such a serious intelligence failure happened. Instead, the reports amplified nationalist sentiment—helpful to a government preparing for the upcoming elections. Journalists who raised questions were quickly accused of being “anti-nationals.” Lost in this jingoist narrative is reporting and storytelling from Kashmir itself. After the Pulwama attack, basic details were confused, such as how much explosive material was used, and little space was given to questioning why the attack happened.

Parvez, the activist, who also participated in Track II, tells me that India treats Kashmir as its “laboratory of violence”—a place to test out strategies of press oppression without repercussions, before exporting them to the rest of the country. Several journalists have pointed out that the intimidation tactics against the media being seen in Delhi now, such as legal cases, imprisonment, and political pressure, have been present for years in Kashmir. (An official in the Home Ministry declined to comment on press freedom in Kashmir and India.)

India treats Kashmir as its “laboratory of violence”—a place to test out strategies of press oppression without repercussions, before exporting them to the rest of the country.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the climate for journalists throughout the country is worsening. During his first term, he did not hold a single press conference, and he has not tolerated criticism of himself or BJP, the ruling party. The press is operating in an environment where the methods of intimidation, control, and censorship are subtle and effective. Jameel tells me: “They may say the press is free, but they create circumstances in which it’s impossible to work.” The result is self-censorship. “Up till Shujaat’s killing you worked,” Ganai, the Outlook journalist, says. “We took it more lightly, had debates, everyone was free to write to a degree. Now you realize there’s a cost. We’ve become overcautious in reporting.”

Bukhari’s murder is a tragedy for his family, and for Kashmir. It’s also a tragedy for press freedom and peace advocacy. Without a political solution, conflict in the region will inevitably continue, and on-the-ground reporting will be compromised. In a vacuum of critical information and local voices, democracy falls at risk. As India begins its massive election process over the next two months, candidates must also recognize the important role of the media and make a commitment to protecting press freedom.

In a column called “Blood Soaked June,” published two weeks before his murder, Bukhari wrote about new tensions in the Valley, and called once more for a political resolution to conflict. “Local support to militancy has increased. Unless a political approach is adopted by the government, violence will continue to make headlines. And with provocations from the government in Delhi which are further supplemented by TV channels, there is hardly any chance and hope to see a change.”

Kunal Majumder, CPJ’s India correspondent, contributed reporting.

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Aliya Iftikhar joined CPJ in 2017 as its Asia research associate. She has reported from India and the Maldives, written for Vice News and was the editor of The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.