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Emmys 2020: Meet Kashmiri journalist Ahmer Khan, nominated for a CAA documentary

For this 28 year-old award-winning reporter, growing up amidst conflict has made him more empathetic and fearless. An Emmy nomination is just the start, he is unafraid to dream big and take risks

Ahmer Khan (photo: Siddharth Bokolia)
Ahmer Khan (photo: Siddharth Bokolia)

On 28 July the Vice News film India Burning, part of the series titled VICE, was nominated for the Emmy Awards 2020—a section of which were announced last week—under the Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special category.

The film, as indicated by its descriptor on Showtime (the platform on which it is streaming), "investigates the growing fear that the nation's 200 million Muslims are being systematically targeted".

Though it did not win, it's a special moment for the team, perhaps even more so for one of its producers, Ahmer Khan, a 28-year-old journalist from Kashmir—the first from the region, riddled with conflict, to bag a nomination. Khan had taken the lead on the production of the Assam segment, along with a team from India. This part of the 16-minute film traces the story of a Muslim labourer who was helping to build a detention centre for people sifted out by the NRC (National Register of Citizens). It was where his own mother, who had been excluded from the NRC, could potentially end up. “I am just waiting to die," the labourer's mother, who has lived in India all her life, says in the film.

“You have to work really hard, take calculated risks and dream big dreams," says Khan, thrilled about the achievement. “I still want to get an Oscar—that’s my dream as an independent film-maker. I don’t see it as impossible."

The idea of reporting from Assam struck him in late November last year. Khan sent a text to another journalist: “I’m thinking of going to Assam….of doing something on the NRC issue." The response came: “When are you going?" Khan replied almost instantly: “Tomorrow."

At the time, the Union government was still in the process of shepherding the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB)—now an Act (CAA)—which can fast-track Indian citizenship for essentially all immigrants except Muslims from three neighbouring countries. In Assam, the process of creating an NRC had already left the fate of nearly two million hanging in the balance. Protesters took to the streets in Assam and Tripura after the Bill was approved on 11 December.

Khan started documenting the protests in Assam from the day they began. “I felt like I was back home (in Kashmir). There was curfew, killing of civilians, complete internet shutdown. One night I couldn’t find any food to eat, even though I was at a hotel," says Khan. “There were stones being thrown everywhere, tear-gas shelling—no pellets though—there was aerial firing, the streets were burning."

Through this time, he was tweeting the photographs he was taking, the stories he was covering. His reports on the CAA-NRC protests in Assam appeared in media outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN and The Intercept. Eventually, since he had already spent close to two months there—even being questioned by the authorities late one night—Khan was hired to be part of the team that shot India Burning.

“It was difficult to get to the detention centre. I would drive myself—we hired two cars. It was a difficult time for me personally but I knew I had to get up and do it," says Khan. “We even went inside a jail with hidden cameras, that didn’t make the final cut."

Over the last year alone, Khan has won the Kate Webb Prize, which “honours journalists working in perilous or difficult conditions in Asia", and the prestigious Human Rights Press Awards (2020) for his coverage of Kashmir after 5 August, 2019, when the Union government revoked the region’s special status and announced the decision to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories. As Kashmir was plunged into a communication blackhole and the number of armed forces personnel on the ground increased, Khan, who was in Delhi, flew back on the morning of 5 August and interviewed Kashmiris on their first reactions.

He returned to the Capital on 6 August to file one of the first reports out of a locked-down Kashmir. His work on the resistance in Aanchar, a locality in Soura, Srinagar, and the human rights implications of the clampdown, appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, AFP and Time as well as on Radio France, Al Jazeera and Vice News.

Shy of 30, the journalist has reported from Afghanistan with Amnesty International, where he worked as a multimedia producer; from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh on the Rohingya refugee crisis; from Colombo, Korea and India—Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and, most recently, on the India-China stand-off in Ladakh. And though he does not report only from Kashmir, it is his life as a Kashmiri that informs his reportage.

“I have seen trauma from a young age," says Khan, who lost his father at the age of 10, and now supports his family. “Assam, for example, was a heartbreaking moment for me. Among the civilians who got killed was a child who was a music player—his father is an auto driver. In Kashmir, we are all suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. We can always connect with people living in such conflict zones."

Always a journalist

“On this day in 1995, renegades working for Kukka Parray brought a sophisticated bomb hidden in (a) hollowed out book, Kashmir Under Sultans, to my office. It went off with sparkling yellow light, killing news photographer Mushtaq Ali and injuring my other colleague Habib Naqash and me," tweeted award-winning Kashmiri journalist Yusuf Jameel on 7 September. His nephew, Ahmer Khan, was just three years old at the time.

Two decades later, when Khan wanted to be a visual journalist, it’s no surprise that his family was hesitant—it was a high-risk job in Kashmir, one of the most militarized zones in the world, into its third decade of conflict. Khan dabbled briefly with an event company he founded, called LoudBeetle, but it was journalism that drove him.

“No one supported me. It was dangerous but I was into it," says Khan. “When you grow up among roaring guns in your city, on your streets, what kind of fear can you possibly have while reporting? I have been injured a couple of times—the most severe was when I was hit with a pellet."

Initially using his Sony Ericsson phone and posting updates on Facebook, eventually graduating to a DSLR and publication houses, Khan shot dozens of funerals of militants and civilians, protests and clashes. When British photographer Reeve Rixon, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award winner, was in the valley, Khan assisted him for a month. It was a great learning experience—but he wanted more.

“Over the years, I didn’t like that foreign journalists would come, use people here and then leave them out to dry. I don’t like the word fixer—I have been a fixer myself—and I don’t see it as a bad job, but the point is, if you can do it yourself, why not?"

Ahmer Khan (photo: Siddharth Bokolia)
Ahmer Khan (photo: Siddharth Bokolia)

In 2014, when Kashmir was ravaged by floods, Khan was still in college, but he rushed through the city taking photographs. These were used by Al Jazeera. “We had no internet, I had to run up a hill, catch an Aircel network, cut down the size of my photographs and I somehow managed to send across 12." A photograph of a dog submerged in water, carrying her puppy to safety, went viral. Khan was 22.

In 2015, when he heard about the earthquake in Nepal, he booked a flight the next day. “When I landed up in Nepal, I knew no one there, I didn’t even have a press card. I just went. For the first two nights, I (and some other journalists there) slept on the road, I survived on biscuits. I had my laptop and camera, that’s it," he says. His work from Nepal was featured across international publications and landed him a project with the World Health Organization. Khan was 23.

“I think it’s important to remember there is a life beyond the Kashmir conflict," he says. “It is important to report from our home, to tell the stories of our people, but I want to be the kind of journalist who can report from anywhere. That’s what I do."

A different war

For the past few months, this is a goal he has found difficult to achieve. “Just before the world went into lockdown, Kashmir was coming out of one," he wrote in Time. Reporting from the valley has never been easy, but the internet shutdown and restrictions made it worse.

“In August last year, I flew between Kashmir and Delhi at least a dozen times just to file my stories," Khan says. “I never used the media centre (set up by the government for Kashmiri journalists since there was an internet shutdown). “There are people there constantly watching your screen."

Khan did several stories for The New York Times—as much of the press in India reported normalcy in the valley after the 5 August decision, Khan’s visuals told a different story. One of his reports was about a woman who allegedly died of suffocation owing to tear-gas smoke. “I had to hide the camera, a doctor on record said, ‘Yes, she died because of this,'" he says. “There was massive pressure on that hospital administration not to give statements to anyone at all. I didn’t want to send footage or documents like that on a state-surveilled computer." Often, he would send hard-drives or pen drives with anyone who was flying to Delhi, and they would forward it to the publication concerned from there.

Khan has been working through the covid-19 restrictions. His photographs of an Eid in lockdown were published in The New York Times and he has just wrapped up a film on the state of the media in Kashmir for Al Jazeera.

But he is working against the odds. As India celebrated Independence Day on 15 August, Kashmir was under strict curfew. Khan took his camera and reported from Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar, where screens had been set up to broadcast Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech. As Khan’s camera pans the street, it’s deserted but for security personnel and the police. He posted the video on Twitter.

“People started to report the tweet, I was locked out of my account for 72 hours and eventually I was shadow-banned, my reach was limited," says Khan. “This wasn’t even an opinion I had posted, it was an objective visual of what was happening in Kashmir as India celebrated Independence Day," he says.

Still, even the barrage of hate he receives on social media does not deter him. “We all have different responsibilities as we stand up to oppression," he says. “If one is fighting on the road, another is talking to the world. A war cannot be won just on the streets. As we say in Kashmir, sometimes the pen is mightier than the gun."

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