Sajad Rasool - Every journalist has to be an activist

What role do you have in your community? Sajad Rasool has spent his career passionately amplifying the grievances of marginalised communities whose voices are often overlooked by mainstream media. He talks to us about his projects, his outlook and the power of telling stories to resolve the issues at stake.

I do believe in objectivity, but most of the time we deal with subjects. So everything is subjective. Everything becomes subjective and our prejudices and biases are always there. I would definitely consider myself to be a journalist as well as an activist. I think every journalist has to be an activist. Because in most of the cases when we tell human stories, we got to take positions, we got to take sides. I mean, taking the side of the people is what I do as a journalist. I take the position and I align myself with the people and their voices.

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About the speaker

Sajad Rasool is a journalist and activist from India-controlled Kashmir, with a passion for empowering marginalised communities whose voices are often overlooked by mainstream media. He co-directed Kashmir Unheard in 2014. Since then, he has dedicated his career to producing high-quality, impactful video reports that shed light on the most pressing issues facing his community. \ \ Over the past eight years, Sajad has trained and mentored over 40 Community Correspondents from Jammu and Kashmir, teaching them the art of filmmaking and storytelling in the conflict. Together, his team at Kashmir Unheard has produced over 1500 video reports, focusing on stories that are often ignored by mainstream media.

In addition to his work at Kashmir Unheard, Sajad is actively involved in several civil society organizations, including the J&K Right to Information Movement. He is a prolific writer and producer, he has worked as director and producer for several short films in the conflict ridden Kashmir valley. His work has regularly featured in leading publications such as Huffington Post, Aljazeera, IJNET, Firstpost, and others. Through his storytelling, Sajad has helped to build dialogue among communities and highlight narratives that promote democratic values and human rights.


 I do consider myself to be an investigator as well because the regular work which I have been doing at Kashmir Unheard or generally in my personal capacity is investigative; because we, as journalists, as storytellers, we have to be investigators. It is only investigation which gives clarity about certain issues, which are very complex to understand. Actually, it helps navigate around certain structures that exist in occupied lands like Kashmir or Palestine or any other part of the world. It helps us reveal those patterns. It helps us understand the people we live among. It helps us also to understand and learn about the designs of the state. You just follow the, what we say, follow the power and follow the money. Similarly, follow that attitude of investigation.

My name is Sajad Rasool, and I come from Indian-administered Kashmir. I was born and raised there. For the past eight years, I have been working as a journalist and community activist in Kashmir itself.

I was born in 1988. It is the year when militancy erupted in Kashmir. So I grew, sort of, like, seeing what's happening around me. And I had always an inclination towards reading about history and I have been a student of history as well. Not everything would be covered in newspapers and Kashmir during the 90s up to 2002 at least, has been a spot of a lot of violence. So the media concentration is largely in the city, which is Srinagar, which is the only city of Kashmir. So it would be very difficult for news media organizations to reach out to these small pockets of Kashmir Valley; to record what's happening there in terms of human rights abuses and the conflict, how it's affecting them.

So when I grew slowly, I did my graduation. Then I actually joined the journalism school where I did my masters. And the intention was to create something, some sort of like, a different platform, which would be very democratic, free and independent, and which won't necessarily engage journalists and train journalists, particularly in storytelling, because then it becomes mainstream again. The idea was to engage social activists who already are working on different types of issues in their localities, in their areas. 

I run a community news organization called Kashmir Unheard. It's a global network of community news organizations, mostly working in India, wherein we train people from marginalized sections of the society, particularly what we call media dark areas, certain spots of India where there is no media access, mainstream media access.

So we have trained like almost 36 people in the past seven years who have reported from their respective districts and respective blocks and areas. We call them community correspondents because they're representing a community which they belong to. It's not a person, you know, coming from some other pocket of India or other state of India, coming there and parachuting and coming as a journalist and telling the story and recording it. So it is a person who belongs there, who lives this story every day. 

It's actually focused on evidence collection, which we use in two ways. One is the human rights aspect of stories. So almost every story is told with a tone of human rights. Second aspect of our work is to highlight the local issues - rather we call them hyper local issues. So if there's a village wherein there's not good road connectivity, or there is a health center which is not functional, or doctors are not coming, and document it in video as evidence, as something which can be proven to the authorities. So it's, the second part of the work is rather focused on the impact. So how do we resolve issues with the help of technology and journalism and activism? Our project is a mix of activism and journalism.

I do believe in objectivity, but most of the time we deal with subjects. So everything is subjective. Everything becomes subjective and our prejudices and biases are always there. I would definitely consider myself to be a journalist as well as an activist. I think every journalist has to be an activist. Because in most of the cases when we tell human stories, we got to take positions, we got to take sides. I mean, taking the side of the people is what I do as a journalist. I take the position and I align myself with the people and their voices.

When I was very young and I would go to school in locality, I would often hear sounds of bombs coming from somewhere in our locality. It was until almost 2010 that I didn't know what's happening. Then in 2010, I got to know about a military firing range. So I was very curious. I was like, ‘no, what? how is it possible?’. Then, once upon a time, I happened to go to that locality and I saw it. Artillery guns placed in a river, on a riverbed. Actually, the river is flowing and on the riverbed, there are huge artillery guns, hundreds. The mountain is here and the guns are here, right? But under this area, there are 16 villages. And for the past 60 years, almost 250 or something people had died because of the misfiring of the guns. And I was imagining, ‘oh my God, these people live under these circumstances for five months, around the year, listening to these different sounds all the time.’

Then I tried to dig it up on my Google search, but nothing came out, literally. Then in 2014, we created  - so I'm also, since I'm an activist as well, I am an activist in civil society groups in Kashmir. We came up with this idea that we should make a front of the local people who would demand that this military firing range should be evacuated, taken away, because it has affected lives there. It's a question of human rights. It's a question of human life. I would go village to village and find the people who had been affected directly, the people without their limbs, without their eyes, or the people whose relatives had actually died because of the unexploded shells. And we created, I created like almost, I don't know, like maybe 100 interviews of the victims. And we created this forum. And we involved locals only in it. And we brought them to the press colony, we call it in Srinagar. And they came to protest there. We also supported them. We printed banners and everything. It was a civil rights movement, kind of. And finally, I wrote a blog. And sent it to local newspapers to publish it about Tosa Maidan. They refused to publish. Initially, because they were scared of writing anything against the state and military. Then I sent it to some alternative blogs in India and they published it. So it started picking up, actually, this story. And I kept on writing regularly, regularly, regularly. And then finally, after a battle of like almost one and a half years, we won, finally.

That is one story which is close to my heart, like where we achieved success. And it's a very good example of like, journalism and activism can go hand in hand. We can change the status quo, we can change things on the ground if we have the intention of not only telling the story, but rather, following up on the story and trying to resolve the issue itself.

We were also arrested, detained, for some short time, like for a day or something. We were also investigated by the intelligence agencies at home. I was investigated, how come, who gives me money to do this work and this and that. Which is classic, which happens in every such society where the military is dominating.

Safety definitely is a big issue, I mean, working in a conflict area, then the conflict areas, has the highest, it's the highest militarized zone in the world with almost 700,000 to 1 million troops for 7 million people. It's a very slippery slope. And since 2019, after the annexation of Kashmir and abrogation of special status by the Indian state, the journalism and activism has been literally scrapped. So it's like there's sort of an emergency, like it's, the state is now managed, not by civil authorities anymore. Kind of like, you know, there's no civilian government. It's largely managed by the Indian state itself from Delhi. So the internet was also shut down; communication was shut down for one and a half years, and we didn't have internet. A new media policy, for example, was brought in. Whereas every media outlet, if they produce a news, if they make a news, it has to undergo certain criteria first; only then will it be published. So you'll see like hundreds of outlets are shut down.

So Kashmir Unheard in itself, so abrogation happened in August 2019, and our office was shut, obviously. So it remained shut till date. It's still shut. So it's not just Kashmir Unheard, but other outlets as well, who were alternative voices, kind of not the mainstream journalism.

So there are several challenges which models like ours face regularly. One is that physical threat. It is there. It exists. You know, you are summoned to the police station, you are summoned to the military camp, and you're questioned about what you wrote on social media, you're questioned about what you tweeted, or you're questioned about the video you produced and published.

And there's this new trend of like, we still have like three journalists who are in jail. One journalist has been in jail for the past four years. And two journalists, they were arrested one and a half years ago, and they still are in jail. They have been alleged of like anti national activities and you know terrorist funding and this and that. Which is actually a way to coerce and threaten others and their voices so that they don't speak.

So the intimidation and threats are something which is very regular in Kashmir and we have gotten kind of used to it, but, yeah, when it comes to the question of family it is, uh, it's more tricky, I would say, because then your family gets involved. So they're, they know, like the intelligence agencies, when they talk to my family, right? So they asked them these questions. Why is he doing what he's doing? And this is like a way to coerce, a way to psychologically intimidate people around you, who might later on tell you 'no, Sajad, why are you doing this, what you're doing?'. 

My mother has been, every time, telling me, 'why didn't you take a job of teacher in the village. You would have been earning a much better salary and you would have been at peace at your home, you would have lived a nice life, right?’. So these questions come, you know, but then it is very difficult to like, you know, navigate, to balance, the relationship with the family and also the coercion that takes place and the psychological intimidation that happens regularly and the concern they carry. Like when they see news that the journalists were harassed.

In a week, last month, 40 journalists were raided. Their houses were raided, their gadgets were confiscated by the state agencies. Forty journalists, it's not a small number, almost every journalist actually, right? So this intimidation and threat is there all the time. And I never know if I happen to go to Kashmir, will I be able to travel back if I want to leave? Because most of these journalists who have been raided are not allowed to travel because they are put on no fly lists.

So our avenues are limited. But whatever avenues we have, whatever opportunity it gives to us, we try to harness those, right? So this is the whole intention, like, okay, fine, we might not have a full on like big cameras and like, you know, live streaming and stuff because our issues are not big issues. We are talking about the smaller issues, in journalistic terms, I would say. So these are the people who are suffering with that issue, who are living that issue and they have every right to tell it, right? Then they might be running out of avenues to make it reach millions of people; but the intention again is not to reach millions of people. The intention is to resolve that particular problem. 

And journalism has largely failed us. So we are not a for profits organization, right? We do not take advertisements to publish content. So once you become a media house, a classic media house, you obviously have biases. You have editorial policies. See our editorial policy is completely decided by the community correspondent and the community itself, what they want to keep in the video. No alteration is done. Nothing.

So, in order to achieve something and listen to these unheard and muzzled voices, we definitely have to create such avenues and platforms for the people to tell their stories. We cannot be like, ‘oh no, because you are not CNN or BBC or Al Jazeera or New York Times. You cannot. You are not a journalist.’That would be wrong, I would say.

So I think now I have taken up this challenge to myself, actually how to curate something wherein we will still be able to tell the story. Besides that I work as a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker which is influenced largely by the work I do at my office actually at Kashmir Unheard. So my recent documentary - it's a short documentary, about 15 minutes - and it talks about life in Kashmir, but we are not directly talking to the conflict. We are trying to use visual metaphors to tell the story.

I think I'll be largely working on my podcast series and talking about Kashmir and talking about certain issues which concern Kashmir or not concern Kashmir, largely global issues, certain things which I want to expand on. In the future, I want to also think of certain ways of bringing out the voice which remains completely silenced in Kashmir. I don't know how, but I think that's a challenge for the creative people like us to develop those platforms so that everybody is safe. As an artist, how will I tell the same story differently now? Because in this, there is also a story.

Democracy is not merely participating  in the electoral process, right? Democracy is also about equipping people and empowering them in different ways. I mean, journalism, particularly in today's age, when there are so many equipments, there are so many avenues like social media and then you have free technology, like you have a phone and you have a camera and so on and you can use it to shoot evidence. Then everybody becomes an investigator. Everybody actually becomes a storyteller. You know, you pick any example from the recent revolutions. Most of the content was produced by the people who are like normal people, citizens, right? So that became a reason for people to come out and support that particular movement.

So in order to fix certain things in the communities whose voices have been silenced and marginalized in the past, I think they have every right to use this technology, harness this technology and its benefits to tell what has remained silenced or what has not been told before.


The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.

Interview, Production and Sound Design by Mariam Aboughazi.

Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Lieke Ploeger, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.

Theme Music by Wael Eskandar.

Additional music:

El Donya Helwa by Wael Eskandar. Cendres by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC). Prelude - Bells in Heavy Clouds by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC). 

Sound effect: 

Distant Explosion by Kostrava,, licensed under Public Domain Dedication (CC0 1.0). 

Illustration by Ann Kiernan

With support from

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