Kashmir Diary: Intimidating journalists, Criminalizing Journalism

Photo credit: Committee to Protect Journalists

By: Majid Maqbool

Amid frustrating Internet shutdowns that have delayed this report for days, police have renewed attempts to intimidate and harass journalists in the Kashmir region with fresh First Information Reports and summons to police stations – during a coronavirus lockdown and widespread fear of contagion.

Such attempts not only are designed to criminalize independent journalism but also seek to muzzle whatever remains of the freedom of the press in a besieged Kashmir, leaving the pursuit of information open to rumor, speculation and gossip, which is dangerous in an already repressive atmosphere.

When journalist and author Gowhar Geelani was booked by the police authorities two weeks ago, it was third such case in as many days. Jammu & Kashmir police had already summoned journalist Peerzada Ashiq of the national broadsheet The Hindu to a police station in Southern Kashmir while Masrat Zahra (above), a young freelance photojournalist, was booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Zahra was accused of “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offense against public tranquility.” She had shared some of her professional work, which in fact had been previously published internationally, on her Twitter and Instagram accounts.

The Cyber Police Station in the summer capital of Srinagar in a press release accused Gowhar of “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir, causing dissatisfaction against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of the public that may lead to the commission of offenses against public tranquility and security of the State.” According to the police statement, he was “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and integrity of India.”

A look at Geelani’s social media timeline shows he wasn’t supporting, directly or indirectly, any violent action or instigating people to take up violence. He was in fact arguing for nonviolence through his writings and social media posts.  

It is questionable how by any stretch of imagination that caused “dissatisfaction” or “alarm” in the minds of a public as the police statement alleged.

Earlier, as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists noted, police also arrested Indian journalist Gautam Navlakha in April pending an investigation for allegedly violating the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Bail is almost never granted under the act. Kashmir Narrator journalist Aasif Sultan has been in prison since July 2018 while he is undergoing trial under the act.

Journalists have been working in difficult circumstances in Kashmir with limited means of information and communication following the August 5 total lockdown and months-long communications shutdown by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the abrogation of Article 370 granting special constitutional status to the region. The recent police action against Kashmir-based journalists makes it more difficult to work and report objectively. 

Seemingly cowed by the overwhelming presence of the Indian military and law enforcement personnel, the majority of local newspapers in Kashmir haven’t stood openly in solidarity with the summoned journalists. Barring a few editorials, the local press hasn’t delivered strong objections and hasn’t followed up with stories on the continued harassment. The news of police bookings and summonses has been given little space in the news pages. That is also illustrative of the state of freedom of the press in Kashmir, especially post the August 5 clampdown.

However, during this period of seemingly unending harassment, intimidation and questioning by the state agencies for their work, some good news lifted the spirits of the journalistic fraternity. On May 4, three Associated Press photojournalists from the Jammu and Kashmir region — Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand –– received word that they had been awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for their “striking images of life” while covering last year’s siege in Kashmir following the revocation of the autonomous status of the region.

It was the first time that photojournalists from the region have been selected for the highest award in journalism. People in Kashmir, who are under yet another lockdown due to Covid-19 this year, celebrated the award as their own, regarding it as a global acknowledgment of the ground realities and denial of their basic political and human rights, which are rarely covered by the mainstream Indian media.

In fact, most popular journalists and editors either remained silent or took issue with the wording of the award citation, failing to congratulate the three for their striking images of everyday life from last year’s government-enforced siege and communications shutdown. The Jammu and Kashmir governor’s administration also maintained silence on the first-ever award, failing to congratulate the three, which is reflective of the state’s embarrassment over its complicity in throttling freedom of the press in Kashmir. 

“Snaking around roadblocks, sometimes taking cover in strangers’ homes and hiding cameras in vegetable bags, the three photographers captured images of protests, police and paramilitary action and daily life – and then headed to an airport to persuade travelers to carry the photo files out with them and get them to the AP’s office in New Delhi,” the Associated Press said in its statement after the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography category awarded to the three photojournalists from Jammu and Kashmir region.

Even as we are yet to come out of another lockdown for the coronavirus, the police action and summons against journalists only create more impediments, further preventing them from reporting freely and objectively from the ground. It’s a mistaken notion to believe that all journalists can be forced into submission by frequent police summons and harassment from the state agencies. It is bound to create more outcry and solidarity from rights organizations and press freedom bodies who are taking note of such continued attacks on press freedom worldwide.

 In a strong statement, Scott Griffen, the Deputy Director of the International Press Institute reiterated the IPI’s “grave concern” over the state of media freedom in Kashmir.

“Over the past few months, Kashmir has become one of the world’s most repressive spots for the press, with the authorities using arrests, internet shutdowns and surveillance to control the flow of news,” Griffen said. “We urge the government to drop charges against all three recently detained journalists and stop harassing the press.”

The fact is that continued intimidation and harassment of Kashmir-based journalists will only spread misinformation as rumor replaces fact. Kashmir’s journalist fraternity is demanding that all the charges leveled against the members of the fraternity are withdrawn. Journalism is not a crime. Let facts be sacred. Opinions should remain free. 

Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist who writes periodic reports on the grim business of trying to live a normal life in the face of Indian government repression of a previously independent region.

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