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End of news? Cases against top Kashmir journalists 'evoke' widespread outrage

Gowhar Geelani, Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Ashiq
By Zahoor Hussain*
Notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police in the trouble-torn valley have started filing cases against journalists for “glorifying terrorism and anti-national activities”, “provoking the public to disturb the law and order” and “causing disaffection against the country” through social media posts.
J&K Police and its cyber police wing have booked three journalists, including a female photojournalist, in the last few days. Two of the three journalists have been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terrorism law. A person charged under this law can be imprisoned for a period of two to seven years.
A third journalist has been booked for “a fake news item regarding an encounter at South Kashmir’s Shopian district”. A case stands registered against him at the Police Station Anantnag and has been summoned for questioning.
The filing of cases against the Kashmiri journalists under the ‘stringent laws’ by the police have evoked a massive outrage with press bodies, journalists, common Kashmiris and some politicians to the extent that they demanded the immediate withdrawal of these cases.
The first victim of stringent UA (P) Act was Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old freelance photojournalist from the summer capital Srinagar whose work has appeared in publications like “The Washington Post”, “TRT World”, “Al Jazeera”, “The New Humanitarian” and others.
A statement, in which she was introduced as a ‘Facebook user’, by Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone (Srinagar), said: “Police Station received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility. The Facebook user is also believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke public to disturb law and order. The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.”
“Accordingly, a case FIR No. 10/2020 U/S 13 UA (P) Act and 505-IPC dated 18-04-2020 stands registered in Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, Srinagar and investigation set into motion,” statement further read.
“It is very shocking for me. They want to suppress the voices of journalists in Kashmir. They know there are only few female journalists in the field,” Masrat Zahra told this correspondent.
“I am in touch with Kashmir Press Club. I am relying on them. They (police) are saying I am a Facebook user. They are not saying I am a journalist. As a journalist what I am supposed to upload? I am just uploading my archived work which I have clicked during the last few years, which I have witnessed here. I am not any social activist. I don’t have any political agenda. Being a journalist your ideology can’t work,” she added.
Zahra, who was summoned for questioning on Monday, said in a tweet: “I met the concerned police officials of the case and answered their questions regarding the investigation, I have not been arrested and the investigation is going. Thanks all for the support.”
“I was questioned about a picture I had clicked in 2018. In that picture people can be seen carrying the photograph of Burhan Wani (slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander) in the Muharram procession. That picture has been published by an international publication,” Masrat Zahra said in an interview.
“My family has no knowledge about UA (P) Act. If I am detained I won’t be able to meet my family. This will ruin my future. I wanted to highlight the issues being faced by the women throughout the world,” she added.
They want to suppress voices of journalists in Kashmir. They know there are only few female journalists in the field, Masrat Zahra said
Second to be booked was Peerzada Ashiq, “The Hindu” reporter in Kashmir, for “a fake news item regarding an encounter at south Kashmir’s Shopian district”. “On April 19, 2020 an information was received regarding a fake news item being published in the ‘The Hindu’ newspaper by the journalist namely Peerzada Ashiq, regarding an encounter at Shopian and subsequent developments. The details quoted in the news item were factually incorrect and could cause fear or alarm in the minds of public. The news was published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities,” a police statement issued on April 20 said.
“In this regard Case FIR No. 81/2020 was registered in P/S Anantnag and the individual was called at P/S Anantnag for questioning. The police is under duty and lawfully empowered under Cr.PC to call for questioning. The investigation is in progress,” it added.
“Describing a report headlined ‘Kin allowed to exhume bodies of militants in Baramulla’ published by “The Hindu” on April 19 as ‘fake news,’ the Jammu and Kashmir police have registered an FIR in the matter,” reads a “The Hindu” report.
Peerzada Ashiq’s report was on two militants killed in an encounter in South Kashmir’s Shopian district last week. Two families had come forward to claim the bodies of the slain militants whom the authorities had said were unidentified. The administration had buried the slain militants in a graveyard in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, reserved for foreign and unidentified militants.
Gowhar Geelani, the latest victim of UA (P) Act, is a well-known Kashmiri journalist and author for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir valley” through social media posts. Gowhar, who has worked with “Deutsche Welle” as an editor for several years in Germany and has been published by BBC, “Dawn” and others, is known for voicing his voice in favor of freedom of press.
“Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone (Srinagar) has received information through reliable sources that an individual namely ‘Gowhar Geelani’ is indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on Social Media platform which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India. The unlawful activities include glorifying terrorism in Kashmir valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public that may lead to commission of offence against public tranquility and the security of state,” a police statement said.
“Several complaints have also been received against the said individual for threatening and intimidation. A Case FIR No. 11/2020 under the relevant sections of law has been registered at Cyber Police Station Kashmir and investigation initiated,” it added.
Kashmir Press Club said, valley based journalist are facing harassment despite the fact they are working in a tough situation
Soon after receiving information of getting booked, Gowhar Geelani tweeted: “Hope the ‘purification’ discourse doesn’t become personal or trivial. Everyone should respect all views in a civilized manner for there can be no uniformity. A person is not important. Important is liberty, freedom of speech and right to view. Don’t be vindictive. Be kind. Gentle.”

The outrage and condemnation

Registering of cases against Kashmiri journalists has evoked widespread outrage. Press bodies, journalists, common Kashmiris mostly social media users and some politicians and their parties have condemned the police action and have demanded withdrawal of cases.
“While condemning and again seeking withdrawal of the FIR’s against Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, we urge the authorities must withdraw the case against Gowhar Geelani as well,” a statement by Kashmir Press Club said.
“As already conveyed, the club on behalf of the fraternity will write a representation to the Press Club of India (PCI) detailing these issues and other grievances related to difficulties faced by media in their functioning during this pandemic. In this regard a memorandum will also be written to the highest authorities including the LG of the UT of J&K,” statement read.
“We hope the media fraternity which is working amid huge challenges should get a conducive atmosphere to deliver their day to day duties,” it added.
“Even in this time of coronavirus pandemic journalists in Kashmir have been called to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their stories,” KPC said after a case was registered against Masrat Zahra.
The Editors’ Guild of India has described the police’s decision to invoke the UA (P) Act against the journalists as a “gross misuse of power”, saying it is “an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well”.
“Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power. Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists. The Guild also believes that this is an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well. The journalists should be put to no harm or further harassment,” a statement by Editors Guild read.
“The Guild demands that the Union Territory administration of Jammu & Kashmir withdraw the charges forthwith,” it added.
Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International also demanded that the government should stop “intimidation” of journalists in the Kashmir valley.
Amnesty International India Executive Director Avinash Kumar in a statement said: “Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UA (P) Act threatens the efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal.”
The Kashmir Working Journalists Association (KWJA) in a statement said that journalists in Kashmir won’t succumb to tactics of thought policing and intimidation.
Kashmir authorities are in no mood to allow democratic dissent or expression of opinion, have adopted policy of muzzling the press
“Authorities in Kashmir are in no mood to allow a democratic dissent or expression of opinion, and have adopted the policy of muzzling the press as a governance measure. However, we would like to remind them that the efforts to silence the press, and by extension of the populace, will only prove counterproductive. Journalists will not succumb to the tactics and will continue to hold the authorities accountable”, statement read.
Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, said that registering of cases against journalists is wrong and must stop. “No ifs, no buts, no whataboutery -- this campaign of FIRs against journalists & commentators in Kashmir IS WRONG & must stop. If your version of events is so weak that you have to charge these people it says more about what is happening in Kashmir than anything they have written,” he tweeted.
Iltija Mufti, daughter of PDP chief and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, also criticized the Government for harassing and intimidating journalists. “Absurd that filing FIRs & slapping anti terror laws like UAPA against journalists is being done at breakneck speed even in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Latest addition being @GowharGeelani. This is the ‘heaven’ reserved for minorities in India,” she tweeted.
Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender working in Kashmir valley, said in a tweet: “Our concern remains about the Freedom of Expression in Kashmir. Cases against journalist’s @Masratzahra & @peerashiq must be withdrawn urgently. Also the manner in which for social media posts people are being summoned & coercively asked to write apology is unlawful & humiliating.”
Senior journalist Yusuf Jameel, while mocking the police action, said in a tweet: “Hello, this is Yusuf Jameel....that is end of the news. Is that what they want from us?”
“Today is Tuesday, according to the highly placed sources in the government. At least three calendars and two alarm clocks also validated. Story ends. ;-),” Gowhar Geelani had tweeted before being booked.

‘Harassment continues’

According to the Kashmir Press Club, ‘valley based’ journalist are facing continuous harassment despite the fact they are working in a tough situation and have limited access to the internet.
KPC issued couple of statements over the last few months condemning the continuous ‘harassment’ of journalists in the valley. “Latest incidents indicate that the harassment of journalists and media workers continues unabated in the Kashmir region and is tantamount to muzzling the press,” a statement by KPC on March 5 said.
“The Kashmir Press Club demands Home minister Amit Shah as well as the J&K government to take a note of the appalling conditions in which press in Kashmir is working since August 5, last year. As such, it is once again urged that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and speech is respected in the region by allowing press and journalists to function freely”, a statement by the press body read.
In the first week of this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global body for press freedom, launched an online petition for the immediate release of imprisoned Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who is imprisoned in Central Jail Srinagar since August 2018 despite repeated calls for his release from human rights groups and international journalist bodies.
Police booked him under the UAPA for his involvement in militant activities, a charge denied by his family. Asif has a wife and a two-year-old daughter at home. She was barely 6 months when her father was arrested.
The debate does not end here. There are many waiting in the pipeline.
---
*Journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir

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