Jammu & Kashmir's Journalists Under Seige
Judicial acquittal too often means immediate rearrest
By: Majid Maqbool
After languishing in the Kot Bhalwal jail under India’s stringent Public Safety Act, which allows imprisonment without a trial for up to a year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court recently ruled that authorities had deprived Fahad Shah, one of the region’s most prominent journalists, of his “constitutional and legal rights” and termed the grounds of his detention “mere surmise and vague and bald assertions.”
But Shah is a depressing example of the Indian government’s growing repression of the press in the Kashmir & Jammu region. Rather than being freed, he faces detention under another anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967, which carries life in prison or even a death sentence if the charges are proven against him. Decisions by local courts to free arrested journalists are often swiftly nullified by rearrests under other statutes. Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the independent monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator, was arrested at the same time with Fahad Shah after they were granted court-ordered bail in separate cases.
"The idea is to make the process punishment and prolong suffering,” said a senior journalist who wished not to be named, fearing state reprisal. “The quashing of one case after six months means no relief because the authorities have the power to invoke other cases and further complicate matters of disempowered journalists in a conflict zone like Kashmir," the journalist said. Fabricated cases have been weaponized against journalists in Kashmir, he added.
The founder and editor of Kashmir Walla, a local online news portal, Fahad Shah has been a contributor to international publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Time Magazine, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The South China Morning Post. He was arrested by local police in February 2022 for posting what was termed “anti-national” content and glorifying terrorism on social media. He is currently lodged in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu, about 370 kilometers away from his home.
The quashing of Shah’s detention under PSA is a rare case. In the two years since the Indian parliament revoked the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, startling the world and leading to fears of rising violence, the authorities have seemingly declared war on the press. Since 2019, according to Amnesty International, at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting. Dozens have fled the valley, fearing they will be the government’s next targets, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The non-partisan Editors Guild of India, in a statement, said that the trend of arresting Kashmiri journalists critical of the establishment, which includes the arrests of Aasif Sultan, Sajad Gul, and Fahad Shah in previous years, shows that “the space for media freedom has progressively eroded in Kashmir.”
In March, Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj was arrested and Twitter handles belonging to BBC News Punjabi and at least three other journalists were suspended and journalist and fact-checker Mohammad Zubair received death threats. The National Investigation Agency, India’s counterterrorism body, arrested Mehraj under sections of the penal code and anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, according to multiple news reports. In a March 21 press release, the NIA stated that Mehraj’s arrest concerned an investigation opened in October 2020 into non-governmental organizations allegedly funding terrorism. The press release alleged that Mehraj was working with the Kashmir-based human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and was a close associate of human rights defender and JKCCS coordinator Khurram Parvez, who has been imprisoned since November 2021.
Prior to his arrest, Mehraj was investigating the installation of surveillance cameras in Srinagar and the resilience of the Kashmiri Hindu community, according to a journalist familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ by phone on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. Mehraj remained in prison as of April 19, CPJ said. The organization is continuing to investigate whether his arrest was connected to his reporting. Mehraj has produced reporting critical of the impact of Indian government policies in Kashmir, including reports on extrajudicial killings, heroin addiction, and the plight of Kashmiri Hindus. He is also a part-time copy editor at the TwoCircle.net news website, which reports on issues throughout India, including caste discrimination, violence against Muslims, and right-wing Hindu groups.
Fahad was charged with sedition and support of terrorism after his site reported on a shootout in Pulwama in January in which security forces killed four people they claimed were militants. But while quashing the PSA dossier, High Court Justice Wasim Sadiq Nargal ruled that the authorities “did not carefully evaluate and apply their thoughts” while issuing the order. Nargal ruled that detaining authority has used both the expressions "Public Order" and "Security of the State" with a wavering mind and uncertainty.
“Maintenance of public order and Security and Sovereignty of the country are two distinct expressions and have different connotations and are demarcated on the basis of gravity and cannot be used simultaneously which clearly proves beyond any shadow of doubt that the detaining authority has not applied its mind while passing the order of aside,” the court order reads.
Fahad’s counsel argued that he is a well-known journalist who has achieved success on a global scale for his honest and fair reporting. The counsel argued that Fahad is a “law-abiding citizen who loves peace and does not have a criminal record or any other adverse history which could invite the stringent law of the public safety Act.” It was asserted that he has never acted or behaved in a way that could violate the law, encourage violence or lawlessness in society at large, or be harmful or prejudicial to the maintenance of public order or law and order. The counsel further argued that has also never written anything or done anything or used social media, which would be considered an illegal act.”
The Kashmir Walla has been a particular target. A year ago, according to Reporters without Borders, Yashraj Sharma, the interim editor, was summoned by the region’s counter-terrorism agency over an article published 11 years ago. Yashraj at the time was 23 years old, which means he was only 12 when The Kashmir Walla published the allegedly ‘seditious’ article in 2011.
The State Investigation Agency nonetheless used it as grounds for forcing him to report for questioning at a police station in Miran Sahib, a suburb of Jammu, a town 250 km south of the region's main city, Srinagar, where Sharma and the magazine are based. The summons followed the arrest on 18 April of the offending article’s presumed author, Abdul Aala Fazili, an academic who is still detained. Sharma has been acting as editor only because Fahad Shah was also jailed.
“Reporters Without Borders condemns this latest round in India’s persecution of the magazine’s journalists, who are being jailed one after another, and wonders who will be next,” the Paris-based press watchdog said.