Kashmiri media describes toll of legal harassment

Bilal Hussain

Freelance journalist Sajad Gul was at home in Shahgund, a village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, when the army came for him. It was about 10 p.m. on January 5. The journalist’s family told local media that Gul received a phone call asking him to come outside.

The next thing the family heard, he had been taken to a police station and accused of serious anti-national crimes. Gul, 26, contributes to the news website Kashmir Walla and studies at Central Uni-versity of Kashmir.

Fahad Shah, editor at The Kashmir Walla, de-scribed the arrest as a “brazen violation of freedom of press [that] threatens the very core of people’s rights.”

Shah said that cases like the one against Gul, in which reporters or media outlets are accused of sharing or posting anti-national sentiment, are in-creasing in Kashmir, and that the threat of legal action is having an impact in a region where journalism plays a significant role.

It’s not an isolated problem. Lawsuits against media are on the rise across India, with a growing trend of judicial harassment and intimidation against those who do not toe the line of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific lead for media watchdog Reporters Without Bor-ders.

Lawsuits, Media Killings in India Are Curtail-ing Press Freedom, Experts Say In Kashmir, Bastard said, that pattern can mean that every journalist who is critical of the government risks being deemed anti-national or anti-Indian. Some may start to self-censor to avoid harassment.

Neither the Jammu and Kashmir Home Depart-ment nor India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting responded to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In Gul’s case, his arrest appears linked to a video he posted to Twitter of a protest over the kill-ing of a local militant commander, The Kashmir Walla reported. A police statement said Gul “uploaded the ob-jectionable videos with anti-national slogans.”

He is charged with criminal conspiracy, asser-tions prejudicial to national integration — a com-plaint usually referring to comments deemed against the sovereignty and integrity of India — and making or sharing statements to promote enmity and hatred.

Police in Kashmir did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. Sensitive to criticism The current administration in India appears prickly about criticism, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

But, she said, the best way for a government to prevent tensions is to act swiftly when credible and fair investigations find evidence of human rights abuses. Journalists play a crucial role in exposing short-comings, and a rights-respecting government should rely on that information to address needs, Ganguly said.

“Unfortunately, the government is selective about what it believes exacerbates tension or con-flict,” Ganguly said, “quickly punishing peaceful critics, including by accusing them under draconian counterterrorism laws.”

Bastard of RSF shared a similar view, telling VOA, “Censoring journalists who try to cover their fellow citizens’ situation is actually the best way to create frustration among the population, and hence to promote enmity. This is all the more true in a region with a strong history of separatism like Jammu and Kashmir.”

Intimidating calls Being summoned is always disturbing, Kashmir Walla editor Shah told VOA. “It is intimidating to be at a police station where you are asked about your personal and professional life,” Shah said. “You are asked to give details of your life, even ID documents, bank details, et cet-era, at times. And mostly, you are treated as a sus-pect for something which you don’t even know. And then it stays on your head like a sword that if you do something that is not liked you will be in trouble.”

Shah has been arrested, questioned and sum-monsed several times. His media outlet, too, has run into legal issues. It is currently fighting a false-news case in the High Court.

Srinagar photojournalist Mukhtar Zahoor, who contributes to outlets including the BBC and Al Jazeera, says he was left confused by a police raid on his home last October.

“They check my phone, my contacts, and im-ages in the cellphone. It was a traumatic experi-ence,” he said. Police detained Zahoor and ques-tioned him about his movements on September 1, the day that a veteran separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, died.

At that time, authorities had suspended commu-nications and sealed off the roads around Geelani’s home in a move some believed was an attempt to limit coverage of the death.

Coverage of Separatist Leader’s Death Ham-pered by Restrictions, Kashmiri Media Say “They had all information about my location on that day and the route I took. … Even the Wi-Fi connection of my phone that I shared with my friend,” Zahoor said.

When asked how the raid has affected his work, Zahoor didn’t hesitate: “I am observing self-censorship.”

In some cases, journalists find themselves called by members of the police and army. Quratulain Rehbar, a female freelancer from Pulwama, said she was contacted by both in December after covering a protest.

“I was getting calls for verification, and they would call repeatedly. Both army and police started calling my family as well,” Rehbar said, still sound-ing distressed.

Crackdown viewed as arbitrary The Vienna-based International Press Institute has flagged what it says appears to be a largely arbitrary crackdown on the press. “We have seen numerous examples of the har-assment and intimidation of journalists in what we believe to be an effort by the authorities to control the flow of news and information,” IPI Deputy Di-rector Scott Griffen told VOA.

The Kashmir Press Club has urged authorities to improve the environment for journalists. “The threats, summonses and arrests of the media persons have effectively restrained independent and investi-gative reporting from the region,” the club said in a statement that also condemned Gul’s arrest.

For Gul, the arrest is not a first. Just over a year ago, Jammu and Kashmir police accused him of participating in an illegal demonstration that he was reporting on.

And he has frequently tweeted about how police harassment affects his work, studies and health. For now, he is in custody. His editor Shah told VOA, “We have filed for bail plea in the court and will contest these charges through court.”

— Courtesy Voice of America


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