Police action against three Kashmiri journalists receives widespread condemnation

26-year-old photojournalist Masrat Zahra and senior journalists Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani have been booked under various charges. Masrat and Geelani are in the dock for their social media posts according to the police

April 22, 2020 by Umer Beigh

The media fraternity in Kashmir, along with several international human rights groups, has condemned the recent summoning and charging of journalists from Srinagar city under the draconian Indian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

It began with 26-year-old Masrat Zahra, an independent photojournalist, being charged with state authorities of “posting and glorifying anti-national content on social networking sites” on April 18. Another journalist, Peerzada Ashiq with The Hindu, was also summoned by the police and a first information report was filed against him for allegedly filing a factually incorrect story without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.

On April 21, journalist Gowhar Geelani was charged with “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley.”

Reporters Without Borders has demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the unfounded charges brought against Zahra. The association has stated that in the absence of any substantiation by the authorities, all charges against her should be dropped.

The Network of Women in India has also called the charges against her extremely preposterous, amounting to intimidation of journalists. “Her stories are photographs that are deeply empathetic and accurate reports of a ground reality… Her exceptional work as a photojournalist obviously causes discomfort among the powers that be,” the group responded to the news of her arrest.   

The Kashmir Press Club has condemned the harassment and summons to journalists covering the region, and has sought the cooperation and support of Indian and international journalist bodies in the face of the ongoing onslaught on free press in the valley.  It demanded the withdrawal of the first information reports against the journalists.

Meanwhile, the police have argued that Zahra’s social media posts dent the image of law enforcing agencies and cause disaffection against the country. “The user is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility,” the police stated.

Masrat Zahra is a prominent photojournalists in Kashmir. “Police want to silence me. They want to suppress me as I bring out the repressed voices and stories of Kashmir,” said Masrat, “I am completely at a loss.” 

Intimidation of journalists

Masrat Zahra is by far not the only journalist in Kashmir booked for allegedly harboring ‘anti-national’ views. Kamran Yusuf, a photojournalist with NewsClick.in, was imprisoned for six months. Asif Sultan, another reporter, remains imprisoned since being arrested in August 2018.

This February, the Kashmir Press Club documented cases against nearly a dozen journalists in Kashmir. It was noted that Kamran Yusuf was again picked up from his home by a police party on February 16.

“I saw policemen surrounding our premises. The police official asked me to come along and snatched my phones,” Kamran claims. “They checked my phones and searched everything on it. They asked me about some Kamran Manzoor and showed me his Twitter account. The police officer said that they had suspicion that I am running the account.”

According to Kamran, after failing to find anything to charge him with, the police let him go at around 1 AM. “My distraught family members were waiting outside and took me home,” he added.

The Kashmir Press Club has stated, “Physical attacks, threats and summons to journalists are being employed by security agencies to intimidate journalists. In fact, summons and harassment to (sic) journalists by the Police’s counter-insurgency centre (Cargo) in Srinagar has become a routine exercise. The harassment and questioning of journalists in Kashmir on flimsy grounds by the J&K Police for their work is in fact a damning verdict on the appalling condition in which the media is operating.” 

The cases against Zarha and Ashiq have led to widespread outrage against Indian state authorities and an online solidarity campaign has been started for the revocation of the”flimsy cases” targeting the two journalists.  

Sharafat Ali, an award-winning photojournalist from Srinagar’s downtown area, has also accused the police and paramilitary forces of harassing and physically assaulting him. He claims that legal and physical intimidation of journalists is a common occurrence in the conflict-ridden region. “In 2018, I was beaten up by the senior police official who slapped me at least 20 times for clicking pictures in northern Kashmir. Most of the times, we are helpless here,” Sharafat told Peoples Dispatch.

The 28-year-old photojournalist added that photographers have become easy targets in places like Kashmir that have overwhelming military presence almost everywhere. “Tomorrow if I plan to tell a story to the world I will be also booked in a similar way and accused of indulging in anti-national activities,” he says.