Fear psychosis, arrests, and deafening silence in Kashmir 

The arrest of journalist Fahad Shah comes amid an intensified crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists and activists in Indian-administered Kashmir

March 17, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Press freedom in Kashmir
Kashmir Press Club (Photo: api.time.com)

At least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting since the Indian government downgraded the state into two union territories in August 2019. Dozens more have been placed on no–fly lists, preventing them from leaving the country. The security forces are also scrutinizing independent freelancers, including those critical of the establishment on social media.

A 36-page report released by the Press Council of India (PCI) this week based investigations from a fact-finding committee, stated that media in Jammu and Kashmir is being “slowly choked”. The report stated that “Journalists function with a high level of stress and are constantly facing pressure both from the government agencies and the police as well as militants,” all of which greatly hinder their work and well-being.

The ongoing arrest spree and nocturnal raids by the authorities has raised the desperation and the level of uncertainty in the region. Journalists after being summoned and harassed have preferred to hide to avoid the state scrutiny.

On March 16, the editor of independent outlet Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah was arrested and held in Kupwara District Jail. According to his lawyer Umair Ronga he was detained under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act which allows detention without formal charges or trial for upto 2 years.

According to Kashmir Walla, it was his fourth arrest in the last 40 days and he had previously been booked for charges including sedition as well us charges under India’s anti-terror law UAPA (for details of these cases, refer here).

They added that “Fahad’s Kafkaesque detention seems to challenge our judiciary, democratic values, and independent journalism at once.”

The harassment of Shah has triggered widespread condemnation. With international human rights organization calling the accusations against him “politically motivated charges”.

“This arrest is a disturbing sign and confirms that independent journalism is in the process of disappearing in Indian-administered Kashmir. We call on the territory’s authorities to release him immediately,” Reporters Without Borders, noted.

The Editors Guild India urged the state administration “to respect democratic values and stop the harassment of journalists in the name of national security. Prior to Kashmir Walla’s editor arrest, another trainee reporter Sajjad Gul was arrested for covering human rights stories that were critical of the armed forces. Gul was booked under conspiracy case on January 5. Despite the court granting him conditional bail in northern Kashmir, he was again slapped with a new case and booked under Public Safety (Act) and then shifted to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.

The introduction of the draconian new media policy in June 2020, allows the administration to conduct “mandatory background checking for journalists” and further grants them access to prosecute any journalist whom the officials deem “suspicious of spreading the misinformation”.

On February 19, the Jammu and Kashmir Police informed a court in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district that journalist and author Gowhar Geelani, allegedly facing charges related to “apprehension of threat to peace” could not be presented to court because he is absconding.

Gowhar has been a prominent critical voice especially after the 2019 amendments downgrading the state into two union territories. Authorities responded to his critical social media posts by summoning him, questioning him and briefing him to toe the line of the state. In 2020, Jammu and Kashmir Police booked him under the anti-terror legislation, for “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on Social Media platform (sic) which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”

Meanwhile, this February soon after the police warrant was issued, a self-promotional civil society group (Civil Society Volunteer Group of Kashmir) put up posters in different districts along with his Geelani’s picture mentioning that the “anyone giving information regarding whereabouts of Gowhar Geelani alleged journalist and essentially a stenographer of terrorism and vehicle of insurgency would be rewarded with INR 50,000. Identity of the informant would be kept discreet,” the poster claimed.

International human rights groups are now fearing that there has been a consistent pattern of summoning, harassment, threats and prosecution of journalists and human rights activists, which appear to be an attempt to restrict media organizations from reporting the abuses carried out by the government forces in the Kashmir region.

Banning the Press Club

This January, the authorities dramatically took over the region’s only independent press club. The regional administration claimed the independent civil society group was “deregistered as a society and (therefore) ceased to exist”.

The club had been the only free space in the region, wherein journalists, especially the freelancers and trainees could freely gather. The space also extended institutional support to journalists who were facing the continuous scrutiny from the state. Throughout its brief tenure, the body had been releasing critical statements questioning the conduct of the Indian government while rejecting the use of force to muzzle the critical reporting.

Human Rights Watch stressed in a report that the arrest spree has added to the fear, anxiety, and comes amidst increasing harassment, threats, and prosecutions of journalists and human rights activists in Jammu and Kashmir. The rights body wrote, “The authorities have not ensured accountability for extrajudicial killings and other grave abuses by security forces in Kashmir but have instead arrested those who speak out for justice and human rights.”

“During my police summon in south Kashmir the officials threatened to exert their absolute power for silencing anyone who doesn’t toe their line. The officials verbally abused me shouting they will not shun away from killing me or imprisoning me for five years if I continue doing stories that are critical of the government,” a 27-year journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Several other journalists and locals are complaining that the internal tussle between the different security agencies functioning in the region to control the dissent also makes it different to dynamics of the prevailing situation. Since the middle ground that existed in the previous status quo has been abrogated, the lack of political structures and subsequent state machinery offer the agencies more space to control the media from every side.

“The situation is so suffocating with each day it is getting worse and scary,” one Srinagar-based reporter said.