Four recent cases against journalists reveal how the press in Kashmir continues to be shackled. The well-worn argument of national security has now been coupled with the constraints imposed by the coronavirus lockdown to target and harass journalists. A troubling aspect of the recent police action is the absence of a credible case against any of the journalists. The message sent out is this: the media in Kashmir exists at the mercy of security agencies.

An anti-terror law

On April 18, freelance photojournalist Masrat Zahra was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a law normally used against those allegedly involved in acts of terror. The police statement identified her as a “Facebook user”, not a journalist, guilty of “frequently uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention”. The UAPA, a draconian law which has historically been used to silence dissent, was amended last year to make it even more sweeping and arbitrary.

Individuals, not just organisations, may now be branded “terrorist”, a label used liberally by state agencies. Earlier this year, the cyber cell of the Kashmir police filed an FIR against unknown persons who were booked under the UAPA for the alleged misuse of social media.

Even within this repressive institutional framework, the case against Zahra is mystifying. Her social media feed consists largely of photographs taken by her, meticulously recording Kashmir’s descent into violence and the effect of this on ordinary lives. Many of these have been published in news outlets across the world. According to reports, the police took exception to a post shared by Zahra a few days ago, one from 2008 and the other from 2018, showing civilians being manhandled by the police. It was “fake news” because the incident had happened much before the photographs were posted, was the police’s baffling logic.

Playing editor

Over the same weekend, the police filed an FIR against an alleged “fake news item” about a gunfight between police and militants in South Kashmir and subsequent developments published in the Hindu. Details of the report were “factually incorrect”, could “cause fear or alarm” and had not been confirmed with district authorities. What law was violated by the report has not been revealed.

The reporter, Peerzada Ashiq, told the Committee to Protect Journalist that he had records to show he had reached out to the authorities for comment. If facts in the story were incorrect, it is not clear why the authorities did not issue a strongly worded denial instead of filing an FIR and subjecting the journalist to an interrogation. It is not, after all, the remit of security agencies to correct editorial errors.

‘Unlawful activities’

On April 21, the cyber police also issued a statement that it had filed a case against freelance journalist Gowhar Geelani for “unlawful activities” on social media, threatening national security and sovereignty, “glorifying terrorism”, “causing disaffection against the country”. It also claimed to have received complaints accusing Geelani of threat and intimidation.

Geelani has been critical of the government’s policies in Kashmir and was also stopped from leaving the country after August 5, when the Centre unilaterally stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and split it into two Union Territories. His most recent posts on Twitter are in support of Zahra and Ashiq. It is not immediately apparent which law this violates and the police statement did not care to elaborate.

Lockdown arrest

Last week, Mushtaq Ganaie, a journalist for the Kashmir Observer in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, was detained for two days and booked for “creating hurdles in a police officer’s duty”. His offence: travelling around and trying to report during the coronavirus lockdown. The Centre has explicitly exempt the media from restrictions on movement. Ganaie reportedly showed his identity papers, explained his reason for travelling and had a press sticker on his car. Even if there was additional protocol to be followed, two days of detention cannot be justified.

These cases are part of a long and disturbing trend in Kashmir, where journalists have been routinely harassed for doing their job. It has intensified after August 5, when the local press was decimated by an interminable internet blockade and censorship. At least 10 incidents of intimidation and outright violence against journalists have been reported in the Valley since then.

India has steadily fallen on the World Press Freedom Index, dropping to 142nd place in the latest 2020 survey. Kashmir’s long “electronic curfew” is cited as one of the reasons for this deterioration. But the crackdown on the media continues despite worsening rankings and growing international concern. In Kashmir, it seems, the government and other state institutions are quite happy to drop even the pretence of democratic processes.