The Kashmir Press Club on Monday sought the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu and Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh to stop the “harassment” of journalists in the Valley.

The organisation condemned charges filed against photojournalist Masrat Zahra for allegedly carrying out “anti-national” activities. It also criticised the police for summoning a senior journalist, Peerzada Ashiq, of The Hindu on Sunday and asking him to explain the alleged factual inaccuracies in a story that was published the same day.

Zahra was booked under the amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows the government to proscribe individuals as terrorists and empowers more officers of the National Investigation Agency to probe cases. A person charged under the Act can be jailed for up to seven years.

“While journalism in Kashmir had never been easy, challenges and hardships have multiplied for journalists since August 05, 2019,” the press club’s statement said, referring to the revocation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution on August 5 last year. “Even in this time of coronavirus pandemic, journalists in Kashmir have been called to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their stories.”

The Kashmir Press Club described Zahra as a “young and promising female photojournalist” whose work has appeared in the publications Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, Quint, and Caravan, among others.

The club said Zahra was summoned to a cyber police station in Srinagar on Saturday, but after intervention by the organisation and the Directorate of Information, the summons was dropped. “But now it emerges the police have filed a case against her with stringent charges and stringent acts and as per the conversation with Masrat, she has been asked to come to the Police Station concerned on Tuesday, April 21, 2020,” the press club said.

The press club also criticised the beating up and arrest of Kashmir Observer reporter Mushtaq Ahmad by the police. Ahmad was arrested in Bandipora when he was out doing professional work, and was released only after securing bail, the body said.

The organisation said that the police need to understand that there is a big difference between journalism and cyber crime. “While the government has every right to rebut a story of a journalist and allow a journalist to respond, cases against journalists for their stories and work are unwarranted and outrightly [sic] illegal and draconian,” the press club added.

“The KPC will also formally write to the Press Council of India and other bodies on these cases which seem to be aimed at pressuring journalists in the Valley,” the press note said, seeking support from Indian and international journalist bodies.

Police on the cases

The Cyber Police Station in Srinagar released a statement on the cases filed against the two journalists. “On 18.04.2020, Cyber Police Station Kashmir, Srinagar received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zehra is frequently uploading anti-national posts with the criminal intention,” the statement said. “The post by the users can provoke the public to disturb the law and order besides glorifying the anti-national activities etc.” The police claimed that Zahra was summoned not to the Air Cargo Complex police station, but to the Sadder facility.

On summons issued to Ashiq, the police said that on Sunday, they received information regarding “fake news” published in The Hindu, regarding an encounter between militants and security forces at Shopian. “The details reflected in the news item were found factually incorrect and the said news could cause fear or alarm in the minds of public,” the police statement said. “The said news was published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.”