The Jammu and Kashmir Police on Tuesday denied allegations of harassment made by The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah, two days after the journalist said he was detained at gunpoint from the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway along with a colleague. The police said Shah’s allegations that he was intimidated and “treated like a criminal” were “false and baseless”, as routine questioning cannot be called harassment.
“On the said date, more than 30 vehicles of same make model and colour were checked, and their occupants questioned and released following the receipt of a general input,” the police said in a statement. “Questioning by police in course of its duty may be inconvenient but it cannot be termed harassment and it is misplaced to expect privileges based on one’s profession.”
In a first-person account published on October 5, Shah said the incident took place on the evening of October 4, while he was on his way back from Punjab, where he had gone on an assignment to cover the farmers’ agitations. Shah was accompanied by his colleague and photojournalist Bhat Burhan.
The police stopped them at a security checkpoint – which Shah said appeared to have been set up specifically to find him – near the Jawahar Tunnel at 5.30 pm. He said a security force personnel wearing a shirt with “Commando” written on it approached him and asked for his identity card.
“Once the “Commando” saw my name, he went to a senior officer who was standing a little away. ‘Sir, this is the person,’ I heard him telling the officer, pointing to my ID card. Within no time, over a dozen police personnel with assault rifles encircled us. We were asked to get down from the car. The senior officer demanded that we hand over our mobile phones to him. The officer asked me to unlock my phone, which I did, and he dialled some numbers, using his own phone as some sort of a reference. My colleague was not asked to unlock his phone but both of us were asked to wait.”— Fahad Shah
After the police confiscated their phones, Shah and Bhat were asked to get of their car and go to the Qazigund police station with another police officer in a truck. When the journalists refused to sit in the truck, Shah said the police officer made incendiary remarks and abused him.
“Cooperate with us or I will show you what we can do,” Shah quoted the gun-wielding officer as saying. However, Shah said he persisted and said they would only drive to the police station in their own car.
“A policeman took the steering and I was made to sit in the passenger seat while my colleague was made to sit with policemen on either side at the back seat. We were terrified because nobody knew what was happening to us. I started wondering if we were killed somewhere, no one will even know about it.”— Fahad Shah
The journalists were taken to the Qazigund police station, where they were interrogated by a deputy superintendent of police, Mohammed Shafi, who referred to their work, and warned them to show “self-restraint” and report “cautiously” about matters related to “national security”.
Shah said the questioning then entirely riveted to The Kashmir Walla’s previous reportage, specifically a story about a gunfight between militants and security forces in downtown Srinagar May. Shah has been questioned on the same matter twice in the past.
“I told him that I was summoned by the police in connection with our coverage of a particular incident in Srinagar and we defended our work which was based on the facts,” Shah wrote.
The two journalists, Shah wrote, were questioned for over four hours. They were finally released at 10 pm, but only after signing a statement mentioning that his car, phones, and other belongings were returned without any tampering. Also, Shafi insisted that he could release them only if somebody from Qazigund “takes the responsibility in writing”.
“Finally, at 9.30 pm, I called a friend, who sent someone he knew in Qazigund. The local person was asked to sign our release form and we were also asked to sign it too. After this, the DySP said: ‘We only helped you, now don’t make an issue out of it. It is our duty.’”— Fahad Shah
Shah called his detention part of the “routine harassment” faced by journalists in the Valley. “Our detention was illegal and we believe that it is in line with how journalists are routinely harassed, summoned to police stations, treated like criminals, and intimidated because we report facts,” Shah wrote. “The continued harassment is taking a toll on my mental health and impacting the work we do at The Kashmir Walla.”