Journalists, human rights defenders in Kashmir face increasing assaults

A playbook that closely restricts press freedom is playing out, which has seen journalists being harassed through a variety of means.

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

Jammu and Kashmir police entering a journalist’s residence to conduct a search, in Srinagar on November 19, 2022.

Jammu and Kashmir police entering a journalist’s residence to conduct a search, in Srinagar on November 19, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

In Kashmir, detention of journalists no longer comes as a shock, with the State apparatus increasingly brazen in assaulting press freedom and cracking down on any form of civil society dissent.

The prominent features of the State’s strong-arm tactics are raids, look-out circulars, denial of passports, use of anti-terror laws, and sweeping surveillance of journalists and their families.

There have also been instances of manhandling. The trigger could be anything from adverse reportage to just ‘liking’ a social media picture or post that the state deems to be promoting secessionist thought. The idea is to harass a few and inculcate a sense of fear in all, thereby forcing scribes into self-censorship.

The tactic seems to have worked. In a worrying trend, many news articles critical of the government are beginning to “disappear” from the online archives of local newspapers.

More and more journalists are refraining from sharing stories of their victimisation by the state, fearing it will invite reprisals. It is, for instance, common knowledge in Srinagar that a well-known journalist’s spouse who held, on ad hoc basis, a plum post in a public sector department for nearly a decade had the contract terminated last year.

Also Read | Journalists and press freedom under attack in Jammu and Kashmir

The fear among journalists is palpable, for they know they are subject to an intricate surveillance mechanism, and even an innocuous conversation can invite trouble for them and their families.

This happened with a senior journalist working with a national publication. A year or so ago he was summoned to a police station. It turned out that his cousin, who telephoned often, was on the agencies’ radar. The cousin sometimes asked him whether convoys were moving around in the neighbourhood. The journalist always readily answered, thinking the questions were commonplace. He did not realise that his telephone conversations were being recorded by the intelligence wing.

History of attacks

But this is not the first time journalists in Kashmir have found their operations restricted and their moves under threat. Anuradha Bhasin, renowned journalist and executive editor of Kashmir Times, said that in the peak militancy years of the 1990s, journalists did not just grapple with curfews and restrictions on roads, they had to face physical threats as well, caught between the guns of the militants and the security forces.

For instance, Zafar Meraj was kidnapped in the winter of 1995-96 by an Ikhwan militant, shot at and left on the roadside. He miraculously survived. Alsafa owner and editor Shaban Vakil was shot dead in April 1991. Mushtaq Ali, a photographer, was killed in September 1995 when a parcel bomb sent to renowned journalist Yusuf Jameel’s office exploded. Jameel was seriously injured but he survived.

Bhasin said that despite all this, however, “channels of communication were open, at least with the State”. She told Frontline: “The State was often more responsive. Some officials were willing to understand the pressures under which journalists functioned and also understood the need for freedom of the press. Today, we have one arrogant state cracking down on journalists or dictating what should appear as news. That is the only communication we have.”

Speaking to Frontline, Siddiq Wahid, a political commentator and historian, said that through the 1990s and in the first 15 years of this century, censorship of the press and curbs on the freedom of expression were “muted, subtle, even apologetic”. He said this was not the case now. “The popularity of strongmen politics the world over legitimates political encyclicals issued by populist leaders.”

Fahad Shah, Asif Sultan, and more recently, Irfan Mehraj, are reporters who have been victims of the most vindictive state actions: all three are in jail. Fahad Shah, founding editor of The Kashmir Walla, an online magazine that captured police brutalities on several instances, was summoned on February 4, 2022, for allegedly “glorifying terrorist activities” and “inciting the public”. He was later booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and has not been released yet.

Some like Manan Dar were fortunate to be set free after a brush with the authorities. Dar was arrested by the NIA in October 2021 and was charged under UAPA for being, as the authorities put it, “a hybrid cadre meant to execute small-scale attacks such as target killing of minorities, security forces, political leaders, and other important persons to create unrest and spread terror”.

He was released on bail in January 2023 after a Delhi court noted that the NIA did not have evidence against him.

Also Read | Kashmir Times: Where the mind is without fear…

In December 2022, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested Khalid Gul, a senior journalist based in Anantnag, in connection with a story published in a local daily in 2017. A local court granted him bail shortly.

A faceoff between Fahad Shah and the police began in May 2020 when The Kashmir Walla’s video story on an encounter in Nawakadal in Srinagar went viral. The video showed houses being burned down and women of the neighbourhood wailing during an encounter in which Junaid Sehrai, an elusive Hizbul Mujahideen militant, was killed.

After the story, the authorities began to summon Fahad Shah and give him, as he once told this reporter, “daunting lectures on how journalism ought to be done”. Speaking to this reporter before his arrest, Shah said: “There would be four-five senior officials in the room; while one did all the talking, the others stared, as though to inject a sense of foreboding in me.”

According to Shah, the police was riled that The Kashmir Walla’s reportage focussed only on violence and not on “development work”.

Media freedom

On March 20 this year, Irfan Mehraj, who worked with a Srinagar-based portal called, was detained by the NIA for alleged links with an NGO that is being probed for terror funding.

The NIA said: “Mr Mehraj was a close associate of Khurram Parvez and was working with his organisation, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS). Investigation revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activities in the Valley and had also been in propagation of a secessionist agenda in the Valley under the garb of protection of human rights.”

Mediapersons outside the Kashmir Press Club building after the Jammu and Kashmir government took back the premises, in Srinagar on January 17, 2022.

Mediapersons outside the Kashmir Press Club building after the Jammu and Kashmir government took back the premises, in Srinagar on January 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: S. Irfan/PTI

Khurram Parvez is an internationally acclaimed Kashmiri human rights defender and JKCCS was awarded the Rafto Prize for human rights in 2017. Parvez was booked in 2022 under the UAPA in a case pertaining to “criminal conspiracy and illegal money transfer for terror activities”.

There was worldwide condemnation of Parvez’s arrest, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, saying: “Indian authorities appear to be intensifying the long-standing repression of Kashmiri civil society.”

Prolonged detention

Asif Sultan has now spent five years behind bars. He was arrested under UAPA in 2018 following a story he wrote on Burhan Wani, a top commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen who was killed in an encounter in July 2016. In April 2022, as soon as he was granted bail in the case, Sultan was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), under which a suspect can be kept in detention for up to two years without formal criminal charges being filed if the authorities are convinced that such a person constitutes a threat to public order.

In several cases, as soon as a person gets bail in a given case, the authorities book him under the PSA so as to prolong the person’s detention.

The pattern was seen again in the case of Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter for The Kashmir Walla, who was arrested in January for uploading a video in which the family of a slain militant was seen raising anti-India slogans, according to media reports. As soon as he got bail, he was held under the PSA.

  • Journalists and human rights defenders in Kashmir face increasing detention, raids, denial of passports, and surveillance, aiming to promote self-censorship and instill fear.
  • Dissenting voices are being erased as critical news articles disappear from online archives. Journalists fear reprisals and refrain from sharing their victimisation, while surveillance intensifies the climate of fear.
  • In the past, journalists in Kashmir faced threats, but communication channels were more open. The current state crackdown is marked by arrogance, dictation of news coverage, and the arrest of journalists under anti-terror laws.

Silencing continues

The punitive actions of the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have attracted media furore but without any impact on the state of things there. Following Mehraj’s arrest, the Editor’s Guild stated that it was “deeply concerned about the excessive use of UAPA against journalists”, while urging the State administration to respect democratic values.

Several Kashmiri journalists have told Frontline that they have received calls over the past two years from the Criminal Investigation Department and, in several instances, have been asked to fill up forms giving details about their assets, bank accounts, and kin.

Frontline has a copy of the questionnaire. It requires journalists to declare whether they have any political allegiance, whether FIRs have been filed against them, whether they have been convicted in any case, and whether they have relatives or acquaintances living in Pakistan. The questionnaire also requires them to draft a note on their “present and past activities”.

Several instances of the authorities manhandling scribes have been reported. Kashmiri scribes Auqib Javeed, Mudasir Qadri, Junaid Rafiq, and Azaan Javed are among those who were thrashed in the line of duty. Javeed’s case was particularly terrifying. In September 2020, the reporter, who works with a Srinagar-based English daily, was slapped by a masked man inside a police station in Srinagar. Before that, Javeed had done a story alleging that the cyber branch of the police was intimidating Twitter users who posted opinions critical of the police.

Press playbook

After August 5, 2019, when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was abolished, a detailed playbook on bulldozing press freedoms began to evolve and be executed.

In May 2020, the Centre put in place the controversial Jammu and Kashmir Media Policy-2020 that enunciated various dos and don’ts for mediapersons, even as it enabled the government to influence news content by conferring on it the power to decide what constituted “fake, anti-national, or unethical” news.

Under this policy, the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) can monitor the media and initiate action against an individual or an organisation for violation of its guidelines.

Around the same time, the Jammu and Kashmir Cyber Police invoked UAPA against Kashmiri journalists Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra. Geelani faced imminent arrest in February 2022 and has since not been seen in Srinagar.

Bhasin said that in most cases, the charges are not only unjustifiable but “atrociously vague”. “Some journalists have been booked in anti-terror/fake news cases without specifying which part of the content was objectionable. If the journalists are hauled up for their social media posts, no specific posts are mentioned,” said Bhasin.

Also, in the case of Fahad Shah, one charge against him looked at the subscription model of his digital news platform as something that can be “used by unscrupulous elements to pump money and create trouble in Kashmir”. Calling this “rather silly,” Bhasin said, “Subscriptions are just small sums of money readers donate or pay to keep good journalism alive”.

Also Read | Muzzling the media: How the Modi regime continues to undermine the news landscape

The year 2022 began with the controversial takeover of the Kashmir Press Club. According to media reports, Srinagar’s Additional District Magistrate reportedly issued an order putting on hold the “re-registration” clearance given by the Registrar of Societies and Firms in Jammu and Kashmir to the press club on December 29, 2021.

The move came just as the press club management decided to go ahead with the election of its office-bearers. Thereafter, in January 2022, the government returned the press club premises to the Estates Department, thus ensuring that it virtually ceased to exist.

The assault continues in many ways. On May 3, the press freedom index of the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) saw India’s ranking fall from 150 in 2022 to 161 of 180 countries.

It said: “[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has an army of supporters who track down all online reporting regarded as critical of the government and wage horrific harassment campaigns against the sources… many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves.”

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