“If I could record the process of my detention, I would make a Bollywood comedy out of it,” Comiti Paul Edward, a French journalist and filmmaker, said. Edward was arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir Police on December 9 for violating visa norms.
After being commissioned by French TV channel M6 to make a documentary on the Kashmir conflict, Edward came to Srinagar for a recce before his team arrives. At 2 pm on December 9, Edward and his local friends were attending a silent protest held by human rights activist Mohammad Ahsan Untoo.
According to Untoo, a man in civvies from the CID observation cell came to him before the protest began and asked if there were any foreigners with him. “I did not know about Edward back then, so I said no and began the protest,” said Untoo.
According to Edward, he wasn’t recording at the protest. “A policeman in civil clothes told my friend that the chief of security wanted to see me. I didn’t go immediately. Later, due to a headache, I went back to my hotel. The security officials didn’t stop calling my friend and so I was forced to go to the Foreigners’ Registration Office,” said Edward, who believes the secret police have been tailing him from the day he landed in Srinagar.
The police booked Edward under Section 14B of the Foreigners Act and jailed him in Kothibagh police station. “They didn’t beat or insult me but they questioned me a lot,” he said. During the four nights and three days that Edward was in jail, his hotel room was searched and his belongings – camera, passport, documents and notebooks — were seized.
The Embassy of France in Delhi was immediately informed of Edward’s arrest. On December 11, a consular official arrived in Srinagar and met Edward and the officials concerned. The consular official was unavailable for comment.
In his 25 years covering conflicts across Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Israel and Palestine, Edward claimed he had “never felt like this way before”. “I almost felt like I was in North Korea. It was as if they had so much to hide that they just do not want any international media here,” he said.
Edward said he was first charged with disrupting public order; then he was accused of faking his passport and was finally told that he violated visa norms. “When I was taken to the police station there was no professional process. Most of them were confused of what to do. There was only one computer and they couldn’t even find a pen. In short, they couldn’t even file a proper complaint,” said the French journalist.
Currently, Edward holds a business visa valid up to December 22, 2018. Inspector General of Police Muneer Khan said the police had received a complaint from the Foreigners Registration Office claiming that Comiti Paul Edward was violating the norms of his visa and passport. “When a foreigner comes to Kashmir, he has to register with the FRO and after that he will be under surveillance. That is the norm. Edward has not even registered with the FRO,” said Khan.
After observing that Edward was interviewing separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, meeting pellet-gun victims, human shield victims and attending cultural programmes, Khan said that the police were “bound to pick him up”. “He was not under any illegal custody. We followed the due process. The problem is that the media here wants to blow up everything. In this case, we are only doing our job,” said the IGP.
Edward’s lawyer Parvez Imroz told Newslaundry that it is true that Edward had not registered with the FRO. Nevertheless, Imroz said the police are using that narrative to evade the real question regarding the allegation of visa violation. “It is a question of interpretation. Yes, he didn’t have a journalistic visa but he had not started shooting his documentary. He was working, meeting people and paying his employees just like any businessman. What are the restrictions on a business visa? The restrictions imposed for business, tourist or journalist visas have not been spelt out,” said Imroz.
Meanwhile, Untoo, who held the protest from where Edward was picked up, filed a petition before the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) questioning his detention. Untoo, who was also arrested a few hours before Edward was released on Monday, had filed the petition against IGP Kashmir, SSP Srinagar and SP East Zone. “The case is in process and Edward has to be produced in the SHRC court on December 18,” he said.
Speaking of the film, Edward said, “I wanted to capture the truth of what is going on, on the ground. I did not intend to tell a one-sided story.” Edward said all he wants to do now is go back home. He is unsure if the film project is on now. “The Indian government claims this is the biggest democracy, it is not. There are no civil rights and no freedom of press. This reflects very badly on the Indian government,” he said.