The thought of being summoned to one of Kashmir’s most infamous interrogation centres was a “frightening moment” for freelance photojournalist Masrat Zahra, 26. On April 19, Zahra, whose work has appeared in international news outlets, received a phone call from an unknown number summoning her to the cyber police station in Srinagar.
The cyber police is headed by Tahir Ashraf, the superintendent of police who also leads the counterinsurgency operations in the valley. His headquarters is a police station in Srinagar colloquially known as “Cargo”. The term is synonymous with the state police’s ruthless counterinsurgency unit that has been allegations of committing human rights abuses since its inception in the early 1990s. Both “Cargo” and the cyber police station are located in the same police complex.
In that moment, Zahra was unsure if she would be detained and worried about the implications. It reminded her of an incident from 2018, when a picture of her standing in an orchard as a gunfight raged nearby had led to many social media users of government forces. This time, she stared at a five-year prison sentence.
Zahra is one of the few women journalists in Kashmir who, aside from dealing with the pressures of working as journalist, have to battle the patriarchal prejudices of the society and their colleagues. “I was worried if something similar would happen again,” she said, adding that she did not disclose many details to her family.
The next day, however, a statement was issued by the police, naming Zahra and stating that she had been booked under the stringent anti-terrorism legislation, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Her alleged offence? The statement said the case was registered on the basis of “information from reliable sources” that Zahra “frequently uploaded anti-national posts with criminal intention”.
Zahra was one of three Kashmiris journalists to face police action in three days. A day before she was booked, the police had summoned Peerzada Ashiq. The Hindu newspaper’s correspondent in Srinagar was first summoned by the cyber police station in Srinagar and then by the Anantnag district police, around 70 km away, over what they called a “fake news item” which “could cause fear or alarm in the minds of the public”.
Next, on April 21, the cyber police registered a case against author and political commentator Gowhar Geelani for “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platform which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India”.
Ashiq was summoned regarding an FIR filed under Sections 188 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code which deal with, respectively, “disobedience of orders promulgated by public servants” and 505 “statements conducive to public mischief”.
The charges against Geelani have not been communicated to him yet and neither has he been summoned by the police. The investigation into Zahra's social media posts is ongoing.
Skirting the law to intimidate the press
Zahra went to the cyber police station on April 21. She said an officer questioned her about some posts she had made on social media. “They said that the case had not been filed against me but against a social media user,” she told Newslaundry, adding that the police officials feigned ignorance about her profession.
Zahra has been identified as “one Facebook user” who “is frequently uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention” in a vague statement by the police, issued on April 20. The statement adds: “The post by the users can provoke the public to disturb the law and order besides glorifying the anti-national activities etc.”
Ashiq and the Hindu are also named in this statement from the cyber police. However, Ashiq’s name does not figure in the FIR registered by the Anantnag police.
“There is an open FIR in the Anantnag police station,” Ashiq told Newslaundry. “I was told they have picked up many social media users for sharing a report and they summoned me for questioning after they traced the report to me.”
The report in question was published by the Hindu on April 19.
Ashiq believes this is a deliberate move to target individual journalists without involving organisations that they are affiliated with or which publish their work.
“In usual circumstances, FIRs against news stories mention the names of journalists or organisations as well as publications,” he said. “But the cyber police has no jurisdiction over publications. Their jurisdiction is the internet and hence they are booking ‘social media users’ instead.”
Another statement issued by the police on April 21 also does not identify Geelani as either a journalist or an author. However, some within the journalist community are of the opinion that this could be used as an alibi in court by the police to claim it never targeted journalists in the first place, but social media users sharing the same name.
Further ‘sanitisation’ of the press
The police took note of Ashiq’s news report on the developments following the administration’s refusal to allow of two local militants who had been killed in a gunfight on April 17. The two militants were buried in the absence of family members, in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district.
The police said: “The details quoted in the news item were factually incorrect and could cause fear or alarm in the minds of the public. The news published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.”
Coming out in support of its correspondent, the Hindu Ashiq’s report was based on quotes from a relative of one of the slain militants who had “misconstrued grant of a movement/curfew pass as sanction for exhumation” and that the deputy commissioner in Shopian was not available for comment.
“No rejoinder/clarification was received by the newspaper prior to the registration of the FIR either from the police or from the information department,” the Hindu said.
This is the second time authorities in Kashmir have cast aspersions on Ashiq’s work. On April 15, the Hindu published an investigation by Ashiq that alleged coronavirus testing had been halted in Kashmir after were diverted to Jammu division. The report was “fact checked” by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations, which saying the authorities denied the report.
By projecting news reports as fake news, Ashiq said, the authorities were attempting to “dent his credibility” as a journalist. “This is also an attempt to not allow the people’s voice in news stories and for journalists to rely on government versions only,” he said. “We can’t wait for government officials for days. If officials stop talking to journalists, they will be booked as I have been for not carrying the government version.”
Journalists in Kashmir have been working under testing circumstances that have exacerbated since August last year, when New Delhi locked down the region and suspended all communications as it abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and reduced it to a Union Territory. Now under direct federal rule, the police are also directly answerable to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
Since August, most editors of local newspapers have resorted to self-censorship taken by the administration in the region. As a result, most newspapers have begun to prominently report only government versions. So heavy is the self-censorship that the reports of journalists being targeted was also downplayed by the valley’s .
‘This is not a government worried about its image’
“A tough law is required to uproot terrorism from India and we would always support that,” home minister Amit Shah last August as New Delhi amended and strengthened the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The amended legislation empowers governments to designate any individual as a terrorist, and its misuse has caused concern among rights activists across the country.
That the police would invoke this law – which, in essence, condemns an accused as guilty until proven innocent – against journalists over their use of social media has shocked the journalist community in Kashmir. The shock is more pronounced among women journalists, comprising about a dozen reporters and photographers, mostly freelancers. They share similar stories of struggling to deal with the pressures of the profession as well as the society.
Zahra was initially reluctant to inform her family that she had been booked under the anti-terror law. “I understand the risks involved but to make them understand is difficult,” she said, adding that her family found out only after the police’s statement was circulated online.
Another female journalist who did not want to be identified said her family was unsupportive of her career choice. Since Zahra’s case, she added, her family had renewed pressure on her to quit her job.
“This was an attack on all of us,” she said. “We don’t belong to any side, and we write about anything that deserves a story. Masrat pictured what she saw. It is scary that you can be booked for reporting the truth.”
The journalist added that Zahra was a “perfectly vulnerable target”, being a freelance journalist and a relatively new entrant in the field with just four years of experience. “Targeting someone else could not have sent a stronger message,” she said in the context of a patriarchal society where such measures against women are unexpected. “I haven’t quit my job but I do feel nervous now while reporting. It is depressing.”
Ashiq sees a careful pattern behind the police’s targeting of a reporter with a national newspaper and freelancers contributing to national and international publications.
“When reporters in the district see well-known journalists being booked, it impacts their thought process,” he said, adding that the current government in India was unconcerned about bad press. “This targeting may have generated a lot of public support for journalists but if the past is any indication, this is not a government worried about getting a dent in its image or interested in course correction.”
The Jammu and Kashmir police taking action against journalists coincided with India on the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders. India ranked at 142 out of 180 countries, dropping two places from last year.
In fact, Reporters Without Borders that India’s score “is heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir where, after rescinding the state’s autonomy, the federal government shut down fixed line and mobile internet connections completely for several months, making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison”.
The police action against journalists amid the coronavirus pandemic is being widely seen as a fresh attempt in an ongoing process of intimidation to scuttle the freedom of press.
The Kashmir Working Journalists Association said in a statement that authorities were “throttling their voice with a new zeal” and are seemingly “in no mood to allow a democratic dissent or expression of opinion, and have adopted the policy of muzzling the press as a governance measure”.
Tahir Ashraf, head of the cyber police, Sandeep Choudhary, Anantnag’s superintendent of police, and Vijay Kumar, Kashmir valley’s police chief, did not respond to calls and texts for comment from Newslaundry.
However, a statement issued by the police on April 23 as saying the deteriorating situation for the press in Kashmir was “a claim by certain groups” and that “before making such broad generalisations people should ascertain the facts”.
Without naming Ashiq, Kumar said “only one journalist has been questioned about a journalistic work as only one FIR of instigating people for violence has been registered”.
He continued: “Remaining two persons have not been booked for any journalistic work of theirs but because of the reason that they have posted explicitly seditious, incendiary and incriminating texts on social media, challenging sovereignty and integrity of India and attempting to instigate people for violence [sic].”
Without naming Geelani, the statement said, “Regarding the other person who has additionally been booked”, there are “written complaints as he has exposed life of some peaceful and law abiding citizens to grave risk by posting incriminating and provocative adjectives against them on social media platforms like FB and Twitter”.
Kumar claimed that the police “has always maintained highest regard for freedom of press”. However, Newslaundry could not reach Kumar to seek an update on previously made verbal promises of inquiry into the December 2019 incidents of policemen .
More recently, on April 17, journalist Mushtaq Ganaie was by the police in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. The police confiscated his phone, preventing him from reaching out for help, and also registered an FIR against him, Ganaie was quoted as saying by local newspapers.
Similarly, in February, journalist Kamran Yousuf was at midnight over a case of mistaken identity. In the same month, two journalists were for publishing a statement of the banned Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
The Streisand effect
While it appears the authorities intend to stifle criticism of the government, some believe they want to silence the press in the long run. However, with these actions against Kashmiri journalists, international attention, consumed by the Covid-19 crisis, has returned to Kashmir.
Besides garnering fresh attention to the , the police have unwittingly brought attention back to the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, whose had galvanised public sympathy for the militants.
Defending his actions against Zahra, Ashraf, the cyber police head, uploaded a screenshot of a two-year-old photograph Zahra had taken of mourners carrying a poster of Burhan Wani during a Muharram procession. Police officials remain wary of the slain militant’s charisma.
However, in the midst of the furore, activists and journalists in Kashmir also attempted to bring back attention to Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the local magazine Kashmir Narrator. Sultan was booked under the UAPA and since August 2018 over allegations of sheltering militants.
Sultan’s family and colleagues, however, believe he is being punished for his article on Burhan Wani published that year.
Days after Sultan’s article was published, Kashmir Narrator from the police asking, among other things, if the magazine was “attempting to influence young impressionable minds and creating ‘ideological activists’ for them to eulogise”.
The outpouring of support for the targeted journalists also came to haunt government officials as social media users not only mined their timelines for posts critical of the government, but also drew comparisons to point out the selective and invasive nature of their actions.
However, veteran journalist Mohammad Syed Malik views the developments with caution.
“The operation of the press and its freedom have been different in Kashmir than the rest of India since 1947, but the pressures have been more pronounced since this regime has come,” said Malik, referring to the Narendra Modi government. “The booking of journalists one after another is to convey the message that they are breathing over our shoulders. Intimidation is in the air.”
Malik is among the valley’s first journalists to report in English language papers. He also served as the director of the erstwhile state’s information department. “It does not matter much what outsiders say, what matters is what is happening on the ground, and that situation has not changed since August 5,” he said, “Is there any leader demanding the restoration of Article 370 since they have been released? No.”