They're often called ‘social media users’, rather than being identified as journalists doing their jobs.
On Saturday, February 5, the Srinagar newsroom of the Kashmir Walla, an independent news organisation, was more tense than usual.
The previous evening, its editor Fahad Shah had been arrested in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district for “uploading anti-national content” on social media – described by the police as “tantamount to glorifying terrorist activities”.
The “content” in question was allegedly a Pulwama-based family’s claims that their son, who was killed in an encounter, was innocent. The family’s version had been reported by Kashmir Walla and shared on social media – posts the police said “promote offences against public tranquility”.
Shah’s arrest follows his repeated summons and detentions by the police over the last two years.
The staff of the Kashmir Walla have also come under scrutiny. Last month, Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter with Kashmir Walla, was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act and imprisoned in Jammu’s Kot Balwal jail, for ostensibly posting a video on social media of “family members and relatives raising anti-India slogans after the killing of their kin, a militant”.
The allegations against Shah are similar. In a statement to ANI, Kashmir’s inspector general of police said: “Accused Fahah Shah has been arrested on the basis of one of the three FIRs lodged against him for frequently glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news, and instigating people for the past 3-4 years.”
The FIR in question was registered in the aftermath of a gunfight in Pulwama on January 30 and has been registered under sections 124-A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code, as well as section 13 of the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Shah was sent to police remand for 10 days, until February 15.
The arrest has been met with muted resentment in Kashmir where, just three weeks ago, the Kashmir Press Club was disbanded by the J&K administration after a group of journalists attempted a “takeover” of its management.
Timeline of the arrest
On January 30, 17-year-old Inayat Mir was killed along with three others in an encounter in his home in Pulwama. The police alleged he was a “hybrid militant”. Mir’s family said he was innocent and contested the police’s claims, though his sister later admitted to sheltering militants and said her brother had refused to come out when government forces offered the militants a chance to surrender.
Kashmir Walla published a report on the family’s initial claims on the same day.
Shortly after, Emaad Makhdoomi, who calls himself a columnist, tweeted that the report was “fake news”. His tweet was, in turn, retweeted by the official handle of the Kashmir Zone police.
A day later, on February 1, Shah was summoned to Pulwama police station along with two other journalists and Majid Hyderi, who is a regular panelist on TV news channels. Shah and the other journalists were questioned on their reportage of the family’s claims; Hyderi was asked about posting the family’s story on social media.
On the evening of February 4, Friday, Shah was directed once again to present himself at the Pulwama police station to “record statements”. According to his colleagues, he had a cold and slight fever and asked for a day’s time, but the police insisted that he present himself the same day. His colleagues then accompanied him to the police station.
That evening, the police announced his arrest, without identifying him as either a journalist or as the editor of Kashmir Walla.
Instead, in a statement, the police said it had “reliably learnt” that “some Facebook users and portals have been uploading anti national content including photographs, videos and posts with criminal intention to create fear among public and the content so uploaded can provoke the public to disturb law & order.”
The statement continued: “It was also learnt that these Facebook users are uploading such posts which tantamount to glorifying the terrorist activities and causing dent to the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing ill-will & disaffection against the country.”
Stating that these amounted to cognisable offenses, the police said they had registered an FIR and arrested “one accused person identified as Fahad Shah”.
The arrest comes two years after Shah was questioned over his organisation’s coverage of a gunfight – in which two militants and three civilians were killed and 19 homes were razed – in 2020.
In January last year, the Indian army filed an FIR against Shah and Yashraj Sharma, a Kashmir Walla reporter, accusing them of spreading “fake news” about a school in south Kashmir’s Shopian district that had accused the army of forcing them to participate in Republic Day celebrations.
An emerging pattern
In 2021, while quashing a 2018 FIR against journalist Asif Naik, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court said: “No fetters can be placed on the freedom of press by registering the FIR against a reporter who was performing his professional duty by publishing a news item on the basis of information obtained by him from an identifiable source.”
Similarly, in 2020, while quashing an FIR against journalist Saleem Pandit, the high court observed that “reporting of events, which a journalist has bona fide reason to believe to be true, can never be an offence. Taking a contrary view would be violative of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.”
But last month, when the police detained Kashmir Walla trainee reporter Sajad Gul, the police did not identify him as a journalist.
Instead, the Bandipora police called him a “so-called journalist” who was “always propagating against the government and uploads tweets not based on facts in order to provoke the people against Govt and to spread animosity, ill will among the people & against the Nation.”
The police also accused Gul of being “involved in spreading disinformation campaign through fake tweets/narratives”. He was subsequently booked under sections 120B, 153B and 505 of the Indian Penal Code.
Gul’s case was also more complicated. He was granted bail, then booked in another FIR, and then was finally arrested under the Public Safety Act.
A person detained under the Public Safety Act does not have the right to move a bail application before a criminal court. They also can be held without trial for up to two years.
The police justified detaining Gul under the act by citing the “apprehension” that he would get bail otherwise, which would “prove fatal for peaceful atmosphere, tranquility, law and order of the nation”.
The police dossier against Gul also mentioned his use of social media.
“Being a journalist, you are less reporting about the welfare of UT rather promoting enmity,” it said. “You are running a Twitter account for your nefarious designs. You...have a natural tendency to support your anti-national, anti-social desires, so as to cherish your dream.”
This trend – of reducing journalists to social media users – was also seen when journalists Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani were booked under the UAPA in April 2020. The police said Zahra “frequently uploaded anti-national posts with criminal intention”.
When journalist Peerzada Ashiq was summoned by two police stations in 2020 over a purported “fake news item”, he told Newslaundry at the time: “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.”
Anuradha Bhasin, editor of Kashmir Times, said this is how the administration and police try to “control the narrative” in the erstwhile state and especially prevent it from being picked up by the West.
“In the West, there is an intolerance for this crackdown on the media, at least on the face of it,” said Bhasin, adding that refusal to identify targets as journalists is to “project them as some kind of social media offenders”.
She said the ambiguity in police statements was “intriguing” and that officials’ unwillingness to speak to the press made it even more “difficult to understand what’s going on in their mind”.
“It’s just an attempt to project them as non-professionals and to make it sound less grave [than an attack on press freedom] but that hasn’t worked,” Bhasin added. “Media professionals do see it as targeting of media professionals and they are talking about a pattern of consistent war against journalists [in Kashmir].”