The journalists were held at a Srinagar police station for many hours on Wednesday and again on Thursday.
On September 8 morning, the police simultaneously raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta, Azhar Qadri – and confiscated their digital devices and travel documents during searches lasting hours.
The police’s raiding parties were aided by contingents of the paramilitary CRPF that maintained a perimeter cordon while the police conducted the searches.
Hilal and Azhar are freelance reporters while Abbas is the online editor at the Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma. All three of them write for international media outlets. Showkat has been an editor and writer for several leading newspapers and news magazines in Kashmir.
None of the four journalists was arrested during the raids but were summoned to the Kothi Bagh police station in central Srinagar, where they were held until late in the evening but not questioned by any senior official.
They were ordered to return on Thursday morning and again held until evening. It is not yet clear if they were questioned.
The police haven’t released a formal statement yet, but Daily Excelsior quoted Kashmir valley’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, as claiming that the raids were conducted after the police had gathered “technical evidence” from “leads provided by the arrested persons in Kashmirfight.wordpress.com blog case”.
The anonymous blog, unnamed police sources alleged to NewsClick, is “known for targeting political workers, civil society members, activists, academicians and journalists, issuing threats and accusing them of working as collaborators”.
The police claimed the blog has been on their radar since the 2018 assasination of journalist Shujaat Bukhari, against whom it had made several accusations. The blog later also published allegations against lawyer and TV panelist Babar Qadri before he was shot dead at his home in Srinagar. Last year, the police filed an FIR under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Indian Penal Code against unnamed persons for “uploading posts prejudicial to integrity, sovereignty of the country and threat to maintenance of peace and tranquility” on the blog.
In July this year, they arrested five persons, including a senior Srinagar Municipal Corporation official, his son and daughter, as “culprits secretly working behind the blog”.
The raids on the four journalists, all of whom live in Srinagar, began at about 7 am. Showkat said the police and CRPF personnel arrived at home in Lal Bazar bearing a search warrant.
“They raided at 7 am but didn't say in what context,” he said. “I insisted but they refused.”
Showkat owned and edited Kashmir Narrator until the monthly magazine became financially unsustainable and had to be shut down in April 2019, barely a few months after its assistant editor Aasif Sultan was arrested over a story about militant commander Burhan Wani. Sultan remains in jail.
Previously, Showkat worked with leading newspapers Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, and edited Conveyor magazine. He also contributed to Outlook. He now runs a confectionery distribution business.
Showkat recalled that while the paramilitary men entered his property, they didn't go inside his home, the police did. “They searched every nook and corner of the house and took away all our gadgets,” he said. The police confiscated two of his family’s laptops, a desktop, an iPad and all mobile phones, including his 14-year-old son’s.
At Hilal’s home, the seasoned journalist alleged, the police ransacked his bedroom. Hilal has been an editor at Kashmir Reader, Greater Kashmir, Hindustan Times, and he currently freelances for international media outlets.
Apart from laptops, cell phones, hard drives and memory cards, the police confiscated his and his wife’s passports.
Azhar lives in a joint family with his parents and his brother, and the police confiscated all cell phones in the house. The raid was led by a deputy superintendent of police and a naib tehsildar. Azhar has had a long stint with the Press Trust of India and also worked with the Tribune until the newspaper shut down its Kashmir edition last year.
At the police station where they were held for over 10 hours on Wednesday, the journalists said no senior official met with them while junior officials merely prepared background notes on them and their family members.
The questions ranged from “where we went to school and college to whether anyone in our family has links to the militancy or the police and army,” one of the journalists recalled. “They sought bio data on everyone.”
‘Intimidation of independent journalists’
As news of the raids broke, journalists in Kashmir panicked. The valley’s journalists have faced threats and intimidation from state and non-state actors for long but especially since the removal of its residual autonomy in August 2019.
Journalists, including the editors of Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader, have in the past been summoned by the National Investigation Agency, booked under anti-terror laws by the police, and continue to be questioned over stories that appear in national and international media outlets.
These mostly independent journalists are also being targeted at a time when newspapers have gone down a spiral of silence and resorted to unilateral coverage of the government, ensured by the administration’s policy of coercion and offering incentives.
Now that Kashmir’s freelance journalists are almost the only reporters conveying the situation on the ground, these raids are being seen as yet another assault on press freedom. “This is sheer harassment and intimidation of independent journalists,” Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective wrote on Twitter.
The international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders condemned the raids as “crude intimidation”.
The raids, a joint statement by the Kashmir Press Club and local media associations said, “is a stark reflection of how authorities in Jammu and Kashmir are targeting journalists”.
"The assault on freedom of press in Kashmir continues and it appears condemnations made in each case by media groups have fallen on deaf ears in absence of any respite,” they added.