An FSC focus on journalists in custody .

Time flies – yet it seems as if things are stuck in a terrifying time loop. It’s been over seven months since the arrest of prominent Kashmiri journalist, Fahad Shah.

Shah is the editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla (TKW) and is currently lodged at the Kot Bhalwal Central Jail, Jammu under the extraordinary Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 1967 and the J-K Public Safety Act (PSA) 1978 after the classic “revolving door arrest tactics”.

Shah was arrested on 4 February 2022 for sedition and inciting violence under the UAPA. He was subsequently granted bailed twice, only to be rearrested immediately.

Of course, Shah is not the only journalist from Kashmir who is behind bars or under the scanner of security forces for their work. TKW’s trainee reporter, Sajjad Gul, is also serving unjustified time lodged in an Uttar Pradesh jail under the draconian PSA for tweeting a video of a protest. Aasif Sultan has been languishing in jail since August 2018. TKW’s interim editor, Yashraj Sharma, was also summoned by the SIA to Jammu Interrogation Centre. Similarly, New Delhi-based Kashmiri Journalist Shahid Tantray who writes for The Caravan was reportedly threatened by police with charges and told to leave the state or face jail or death. More recently, Pulitzer-winning Kashmiri Journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo and independent journalist, Aakash Hassan, were stopped from flying abroad.

Shah’s arrest is emblematic of the declining fundamental freedom and can be understood as retaliation for reporting, speaking out and seeking accountability from the government. Shah’s arrest has set a dangerous precedent for the journalists working in the conflict-torn region for not only it is meant to crush dissent but to send across a chilling effect. No wonder the Kashmiri press and independent journalists are self-censoring like never before.

Saga of ‘revolving door arrests

Shah was initially arrested for carrying out a story that included the family version of an encounter that took place in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Shah was able to secure bail, but even before he could step out of the police station, another police gypsy awaited him. He was shifted to the Shopian Police Station in connection with a case where The Kashmir Walla (TKW) reported that a private school was allegedly ‘pressured by the army’ to celebrate the Indian Republic Day function.

Shah secured bail in the case but was re-arrested, as dramatically, by the Srinagar Police related to TKW’s reportage on the Nawakadal Gunfight of May 2020 in which two militants were killed and 19 residential houses were damaged. The report based on civilian interviews accused the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) India of beating up civilians, including minors and stealing valuables. The police had claimed that the aforementioned coverage ‘defamed’ the forces.

While in detention, Shah was booked under the stringent PSA, a law deemed as the ‘lawless law’ by Amnesty International, allowing for detention without trial for upto two years and shifted to Kupwara. In April, the State Investigation Agency (SIA) raided The Kashmir Walla’s office and Shah’s residence. A month later, on 20 May, Shah’s custody was taken over by SIA at the Joint Interrogation Center, Jammu in connection to an op-ed written by Kashmiri Scholar Aala Fazili over a decade ago for TKW. This was Shah’s fifth arrest and is currently under police remand.

Since then, the predictable round of ‘tareek pe tareek” has been on, with date after date being given in the cases. The PSA and UAPA cases came up on Sept 5, 2022. The next hearing of the PSA case is on Oct 10 while the next hearing of the UAPA case is on Oct 28. A notice has been issued to the government in the latter case.

Shah has been accused of being an “anti-national” mainly for carrying stories highlighting the gross human rights violation by the government forces in J-K. Furthermore, Shah was labelled as an “instigator” and reportedly charged with “working against the ethics of journalism” and “posting anti-national content which has a multidimensional adverse impact on sovereignty and unity of the country”. The PSA dossier against Shah accuses him of “having radical ideology” from his childhood and not reporting stories on “good governance or positive intervention” by the Indian state.

Screenshot of PSA dossier on Fahad Shah

Not only are these accusations absurd and go against the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Indian constitution, but they have far-reaching consequences on the state of the media in Kashmir. Through this escalated repression and the associated fears of intimidation and surveillance, regional independent media in Kashmir has been rendered inoperative. Shah’s arbitrary arrest reeks of vengeance and has led local newspapers to either fall into line or face consequences.

In the face of his arrest and the prevailing atmosphere, the news site that Shah founded – The Kshmirwalla – has been struggling to survive, though the young team of journalists and journalism students that he trained have continued to keep the site going.

Press freedom under attack

Post the revocation of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019, the freedom of thought, conscience and expression, as well as the right to a free press have been under constant attack in the Valley.

In June 2020, the J&K administration approved the New Media Policy. The Policy spelt out strict regulations with regards to the empanelment of newspapers/portals for the release of advertisements by the Government. Similarly, it laid out guidelines that allow for robust background checks of journalists and empowered the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) to “examine the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or anti-national activities.”

Those indulging in such activities will be “de-empanelled besides being proceeded against under the law.” This was followed by a new set of April 2021 police restrictions on journalists’ right to movement and limitations on what stories they were allowed to cover. In January 2022, the state took over the Kashmir Press Club, one of the most important journalists’ professional associations in the region.

Given such silencing of journalists and the incapacitation of independent media houses who could do credible reporting, a climate of fear has been created. In absence of such critical reportage, the Indian state enjoys unprecedented impunity and little to no accountability. The writing on the wall is clear: no critical journalism would be allowed and if anyone dares to raise a voice, they would be dealt with an iron fist. Free press in the region has become a distant dream.

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