Journalist Irfan Mehraj’s pinned tweet says :
There are hundreds of Kashmiri Pandit families who never left #Kashmir. My story with@khalidHkhan_looks at their experiences in conflict-marred Valley, and how they have survived amid controversy sparked by #KashmirFiles.” The article had appeared in Al Jazeera on May 6, 2022.
Another tweet is about an article entitled ‘The Anatomy Of An Extrajudicial Killing In Kashmir”, co-authored with Auquib Javeed and published on March 8, 2021.
Another piece on the opening of a multiplex in Kashmir “Will a new multiplex revive Kashmir’s cinema culture?”, co-authored with Khalid Khan, appeared in Himal Southasian on Jan 18, 2023.
He also did a video story for Deutsche Welle on the increase in heroin addiction in Kashmir and the text for the story says: “Heroin addiction has skyrocketed in the region and despite government intervention, frontline services are struggling to cope. A complex mix of factors is behind the rise.
Mehraj is today behind bars, arrested in a case relating to alleged terror funding. By no stretch of imagination can any of the stories cited above relate to “terror”, much less terror funding! Yet, that is what he has been charged with.
Mehraj, who has been a journalist contributing to the The Caravan magazine, Article 14 and international media outlets like Al Jazeera, and Deutsche Welle, is also the editor with Twocircles.net, and with Wande magazine, the online magazine that was, like most online news-sites in the Kashmir valley, crippled by the prolonged internet shutdown post the abrogation of Art 370.
According to media reports, Mehraj was working on a story when he was called to the police station in Srinagar. His family was informed that he was arrested in connection with the alleged terror funding case in FIR No RC-37/2020/NIA/DLI, filed on October 8, 2020 at NIA Police Station, New Delhi.
Mehraj was to be moved to Delhi, his lawyer told Free Speech Collective. The NIA website states that his arrest is the first in connection with the ‘NGO Terror Funding Case’. Mehraj, the website says, “was a close associate of Khurram Parvez and was working with his organization, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS). Investigation revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activities in the valley and had also been in propagation of secessionist agenda in the Valley under the garb of protection of human rights.”
Parvez, the prominent human rights campaigner and , has been in jail since November 2021. Last year, on the first anniversary of his arrest, UN human rights experts reiterated a call for his unconditional release and said : “We are dismayed at the continued deprivation of liberty of Mr. Parvez, in what is increasingly proving to be an act of retaliation against a human rights defender for his tireless work documenting and reporting serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir,”
Mahraj is the fourth journalist from Kashmir behind bars in India. The others are Aasif Sultan, arrested in August 2018, Sajjad Gul, arrested in January 2022 and Fahad Shah, editor of Kashmir Walla, who was arrested in Feb 2022 on UAPA and PSA charges. Last week, he was charged with “sedition” for publishing a piece by writer Aala Fazili ‘The Shackles of Slavery Will Break’ in Nov 2011, 12 years ago!
Photojournalist Manan Dar, was granted bail in January 2023, after spending 14 months in jail. The court said allegations against him “do not appear to be cogent or true”. The court further said :
Even if it is accepted that investigation revealed a new form of ‘hybrid cadre’ of terrorist or undercover cadre/ terrorists doing terrorist activity, assisting proscribed terrorist organization discreetly whereas ostensibly carrying on legitimate activities like Advocate, Journalist etc. However one must note that such allegation must be supported by direct evidence of any such activities. Mere assumptions or incomplete evidence to establish such facts may not be sufficient.”
Meanwhile, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and other journalists’ organisations have condemned the arrest of Irfan Mehraj.
In a statement, the EGI said :
Irfan Mehraj’s arrest continues a trend in Kashmir of security forces arresting journalists because of their critical reporting of the establishment. These include journalists Aasif Sultan, Sajad Gul, and Fahad Shah.
The space for media freedom has progressively eroded in Kashmir.
The Guild urges the state administration to respect democratic values and stop the harassment of
journalists in the name of national security.
The Press Club of India, in a statement, said :
“We vehemently oppose the imposing of UAPA on mediapersons. The misuse of this draconian law by NIA in randomly arresting Irfan Mehraj, a journalist from Kashmir ominously points towards a violation of freedom of speech and expression. We demand his immediate release.”
In another statement, the Journalists Federation of Kashmir also condemned the arrest and said that his “arrest seems to be another tactic of intimidating journalists in Kashmir who have always worked under perilous conditions, holding up values of press freedom in the face of dangers to life and liberty. This is not the first time journalists from Kashmir have been arrested/harassed/questioned. Summons for questioning and denial of their fundamental right to travel for professional, academic and personal reasons is part of the tactic.”
The organisation added that “For a vibrant press to flourish in a society, authorities have to move beyond hollow claims of respect for press freedom and work towards a conducive environment where a journalist can report the facts on ground, express opinion on social media without fear, threat of arrest.”
With even public meetings on the state of the media in Kashmir being cancelled on the directives of police in Delhi, these arrests will only push the intensely conflicted region further into a black hole of invisibility and marginalisation.