(New York) – Indian authorities have arrested the eminent Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah politically motivated charges in connection with the government crackdown on media and civil society groups in Jammu and Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said today. Since 2019, at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical attacks or bogus criminal charges for their reporting.
Shah, editor of a major Kashmir-based news site The Walla of Kashmirwas arrested on February 4, 2022 and charged with sedition and supporting terrorism after his site reported on a shooting in Pulwama in January, in which security forces killed four people they claimed were militants. Police allege Shah posted “anti-national” content on social media “glorifying terrorist activities, spreading fake news and inciting people.” Police have questioned and detained Shah several times in recent years for his writings.
“Fahad Shah’s arrest is just the latest attempt by the Indian government to scare the media from doing their job and reporting abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of ensuring justice for security force abuses in Kashmir, the government is more interested in silencing those who bring these abuses to light.”
Shah’s arrest comes amid growing harassment, threats and lawsuits against journalists and human rights activists in Jammu and Kashmir. The government stepped up its crackdown after revoking the state’s special self-governing status in August 2019 and dividing it into two federally-ruled territories.
In January, the police arrested Sajad Gulanother journalist from Kashmir Walla, charged with criminal association after reporting on a protest against Indian authorities. But after Gul was released on bail, the police charged him under the draconian public safety law to keep him in custody. The journalist Asif Sultan has been in prison for terrorism since August 2018, after police accused him of harboring activists. In October 2021, a freelance photojournalist, Manan Darwas arrested under the abusive anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
In November, authorities also arrested a prominent human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Authorities are increasingly using the anti-terrorism law against activists, journalists, peaceful protesters and government critics to silence dissent. The law contains a vague and overly broad definition of terrorism that encompasses a wide range of nonviolent political activities, including political protest by minority populations and civil society groups. In 2019, the government amended the law to grant civil servants the power to designate an individual a “terrorist” without charge or trial, placing the onus on the suspect to prove that he is not a terrorist.
Authorities intensified searches of the homes of journalists and activists and confiscated their mobile phones. In September, police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists and confiscated their phones and laptops.
In January 2020, the government announced a new media policy in Jammu and Kashmir which gave more power to the authorities to censor news in the region. Since 2019, journalists have been regularly summoned to police stations for questions about their work and social media posts, threatened with jail if their work criticizes the authorities, and pressured into self-censorship. the Hindu correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, the Economic period correspondent Hakeem Irfan, Basharat Masood of Indian Express, and the Outlook correspondent Naseer Ganai is among those summoned and questioned.
In April 2020, police opened criminal investigations against Ashiq; Gowhar Geelani, another journalist; and Masrat Zahra, photojournalist. In July 2020, authorities interrogated and detained Qazi Shibli, a publisher previously detained under the Public Safety Act. In recent months, authorities have also stepped up surveillance of freelance journalists and freelancers working for major national and international media outlets, the news site said. Article 14 reported. In the face of raids, threats and detention, many are afraid and forced to self-censor, the report said.
The government has placed more than 40 people, including 22 journalists, on lists ordering immigration authorities to prevent them from traveling abroad, another Newscast noted. In 2019, Geelani and Bilal Bhata rights activist, were prevented from traveling abroad.
In June, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concerns on “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”. They noted that these violations “could be part of a broader pattern of silencing independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn could deter other journalists and wider civil society from reporting.” reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region.”
In October 2020, the government of Jammu and Kashmir sealed the Srinagar office of the outspoken newspaper Kashmir Time in apparent retaliation against its editor, Anuradha Bhasin, who filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s telecommunications shutdown. In the same month, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir also closed Kashmir Information Servicea local news agency.
Shah’s arrest drew condemnation from several journalism organizations and opposition politicians in Kashmir. the Publishers Guild of India said Shah’s arrest was “part of a wider pattern in Kashmir of security forces calling journalists for questioning and often detaining them, due to their reporting critical of the establishment”. Digipuban association of several media outlets, said there was no indication that Shah was involved in anything illegal and that the police had a history of intimidating Shah.. The US-based company Journalists Protection Committee also called for his release, saying his arrest “shows the Jammu and Kashmir authorities’ utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely.”
“The Indian authorities in Kashmir should immediately release Fahad Shah and all politically imprisoned journalists, activists and critics and stop harassing them with draconian laws,” Ganguly said. “When the government uses heavy-handed tactics to silence journalists and activists, it only shows it has abuses to hide.”