Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Srinagar: The first journalist found out from a friend. The second from social media. The third from a government press release. Within 48 hours, all three heard of the police action against them.
“I was reading a book and a friend of mine called me and informed me that the police have filed an FIR (first information report) against me,” said Gowhar Geelani who was booked on 22 April 2020 under the vague and overbroad Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) ‘for glorifying terrorism in Kashmir valley’.
“I am yet to receive a call from the cyber police,” said Geelani.
The previous day photojournalist Masrat Zehra discovered via fellow journalists on Twitter that she had been booked under the UAPA for uploading “anti-national posts” on social media. That same day Special Correspondent Peerzada Ashiq of The Hindu found out through a police press release that he had been charged with Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code.
Section 505 relates to “publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report that intends to “cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity.” A person booked under this section can be punished with a fine or imprisonment upto three years or both.
Ashiq was called for questioning on 19 April by the cyber police in Srinagar for this news story about the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) administration granting permission to the families of two dead militants in Shopian to exhume their bodies from the graveyard where they were buried. Later that evening, he was summoned by the Anantnag Police for questioning.
On 20 April, the police made the charges against him public. “The details quoted in the news item were factually incorrect and could cause fear or alarm in the minds of the public,” a press release issued by the state said the next day. “The news published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.”
An FIR with regard to Ashiq’s story was registered at the Anantnag police station (60 km south of Srinagar), the release added.
Ashiq said the police has not mentioned his name or his organisation’s name or the news story in question.
“So it is just in the press release they have mentioned my name,” said Ashiq. “I wouldn’t respond to what they have written in the press release, I will only respond to what they have written in the FIR. I am not clear what they are investigating.”
The cyber police have not mentioned Ashiq’s name in the FIR and the Anantnag police has filed what is called an “open FIR”—meaning it does not mention the name of the suspect—against him.
Inspector General of Police, Vijay Kumar, and Senior Superintendent of Srinagar’s Cyber Police Station , Tahir Ashraf, did not answer calls, despite repeated attempts for a comment on the police FIRs.
‘Gross Misuse Of Power’
The Hindu said its report was based on a quote from the uncle of a slain militant Ghulam Nabi Magray. “However, contrary to what he conveyed to the reporter, no permission for exhumation of the bodies had been given,” the newspaper reported. “Apparently the families had misconstrued grant of a movement/curfew pass as sanction for exhumation.”
“I tried to get in touch with the Deputy Commissioner Shopian, who was the concerned officer I should have spoken to for the story, through SMS, Twitter and Whatsapp, but he didn’t get back to me,” said Ashiq. “I have screenshots of that. It was laxity on part of the officer. Since the officer didn’t get back, I presumed that the family was telling the truth and I went ahead.”
Anticipating further arrests, the Kashmir Press Club said in a statment on 22 April: “While condemning and again seeking withdrawal of the FIR’s against Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, we urge the authorities must withdraw the cases against Gowhar Geelani as well.”
The Club now hopes to receive support from the Press Club of India. The Editors Guild of India on 21 April called for the withdrawal of cases against Zahra and Ashiq.
“Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power,” said the statement of the Editors Guild of India. “Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists. The Guild also believes that this is an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well.”
"Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal," Amnesty International said in a statement issued on 22 April.
An Emerging Pattern
Post abrogation of the special status of J&K on 5 August 2019, journalists say they have been attacked and harassed repeatedly by the government and the police.
On 10 February, the Kashmir Press Club, convened a meeting to discuss “physical attacks, threats, intimidation being meted out (sic) to the journalists in Kashmir by the J&K Police.” It issued a press release that cited a dozen such examples from August 2019 to February 2020:
14 August, Irfan Amin Malik, then a journalist at Greater Kashmir
Picked up from his residence in Tral and released the next day
1 September, Peerzada Ashiq, The Hindu
Summoned to Kothi Bagh Police Station, where he was questioned and made to reveal the source of a news story he had written.
November (date unavailable), Zubair Dar (Voice of America) and Muzamil Mattoo (freelance photojournalist)
They were covering a gathering at a shrine in the old city when they were beaten up by the police.
30 November, Bashaarat Masood (The Indian Express) and Hakeem Irfan (Economic Times) were summoned to counterinsurgency HQ Cargo where they were interrogated. The duo said that they were asked to reveal their sources.
17 December, Azaan Javaid (The Print) and Anees Zargar (News Click)
Beaten up in Srinagar while covering a protest.
23 December, Bashaarat Masood (The Indian Express) and Safwat Zargar (Scroll) were stopped by police at Handwara while they were on an assignment. They were taken to the office of the superintendent of police Handwara and questioned about the story.
8 February, Naseer Ganai, Outlook Magazine and Haroon Nabi (local news agency Current News Service)
They were summoned to the police counter-insurgency headquarters in Srinagar and questioned for reporting a statement of J&K Liberation Front—a banned organisation, run by separatist leader Mohammad Yasin Malik. Ganai was asked to reveal the email address that sent him the statement.
Hilal Mir, a former editor at the Hindustan Times, currently with the Anadulo Agency said, “This seems to be concerted... The back-to-back FIRs, calling people to the cyber police station. This is becoming a regular thing now.”
Asked why he believed he was a target, Geelani said he did not think he was.
“I think journalism is the target,” said Geelani. “If you see the history, journalists in the last 30 years have been targets. In the '90s, journalists faced the wrath of both state and non-state actors and that continued till the mid '90s, when government-sponsored renegades started making journalists soft targets. The ugly pattern has only intensified since last August (2019).”
Social Media Surveillance
On 17 April, Masrat Zahra posted a photo on her Facebook and wrote: “Arifa Jan suffers frequent panic attacks after her husband was gunned down in a fake encounter by Indian Army in 2000. She can still hear the gunshots and see her husband’s blood soaked body when she thinks of him. There were 18 bullet holes and I still remember how deep they were.”
In another post, she shared a photo of a burned house and wrote: “Pehlay yeh ghar meray liyae bus ik makaan tha, ab yeh jagah meray liyai eik astaan hai “(First this house was just a home for me, now this place is a shrine for me,” quoting Madhosh Balhami, a poet whose home was destroyed by security forces in a gunbattle.
On 18 April, Zahra received a call from the police. They said a case had been filed against her and asked her to report to the cyber police station in Srinagar. “I didn’t go and on Monday I got to know from Twitter that I have been booked,” she said.
Soon after, news broke about the FIR lodged against Masrat, an angry Geelani wrote on Facebook: “Journalists are essentially storytellers who chronicle events—good, bad or ugly. They tell stories even if the powers that be find them unpalatable. Young female journalists like Masrat are Kashmir’s Anne Franks and true role models, not the imposed ones. Books, literature and stories will stay. Censorship won’t.”
The next day, an FIR was filed against Geelani.
“Since a press release informed me about the cases filed against me, I won’t go to the police unless and until the police don’t formally communicate the charges to me,” said Geelani. “They will have to give it to me in writing, so that I can then pursue the case and fight it legally because whatever the charges are, they are concocted and fabricated.”
(Shafaq Shah is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)