Srinagar: The facts of the case were disputed, so as a journalist Umar Mukhtar, 28, did what he always tried to do: present both sides of the story.
On 7 June 2021, Mukhtar, a freelance journalist, reported in The Wire the killing of 38-year-old Mohammad Amin Malik, who had been in police custody for three days before being killed on 2 June while being questioned in Tral, southern Kashmir.
Malik, according to the police, was a militant and was shot when he tried to grab a policeman’s weapon. In Umar’s report, the family said he was a labourer and had presented himself to the police for questioning.
A day later, Mukhtar received a call from a local police officer. The office of the senior superintendent of police in Awantipora had issued a summons against him. Soon, two constables knocked at the door of his house in Koil, Pulwama. They were carrying a hard copy of the summons.
The following day, Mukhtar presented himself before Awantipora senior superintendent of police (SSP) Muhammad Yousuf Choudhary.
“You are trying to create discord between the police and the public,” Mukhtar quoted the SSP as saying. He had not reported the incident accurately, the SSP told him.
SSP Choudhary first told Article 14 that Mukhtar had only the family’s version, which alleged was “fabricated” and had not spoken to the police.
But Mukhtar had indeed quoted the police in his story, reproducing their statement verbatim. To this, Choudhary said: “We had issued summons to Umar to know if he had more details about the case, which could help the police in investigation.”
Over the last two years, a steady stream of Kashmiri journalists has been summoned, questioned, placed under preventive detention and slapped with charges under grave sedition and anti-terror laws. Many were ordered to reveal their sources and repeatedly harassed, leading journalists wary of State reprisal to censor themselves, as Article 14 has reported (here, here and here).
Local media organisations may have been forced, through suspension of government advertising, among other tactics, to follow the government’s diktats on reportage from the Valley, but independent journalists, freelancers and stringers for various international and national media outlets have continued to work despite official pushback.
That is rapidly changing.
Since the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) special status on 5 August 2019, independent journalists have worked under increased scrutiny, Majid Maqbool, an independent journalist based in Srinagar, told Article 14.
One senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Article 14 that many policemen do not recognise ‘freelance reporters’ as journalists. “While the situation is absolutely in control in Kashmir, freelance reporters are trying to give a notion that ‘all is not well here’,” said the officer. “We will make sure that they toe the line.”
‘Blatant Lack Of Respect For Press Freedom’
The latest detentions began on 8 October 2021 when the police detained Salman Shah, 30, a journalist with an online weekly magazine and freelancer Suhail Dar, 21 from towns in the southern district of Anantnag. On the night of 12 October 2021, police and paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force arrested freelance journalist Mukhtar Zahoor, 26, from his home in Srinagar.
Zahoor, who has contributed for the BBC, Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg and the Caravan, told Article 14 he was questioned about his activities on the night separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani died on 1 September.
“They questioned me about a couple of stops that I made during that night,” said Zahoor. “It seemed I was under surveillance. They questioned me about lending my (cellphone) hotspot to a friend.”
Zahoor was released after over 12 hours of detention, but Dar and Shah continue to be under detention. Dar’s brother Tariq said the police summoned his brother to a police station in Anantnag. “He went to the police station and was detained there,” said Tariq, who added that the family did not know why he was detained.
A senior police official of Anantnag district only said on condition of anonymity, since he is not authorised to speak to the media, that the duo has been detained for “questioning”.
“The growing number of detained journalists in Kashmir demonstrates authorities’ continuous and blatant lack of respect for press freedom,” Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director of the Committee For Protection of Journalists, a watchdog based in New York, said in a statement on 20 October.
“Authorities must immediately release Sulaiman Sath, Salman Shah, and Suhail Dar, and commit to allowing the media to operate without fear of reprisal,” said Serna.
There appears to be no likelihood that the police will make any such commitment. Instead, with little organisational or legal support, freelancers are beginning to self-censor themselves.
Attacking The Last Free-Press Bastion: Independent Journalists
Since being served the police summons, Mukhtar has second guessed himself each time he pitches ideas to editors.
It is a fairly extensive self-censorship system, Mukhtar said, to ensure no element of his reports could land him in trouble. “I have many stories to report but I choose not to,” he said. “I do not want to put myself and my family in trouble.”
At the SSP’s office on 9 June, a deputy superintendent of police (DSP) issued a vague threat of a first information report (FIR) against him, said Mukhtar.
“The way the DSP spoke to me was humiliating,” said Mukhtar. “He would not listen to a word from me.” Before Mukhtar was allowed to leave, he was asked to submit his personal details including addresses and contact numbers.
Many freelance/independent journalists have been summoned and questioned by police over the last two years. Many of them have not spoken out, fearing reprisals, but some have discussed their ordeals (here, here and here).
“Local (mainstream) media and the majority of the national media have fallen in line in Kashmir; the only problem is that of independent journalists,” a senior J&K police officer said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
The official said that since 5 August 2019, a tight “control of the narrative” from the region has been a key part of government strategy.
Independent journalism right now is the only turf where adversarial public interest journalism can find space, said Shakir Mir, another independent journalist based in Srinagar.
He said major publications in Kashmir had succumbed to the government’s “carrot and stick policy”. Only journalists who work independently have managed to escape the “controversial oversight mechanisms that limit free expression”, such as J&K’s media policy introduced in June 2021.
But this freedom is a double-edged sword, said Mir. “On one hand it protects us from draconian anti-free speech policies,” he said, “And on the other it singles us out as ‘arsonists’ in the government’s point of view.”
There has been little assistance, support of financial or legal aid for Kashmir’s beleaguered journalists from outside the union territory, spurring fear, official censorship and intimidation and self-censorship.
Summoning The ‘Narrative Terrorists’
The number of independent Kashmiri journalists summoned and questioned by the J&K police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has multiplied in recent months.
Journalists have been asked to submit personal details, ranging from bank account details and the value of their house to information about parents, siblings, spouses and children, they said.
“I had to give details about my minor siblings,” said Hassan.
The surge in harassment of journalists has led to anxiety and panic attacks in some. A small number have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed.
Freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar said she was always fearful, and the recent “spree of summons” has affected her mental health.
“I’ve been forced to think about shifting out from Kashmir or pursuing higher education.” Rehbar said, admitting she had dropped many stories for fear of hostility from the authorities.
“What the journalists share in common is fear,” said one senior independent journalist who writes for several national and international media organisations and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It seems to be an all-out attack against independent journalists to control the narrative.”
Police sources confirmed that the department now monitored and profiled Kashmir-based independent journalists, especially those reporting for national and international news organisations.
The CID has created two units to monitor journalists, including ‘Dial 100’ and ENT or ‘Ecosystem of Narrative Terrorism’. The latter profiles rights activists, lawyers and academicians, while Dial 100 works on the “background updation” of journalists.
Lookout Circulars, Travel Restrictions
Since the abrogation of Article 370, among 43 Kashmiris named in a “Look- Out Circular” following adverse intelligence reports are 22 journalists, including many freelancers.
Those on the list cannot travel abroad. Most of these journalists work with international organisations.
A police officer familiar with the case and commenting on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to the media said Rafiq was taken into custody at Delhi airport, from where he was to board a flight to the United States. He was flown to Srinagar and questioned for two days.
Rafiq, according to police sources, was questioned about his work as a journalist before he began to pursue higher education in 2018. In 2012, Rafiq reported in the Christian Science Monitor on Avtar Singh, a former Indian army officer accused of human rights violations in Kashmir.
Raids On Homes Of Four Independent Journalists
On 8 September 2021, the J&K police raided the houses of four journalists in Kashmir, three of whom—Hilal Mir, Showkat Motta and Shah Abbas—were senior editors. The fourth, Azhar Qadri, was a contributor for the UK’s The Guardian.
While Motta is on leave from journalism since 2018, Mir, Abbas and Azhar were freelance journalists.
Abbas was additionally also associated with Greater Kashmir Communications Limited but was terminated from service the day his house was raided. Mir and Motta were previously editors at the same organisation.
The J&K Police said the four journalists were questioned in connection with a blog named firstname.lastname@example.org, which had been allegedly running a “slander campaign” against political workers, activists and journalists.
The Journalist Federation of Kashmir, an amalgam of seven media groups, responded, saying the raids were a “stark reflection” of official harassment of journalists and that “no words are enough to indicate the levels of strain the media is facing”.
A police spokesperson, quoting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Vijay Kumar, denied that the raids amounted to harassment of journalists.
Due process of law is being followed while investigating a “sensitive” case, and the media fraternity was “advised” not to “spread false news that could amount to unnecessary interference in the investigation”, the spokesperson added.
The anonymous blog kashmirfight.wordpress.com, which police believe is operated from neighbouring Pakistan, first came into focus after the killing of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari in 2018.
The blog, according to police, had not only warned Bukhari against participating in a peace conference in Dubai, but had also criticised separatist leaders for engaging in talks with New Delhi.
The blog has also targeted human rights activist Khurram Parvez, businessmen Yasin Khan and Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, among others. Lately, the blog named several Kashmiri journalists.
On 17 July 2021, Jammu and Kashmir police claimed to have busted a group behind the threats issued through kashmirfight.wordpress.com.
Police said five people running kashmirfight.wordpress.com were arrested, all described as “kingpins”. .
IGP Kashmir Kumar said that the arrest of these men and the analysis of large amounts of data from digital devices seized, would reveal the “true plans” behind the murder of journalist Shujaat Bukhari, advocate Babar Qadri, and businessman Satpal Nischal.
But four days after the raids on journalists, a special court in Srinagar granted bail to two of the five—Nazish Yasrab Rehmani and Javaid Khalid. On 23 September, the court granted bail to one more, Akbar Sofi.
Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of various separatist organisations, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq criticised the raids on the houses of journalists.
“The (sic) local media persons and media houses are continuously being targeted and harassed through raids on their homes and offices and confiscation of their equipment while many among them are not even spared arrests,” the Mirwaiz said in a statement.
2017: Start Of The End Of Kashmir’s Free Press
In 2017, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) prepared an assessment about the situation in Kashmir, suggesting long-term “actionable points” including “control” of the mosques, madrasas, and of the print and television media, among other things.
Six months after the MHA report, on 4 September 2017, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s premier terror investigating agency, arrested Kamran Yousuf, a photojournalist working with Kashmir’s largest circulated broadsheet daily, Greater Kashmir. This marked the beginning of the crackdown on local media.
The NIA filed cases against Yousuf under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, and said he was involved in funding terrorism. The NIA’s public relations officer Alok Mittal told journalists that Kamran was arrested as “his name surfaced in the investigation” of the case. “We came to know later that he is also working as a photojournalist,” Mittal was quoted as having said.
Soon after his arrest, Yousuf’s bylined reports were removed from the Greater Kashmir website. There was silence from his employers on his arrest.
Yousuf was released on bail on 14 March 2018. The “mere presence of a journalist at the site of an incident is not sufficient to implicate him for the offences that allegedly occurred there,” additional sessions judge Tarun Sherawat said in the order granting bail. The NIA had not placed any photo or video as evidence that Yousuf was also involved in a stone pelting incident, it added.
Journalists’ bodies barely took note of Yousuf’s arrest. The Kashmir Editors Guild issued a statement, but in July 2019, weeks before the abrogation of Article 370, the NIA questioned the editor and owner of Greater Kashmir, Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo. The agency also quizzed the paper’s senior functionary Rashid Makhdoomi.
The same month, the owner-editor of English daily Kashmir Reader, Mohammad Hayat Bhat, was questioned at the NIA’s Delhi headquarters, allegedly in connection with a terror funding case. In 2016, Kashmir Reader had been banned from publication for three months allegedly for its extensive coverage of the unrest in the Valley in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing.
Soon after 5 August 2019, local newspapers slowed down their Kashmir coverage. Editorials did not talk about Kashmir or India or Pakistan.
“Since 2019, we are not doing journalism but managing our livelihood,” said a top newspaper editor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Newspaper columnists critical of the government were also denied space.
Only a few national media reporters and independent journalists continued to report on Kashmir. Stories of torture were widely reported by independent journalists and by journalists working with national and international media. But the local newspapers blacked it out.
Critical stories about changes in land laws and laws related to constructions were reported by independent journalists too. Independent journalists were the primary source of information on Kashmir for the outside world.
Najeeb Mubarki, former senior assistant editor with The Economic Times in New Delhi, said that since August 2019, independent or freelance journalists have filled a large gap in information and reportage on Kashmir.
“The attempts to shut them up now are arguably the most blatant, openly repressive measures against journalists ever undertaken in Kashmir,” said Mubarki.
Weeks after the abrogation of Article 370, senior journalists working with some national media organisations were summoned, including The Hindu correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, The Economic Times correspondent Hakeem Irfan, Basharat Masood of The Indian Express and Outlook correspondent Naseer Ganai, among others. The journalists were questioned about their stories and sources.
In December 2019, police beat and snatched the phones of journalists Azaan Javaid and Anees Zargar outside Islamia College in downtown Srinagar where a protest had erupted.
Police said that Geelani was indulging in unlawful activities through his writings on social media. In Zahra’s case, police said she was booked for "uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention.” She had uploaded a picture of Shia mourners carrying a picture of the slain Burhan Wani during a Muharram rally.
Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, was summoned repeatedly and has had two FIRs registered against him after August 2019.
On 8 August 2021, another independent journalist Irfan Amin Malik was summoned to a local police station in south Kashmir’s Tral. Malik said he was questioned about a tweet criticising a new film policy announced by J&K Governor Manoj Sinha. Earlier, barely two weeks after the abrogation of Article 370, Malik had been detained at a police station for a night. No reason was given, according to Malik.
The NIA in October 2020 raided the Srinagar premises of Parvaiz Bukhari, the Kashmir correspondent of Agence France-Presse, and confiscated laptops, documents and storage devices.
No Peer Protest Against Clampdown
None of at least 12 journalists associations in Kashmir protested the latest raids.
A veteran journalist said organising a protest about shrinking press freedom is now “a distant dream” because any journalist who participates would be singled out and intimidated.
A day after the September raids, seven journalist associations issued a joint statement. Earlier, the Kashmir Press Club would organise protest events with other journalist associations rallying behind them. There is none of that in evidence now.
After the October raids, it was left to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, both based abroad, to criticise the “intimidation” of journalists. The IFJ criticised violations of press freedom and called for the “immediate cessation” of police harassment of journalists.
(Muhammad Raafi is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.)