Bengaluru/Srinagar: Two Kashmiri journalists returning from a reporting trip to Punjab were detained at gunpoint by police, questioned for 4.5 hours and warned about previous reportage, in what has now become a pattern of coercion against the media in India’s newest, militarised union territory.
On 30 September, Fahad Shah, editor-in-chief of the independent website The Kashmir Walla, and his colleague Bhat Burhan, were identified at a security checkpoint—which Shah said appeared to have been set up specifically to find him—at the mouth of Jawahar tunnel linking Jammu with Srinagar at 5:30 pm and surrounded by Jammu and Kashmir police “commandos” with assault rifles.
After their phones were confiscated, they refused to get into a police vehicle despite being ordered to and abused. “I will drag you like a dog, you bastard. Cooperate with us or I will show you what we can do,” Shah quoted one of the gun-wielding policemen as saying in a first-person account published on 5 October.
They were interrogated, wrote Shah, at Qazigund police station by a deputy superintendent of police, Mohammed Shafi, who referred to their work, asked them to show “self-restraint” and report “cautiously” about matters related to “national security”.
Reached for comment by Article 14. Shafi denied Shah and Burhan were detained.
“Nobody has been called in for questioning,” said Shafi. “Many people come to the police station, I don't know which case you are referring to." When told that the details of the detention were now public, Shafi said: “Where did you read it? Can you send me the link?"
Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said he had no immediate comment. “Please call tomorrow for this.” We will update this story when Kumar does comment.
“Our detention was illegal and we believe that it is in line with how journalists are routinely harassed, summoned to police stations, treated like criminals, and intimidated because we report facts,” wrote Shah, who has been previously questioned by police. “The continued harassment is taking a toll on my mental health and impacting the work we do at The Kashmir Walla.”
‘If We Were Killed, No One Would Know’
After the standoff at the tunnel, a policeman drove Shah’s car, with Shah in the passenger seat and Burhan sandwiched between two other policemen, about 15 km to the police station in Qazigund.
“We were terrified because nobody knew what was happening to us,” wrote Shah. “I started wondering if we were killed somewhere, no one will even know about it.”
Their luggage was searched at the police station and they were kept waiting before being questioned by the station house officer and later Shafi, about their trip to Punjab—they were covering farm protests for Business Insider, a website based in New York—their education and their families.
“He (Shafi) then asked me whether we have become a journalist without any qualification, implying that we were not qualified to be journalists,” wrote Shah. “The police officers didn’t ask anything that would explain the reason for our detention.”
The questioning turned to The Kashmir Walla’s previous reportage, specifically a story about a gun battle between militants and security forces in May 2020. Shah said somehow journalists realised they had been detained and called their interrogating officer Shafi, who—as they sat before him—denied the police had picked up anyone at the tunnel.
After more questioning involving another officer, they were taken out of the room, said Shah.
“Sometime later, we were asked to come back inside the room and then the questioning resumed,” wrote Shah. “This time, however, the DySP (Shafi) also told us that journalists needed to show “self-restraint” and report “cautiously” considering “national security”. I told him that we reported (the) facts and nothing else.”
“However, referring to our coverage of a gun fight and its aftermath in Srinagar city, the DySP said that there have been issues with our reporting. I told him that I was summoned by the police in connection with our coverage of a particular incident in Srinagar and we defended our work which was based on the facts.”
The two journalists were released at 10 pm, but only after signing a statement saying their belongings had been returned to them and being forced to find a local who could “take responsibility” for them.
“We have not broken any law,” wrote Shah. “We have not committed any crime. Journalism is not a crime. Why are we being treated like this–harassed and intimidated? I am extremely worried about the safety of my colleagues and myself.”
The Pattern Of Intimidation
Despite the repeated assertion of the media and human-rights groups that “journalism is not a crime”, the profession has always been defined differently in Kashmir, Article 14 reported in September 2020. What qualifies as regular journalism elswhere is often seen here as “anti-national” and “glorifying terrorism”.
After the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, journalists said they have faced a new level of state intimidation and violence.
Since 2 June 2020, a New Media Policy with vague, undefined threats against fake news, reportage against ‘India’s integrity’ and ‘public decency’ and security checks for reporters has further intimidated an already beleaguered media. Most mainstream local newspapers now steer clear of questioning the official narrative, leaving independent media like The Kashmir Walla to do this job.
Javeed told Superintendent of Police (SP) of the Cyber Wing, Tahir Ashraf Bhatii, who heads the cyber police and leads counterinsurgency operations in the Valley, that the story was based on fact. “No, this is a fake and baseless story,” Bhatti replied.
“Kashmir is burning because of people like you who spread fake narratives.” Bhatti threatened to book Javeed under various sections of the law.
Reporters said they knew these threats can be easily executed. In April 2020, three journalists faced police action within the span of 48 hours—two of them under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA)—for doing their job.
“Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power,” the Editors Guild of India said about the UAPA charges filed against photojournalist Masrat Zahra for “anti-national” Facebook posts of her photographs. “Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists.”
Just three days before Javeed’s ordeal, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf, 25, was attacked and beaten by a group of policemen, while he was taking pictures in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama.
“Today, while I was taking pictures at Marwal Kakpora, I was attacked and brutally beaten up by policemen who were accompanying a deputy superintendent of police. There were at least ten policemen who pounced on me and hit me with rifle butts without any reason,” Yousuf tweeted.
“I tried to plead with them without any success. If I hadn’t gathered my strength and escaped, I have no doubt that they would have killed me. It was a targeted attack on a group of photojournalists and all of us were only doing our job,” he said.
In 2017, Yousuf was booked under the UAPA by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Then 22, the photojournalist spent six months in Delhi’s Tihar Jail before the court examined his professional record, disagreed with the NIA and granted him bail on 13 March 2018.
The Kashmir Press Club (KPC) criticised the harassment of Javeed in a statement and demanded that Lt Governor Manoj Sinha intervene. “We urge the L-G of J&K to look into these issues of difficulties faced by the journalists while performing their professional duties in Kashmir valley,” it said.
The KPC said the police should stop trying to intimidate reporters by summoning them to the police station. “The club demands an end to this practice. The administration should work out a mechanism so that a conducive atmosphere is available for journalists to deliver their duties without fear and reprisals,” said the KPC.
(Shafaq Shah, an independent journalist based in Srinagar, contributed to this story)
Previously on Article 14: