Bandipur, Kashmir: It was 11 in the morning on 13 October, Sajad Gul, 26, a Kashmiri journalist, was attending a class on reporting conflict at the Central University of Kashmir in Ganderbal when his phone began to ring.
At first, Gul ignored it, but the phone kept vibrating during his favourite class. It was his brother Bilal calling repeatedly. He sent Bilal a smiling emoji in response, to let him know that everything was fine, and that he would call back once he was free. Bilal replied, and his cellphone screen said: “Call back fast, it’s urgent.” Almost immediately, Gul ran out of the class.
On 10 October, police claimed to have killed a local militant of The Resistance Front (TRF) in Bandipur, Gul’s home district in north Kashmir. The family of the slain man refuted the police’s claims and alleged their son had been dragged from his home five days earlier and later killed in a "fake encounter".
That morning, Gul was about to leave for the university when he heard the news. Imtiyaz Ahmad Kakroo, the slain 25-year old man, was somebody he was familiar with, a native of his own Shahgund village, 38 km from Bandipur. Gul left home, skipped classes and spent the day reporting on the encounter.
“I live in the same village and have known the boy since childhood,” Gul, who has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Baramulla Degree College, told Article 14. “We played cricket and football together many times.”
He wrote an account of the gun battle, in which the family contended their son had not been killed in the firefight. Gul quoted the as alleging that the young man was picked up by an army vehicle from their house the day before the killing. His story also carries the police version: that the boy had been an "overground worker" of the TRF and was involved in the killing of a civilian.
The day after the story was published by Mountain Ink, the police arrived at Gul’s home in Shahgund, continuing their harassment of the journalist that had begun months earlier following another story he had written.
On 23 December, Article 14 contacted Deputy Inspector General of Police (North Kashmir) Udaya Bhaskar Billa to seek a comment on Gul being summoned to the police station. He requested to be called back in a few days. On 27 December, he said, "There is an FIR against the person and that's why police summoned him to the police station." On being told that this interrogation was for a different incident, for a report he wrote in October, Billa said journalists cannot just call and seek details, and disconnected the call.
Gul's experiences were familiar to other journalists in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) who said that alongside the trend of intimidation by police, there is also an effort to exhaust independent reporters with a slow harassment that plays out over months, involving repeated calls from different policemen and units, summons for interrogation and court hearings.
On 30 November, Gul tweeted that he had missed an exam once to attend a court hearing, he sometimes had to make himself available for hearings on consecutive days and that he was being called “often” by detectives for questioning. The experience was taking a toll on his mental health, he said, requesting support from the country’s journalism fraternity.
No FIR Filed, But Family Threatened With Arrest
When police reached Gul's home on 13 October, officers asked his family to prevail upon Gul to stop reporting and publishing “such stories”, according to his account. Even as Gul was speaking with his mother over the phone, a policeman snatched the phone from her, alleged Gul.
He introduced himself to Gul as an officer from the police station at Hajin, a town in Bandipur. He asked Gul where he was, and said they had arrived at his home in order to arrest him. This was despite the fact that there was no case registered against him or the publication for the report on the fake encounter.
Gul said he was "shocked" to hear that policemen were inside his home.
“I thought they might pick up my brother if I don’t present myself to them,” said Gul. Even as the thought crossed his mind, the officer threatened to detain Bilal if Gul didn’t show up at the police station. “It was as if he was reading my mind.”
According to Bilal, their house was thoroughly searched that morning. “They (the policemen) even checked our wardrobes.”
Around 4 pm, a very disturbed Gul arrived at the Hajin police station as he stepped inside, policemen took his phone, laptop, bag and other belongings before he was allowed to enter.
He said police officers not only checked his phone but also deleted his tweets, and threatened him with "dire consequences". They also told him he could continue to practise journalism in J&K only if he covered army and police events, and that if he did not, circumstances would be "difficult" for him.
When Gul left the police station around 6 pm, he deleted all his social media accounts and uninstalled WhatsApp. Around 11 pm, he received one more phone call from the police.
“The officer threatened me with jail if I do not stay within my limits, or if I mention to anyone about my visit to the police station and what happened there,” said Gul, whose intimidation by police is only the latest in a broader trend of state hostility against journalists in J&K.
J&K’s War On Journalism
Since 5 August 2019, when the union government unilaterally revoked the special constitutional status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and 35-A, there has been a surge in complaints of harassment and intimidation of journalists in the region.
Over the past two years, more than 40 journalists in Kashmir were summoned for a background check or raided. Many were forced to present themselves to explain their news reports and their social media posts.
On 1 December 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) an independent non-profit, non-governmental organisation that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists, tweeted that it was concerned about Gul’s repeated harassment by police.
“Amid ongoing police harassment in retaliation for his journalistic work, CPJ reiterates its call on authorities to drop their investigation into Gul and allow him to report without interference,” said CPJ.
Already Facing Charges In Another Case
This was not the first occasion when Gul faced police hostility for doing his job. On 9 February, Gul had reported on a demolition drive against unauthorised constructions, carried out by the tehsildar of Hajin, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. The locals had alleged that the officer had been “harassing and threatening” them, and had also used abusive language.
Gul reported the story for The Kashmir Walla, a well-known local publication. After the story was published, Gul received a call from Bhat who threatened legal action. According to Gul, Bhat said he would end his journalism career.
The next day, Bhat and police officers went to Gul’s village, Shahgund, five kilometres from Hajin town, and demolished the fencing built around Gul’s home and that of his maternal uncle. The villagers started protesting against the demolition and resorted to stone-pelting.
Bhat then filed a first information report (FIR) against the locals, Gul and four of his maternal uncles.
“My maternal uncles were in jail for four days because they were related to me, this has created a silent rift in the family now,” said Gul, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.
Gul alleged that he was booked by the police without any investigation. He said he provided a letter to the police from the editor of The Kashmir Walla saying he was at the news website’s office at the time. “I am ready to prove that I was not present there, and it’s not a big deal for them to check the location of my mobile number,” Gul said.
Article 14 sought comment from Bandipur district senior superintendent of police (SSP) Mohammad Zahid. “The case is in court and there is no point in talking about the same, the police will not do anything without investigation,” said Zahid.
The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah said the case against Gul was yet another example of the government’s “high-handedness” against journalists in Kashmir. He said he was not surprised by the case.
“This habit of filing criminal cases against journalists for their work is unjustified and unacceptable,” Shah said. “Attacking the freedom of the press by abuse of power only shows that the government has little concern for the betterment of government institutions.”
Gul said that before February, he had no more than a vague idea what a charge sheet was, or court hearings, or interrogations. He would dread these terms, he said. “Now it all feels okay, the element of fear has vanished.”
‘I Have Been Robbed Of My Peace’
Gul, an avid reader, said he has found it difficult to concentrate on his work or on reading. He is struggling to complete university assignments.
“Whenever I start working or reading, in the back of my mind I have this thought that police may raid my house any time,” said Gul, who lists among his favourite writers Leo Tolstoy and Arundhati Roy.
Gul said when he gets particularly anxious, he thinks about other, better known journalists who faced intimidation but stayed calm and continued to work, such as Rana Ayyub and Maria Ressa.
Calming down his mother, however, is another story, said Gul.
“My mother tells me to look for a government job and quit this reporting work,” Gul said. She finds it difficult to understand why her son wants to continue being a journalist. “After all she is a mother, she will remain worried,” Gul said.
Many of his friends, meanwhile, distanced themselves from him for fear of reprisals from officers. He told Article 14 he feels socially isolated, only for revealing the truth.
Haunted by the fear of arrest, he barely sleeps at night. “I sleep with all my clothes on, I keep shoes beside my bed,” he said. “I do not know when they will raid our house again and take me away.”
Spike In Attacks On Journalists
In September this year, four journalists—Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Azhar Qadri, and Showkat Motta—were raided and later detained at a police station in Srinagar in an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) case filed by the Jammu and Kashmir police in 2020.
Since 2019, at least three other Kashmiri journalists—Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani—have been booked under the anti-terror law, and several others claimed to have faced questioning, intimidation and harassment by officials.
The RSF or Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit and non-governmental organisation that aims to safeguard the right to freedom of information, ranked India at 142 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom in 2021.
Since 2019, the UN special rapporteur for protection of the right to freedom of expression has written on at least three occasions to the government of India over reports of “arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists” in Kashmir.
In its latest communication sent to the Indian government on 3 June, which was made public on 25 August, the UN rapporteur flagged the alleged incidents of harassment of Kashmir-based journalists Fahad Shah, Qazi Shibli, Sajad Gul and Auqib Javeed.
New Media Policy To Control Reportage
For journalists, reporting from the Kashmir valley has become tremendously difficult since the government introduced its new media policy in June 2020. The media policy authorises government officers to decide on what is “fake news” and “anti-national” reporting.
The policy required mandatory background checks of newspaper publishers, editors and key staff members before “empanelling”—or making them eligible—for government advertisements. In Kashmir, in the absence of commercial advertising, newspapers depend on revenues from government advertisements.
The policy also stated that the Director of DIPR can suspend advertisements to newspapers, journals, and magazines that misrepresent information, violate any guidelines, or do not meet the desired standards.
Gul agreed that working conditions for journalists had deteriorated after the introduction of the new media policy.
“Most of my time is spent either at police stations or courts,” said Gul, “And there is no guarantee when and how I will be harassed, intimidated, or booked.”
Attempt To Exhaust Journalists, Make Them Self-Censor
Independent journalist Qurat-ul-ain Rehbar, 27, was on an assignment in the sensitive Shopian district of south Kashmir when she got a call from an officer of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Pulwama.
The officer told her it was a ‘verification call' and that the department required basic information about her. Later, she was asked to come to the police station, the same day.
“I told him I can’t come today as I was not in Pulwama, but he stressed that I should visit them the same day,” Rehbar said.
There, policemen noted her address, contact details, organisations she works for and also took a passport sized photograph. “I thought this is normal procedure for journalists and left for home.”
The next day she received another call, this time from a different person but from the same department. Her phone kept ringing for the next five days, multiple officials asking her for the same details repeatedly.
Most journalists who have had run-ins with the police said their intimidation has grown dramatically after the scrapping of the erstwhile state’s special status. New methods are applied by security agencies to threaten them, forcing them to either self-censor or stop reporting altogether.
Dozens of Journalists including female journalists have received these calls for “verification”, reflecting a new variety of slow-burn pressure. If they stop responding, the family members begin to receive the calls.
Rehbar said she was frustrated by the calls as she had already provided police the information required.
But the day she started ignoring the phone calls, her family members started to get calls, including relatives.
Around 7 pm one evening when she was in Srinagar, Rehbar’s mother called her, asking if anything was wrong. “When my mother said that army officials were looking for me and I had to visit a camp, I started panicking and could hardly sleep,” she said.
For the community of journalists working in the union territory, Gul’s harassment is a reaffirmation of their fears that their families are unsafe too. As Gul tweeted at the end of November, in Naya Kashmir, journalists were being treated like criminals.
(Safina Nabi is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)