Srinagar: Standing on the front porch of his lawyer’s office in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk on Friday morning, French journalist and filmmaker Comiti Paul Edward looked tense. “We have decided not to speak to the media anymore. Things can go bad,” he said in response to a question as he walked downstairs and disappeared into a lane, running parallel to the Jhelum River on the Bund.
Inside the office, a consular from the French embassy in New Delhi, Philippe Ducornet, who arrived here a few days ago, was busy talking to Edward’s lawyer, Parvez Imroz, about the case related to the confiscation of the international filmmaker’s passport and other belongings by Jammu and Kashmir police.
Edward, who had arrived here on business visa to “research for his documentary on Kashmir”, was picked up by the police on December 9, booked under Section 14B of the Passport Act and jailed for four days and three nights, before a local court granted him bail on December 12.
While Edward was in lock-up, the police raided his hotel room here and took away his passport, a camera and other belongings. “He (Edward) is in a shock because according to him he hasn’t faced such a situation while covering other conflict areas across the world,” said a local journalist who has been hired by Edward as fixer.
In his career spanning more than two decades, Edward has covered conflicts across Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Israel and Palestine. “But this is the first time I was arrested and harassed. I feel that the authorities were trying to stop the Kashmir story from reaching a wider international audience. The international media is stopped from reporting here. They do not want the happenings in Kashmir to be known internationally. They do not want it to be covered,” the award-winning journalist was quoted as saying by local newspaper Kashmir Reader on the day he was released on bail.
The police had arrested Edward from Srinagar’s Pratap Park where human rights victims, including Budgam youth Farooq Ahmad Dar who was used as human shield by the army in April this year, had assembled to stage protest, a day before human rights day on December 10. He was accused of filming pellet victims during the protest, meeting separatist leaders and interviewing Dar.
Inspector general of police (Kashmir) Muneer Khan said Edward was arrested for indulging in activities “prejudicial to conditions of his visa and passport” and, he said, an FIR (No 87/2017) was registered against him on a complaint from a foreign registration office.
“He had not registered himself with foreign registration office, which he was supposed to do, and hence it amounts to an offence under Section 14B of Passport Act. You can’t have a business visa and make a film on pellet victims and meet Mirwaiz (Umar Farooq) and interview Farooq Dar or film missing persons’ relatives,” Khan told The Wire.
According to Khan, any foreign journalist who arrives in Srinagar informs the foreign registration office about their purpose. “They are granted permission formally and it is known why they have come and they don’t do things in a hidden manner,” said the IGP.
The senior superintendent of police, Srinagar, Imitiyaz Ismael Parray said Edward was on a business visa, which doesn’t permit him to make a documentary on political or law and order-related issues. “This is a violation of norms and the purpose for which the visa has been given,” Parray said.
But Edward and his lawyers have denied the charges made by the police. “He didn’t violate visa rules at all. He has come here on a valid visa and fulfilled all the formalities,” said Imroz.
According to the local journalist, Edward was only doing research for the documentary film commissioned by France’s M6 TV channel. “He didn’t shoot the protests (on December 9). And if he had come here to make documentary then he would have been fully-equipped with all required gadgets,” he said.
Edward’s arrest and the confiscation of his passport have now attracted condemnation from international as well as New Delhi-based journalists’ bodies, which have accused the state government of trying to block information about Kashmir. These bodies have argued that it is a common practice among journalists all over world to take tourist or business visas to report from a conflict zone.
In its statement, the International Federation of Journalists said:
“…in addition to blockade of information for local journalists, it is almost impossible for international media to report on Kashmir due to non-issuance of journalist visas. The IFJ believes these restrictions are attempts to control access to information by denying journalists their legitimate rights. The IFJ urges the Indian government to ensure that it respects international standards of dealing with journalists.”
The Indian Journalists’ Union (IJU), representing an organisation of working journalists across in India, has also demanded that the government stop “harassing” the French journalist.
“It involves freedom of press and expression recognised as a universal human right. It is a common practice among journalists all over the world to take tourist or business visas to visit and report from conflict zones as it is impossible to obtain a journalist visa in such situations,” a joint statement issued by IJU president S.N. Sinha, secretary general Amar Devulapalli and IFJ vice president Sabina Inderjit said.
On the other hand, hearing a petition on the issue, the state human rights commission chairman Justice Bilal Ahmed Nazki issued notices to the IG and other senior police officials from the city, asking them to “clarify your stand on the issue”.
The commission passed the direction on the petition filed by rights’ activist Mohammd Ahsan Untoo. “This (arrest of Edward and seizure of his passport) is a serious issue. I have sought to know whether any foreign journalist has the right to highlight human rights issues in Kashmir,” said Untoo. The case is listed for hearing on December 18.
Edward filed a fresh application on Thursday in the Srinagar court which granted him bail, seeking the release of his passport. However, he will have to wait a few more days. The court has sought a personal appearance from the investigating officer in the case, which is now listed for today.
“Let’s see what happens, things will get clear by Monday,” said Imroz.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.