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J&K Police Threatens Legal Action Against BBC Over Report on Press Freedom in Kashmir

The J&K police has taken umbrage at a BBC report titled ‘Any story could be your last' – India's crackdown on Kashmir press’ that lists out a “sinister and systematic campaign to intimidate and silence the press” in the Valley.

Srinagar: A year-long investigation by the BBC into the state of journalism in Kashmir has ruffled feathers with the J&K Police warning of legal action against the London-based international media group.

Taking umbrage at a BBC report titled ‘Any story could be your last’ – India’s crackdown on Kashmir press’ that lists out a “sinister and systematic campaign to intimidate and silence the press” in the Valley, J&K Police said the report “unfairly castigates law and order efforts” as “biased against journalists.”

An official spokesperson of J&K Police said on X, formerly Twitter, that the State Investigation Agency (SIA), the elite counter-militancy agency of J&K, “reserves the right to initiate further legal action” against the BBC for “misreporting facts in a case which is sub judice.”

Upon enquiry, a BBC spokesperson told The Wire, “We would simply say that the BBC stands by its journalism.”

The case relates to the incarceration of Fahad Shah, a Srinagar-based journalist, for publishing a “seditious” article authored by a University of Kashmir scholar, in his online media outlet, The Kashmir Walla (TKW).

The Srinagar-based digital media house shut down last month after the government of India’s information technology ministry took down its website and social media accounts under a law which has been criticised by the free speech activists.

“Fahad Shah, who edited a digital magazine, was arrested under anti-terror laws in February 2022, accused of ‘propagating terror’,” the BBC said in its report, the only reference to Shah in the 2165-word piece.

The J&K Police didn’t clarify what it meant by “misreporting of facts” by the BBC which has only restated the charges framed against Shah by J&K Police.

Shah has been booked in four anti-terror cases and the Public Safety Act. While he has got bail in at least three cases, he was booked by the SIA on April 4, 2022 (FIR number 01/2022), nearly 11 years after his digital magazine hosted the “seditious” article titled “The shackles of slavery will break”.

The article was authored by Aala Fazili, a research scholar at the University of Kashmir’s Pharmaceutical Department, who has also been arrested in the case.

The SIA filed a chargesheet in the case against Shah and Fazili in March this year. Shah has been booked under sections 35 (accepting foreign contribution in contravention of provisions of FCRA) and 39 (violation of FCRA) of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 in the case with police alleging that his digital magazine’s subscription model could be used to ‘foment trouble’.

If convicted in these four cases, Shah, who has been accused of publishing “news against government policies” and “having radical ideology right from your childhood”, faces different sentences which can extend to life imprisonment.

The BBC report, which was shared widely on social media, also refers to the arrests of Aasif Sultan, a Srinagar-based journalist with a local English magazine (now closed), Sajad Gul, a TKW trainee reporter from north Kashmir, and Irfan Mehraj, another Srinagar-based journalist, who have been booked under the anti-terror law by J&K Police.

The report quotes seven journalists and one editor, all anonymously, who told the British media group that they felt “choked and suffocated” due to an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” created by the authorities in Kashmir against the reporting of the events which doesn’t align with the official narrative.

The journalists also rued the labels of “anti-nationals”, “terror sympathisers” and “pro-Pakistan reporters” allegedly used by authorities against them while terming the action against the four incarcerated Kashmiri journalists as a “warning” to them.

The BBC report points to the shutting down of Kashmir’s only press club in 2022 by the authorities and the sensational assassination of Shujaat Bukhari, senior journalist and editor who was shot dead outside his office in 2018, to underline the alleged deterioration of press freedom in Kashmir.

Some of the journalists who spoke with the BBC also felt under threat from militants.

However, in its rebuttal, the J&K Police said that its “actions” against journalists “have stood the test of law and judiciary and changed the security environment in the UT (Union territory) immensely,” the police spokesperson said, while falsely accusing the BBC of referring to J&K as “India Occupied Kashmir.”

The BBC article, which appeared on Friday, September 1, refers to Jammu and Kashmir as “Indian administered Kashmir.”

The BBC said it spoke with more than two dozen journalists, “more than 90 percent” of whom claimed to have been summoned by J&K Police, some of them multiple times over, particularly in the aftermath of the reading down of Article 370 by the Union government in 2019 when Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated and downgraded into two union territories.

Disputing the report, the J&K Police said that it “maintains the highest standards of professionalism and functions squarely within the ambit of the law”. The BBC report uses “quotes of unidentified journalists” and “without particulars of date and place” to “bolster .. non-existent claims of state overreach against journalists,” the J&K Police said.

“J&K Police condemns the attempt of a media house such as the BBC to misrepresent the conditions in J&K in which the J&K Police has stood firmly on the front lines in the war against terror and lost thousands of its bravest men in an attempt to safeguard the people of J&K,” it said.

Several national and international media organisations, including the Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) and the New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists, have flagged the deterioration of press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir, calling upon authorities to release the four journalists incarcerated in Kashmir.

India slipped 11 ranks further to 161 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom according to the RSF’s Press Freedom Index-2023 with the organisation stating that the situation for journalists was “very serious” in the country.