Srinagar: Freelance photojournalist Kamran Yousuf, 23, who was detained without charge by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in September last year, was booked by the agency on January 18, in a fresh chargesheet brought against him in the special court at Patiala House Courts Complex. Listed as a “stone-pelter” in the chargesheet, among 11 other persons from Kashmir, he is accused of “conspiring to wage war against the Government of India” by carrying out “terrorist and secessionist activities” in Jammu and Kashmir.
The NIA chargesheet accuses Yousuf and another “stone pelter” Javed Ahmad Bhat of “forming strategies and action plans to launch violent protests and communicate the same to the masses in the form of ‘protest calendars’ released through newspapers, social media and religious leaders, creating an atmosphere of terror and fea
r in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Yousuf’s family, however, refutes these charges, emphasising that he has been wrongly framed. “These are fabricated charges. Everyone here knows that he was a freelance photojournalist for the past four to five years and not a stone-pelter,” Yousuf’s uncle, Irshad Ahmed, who was expecting his release on bail, told The Wire. “They don’t have any evidence against him. If it’s a crime to cover events in South Kashmir, including police and government functions, then all Kashmiri journalists and photojournalists should be booked.”
Ahmed said had the NIA provided evidence that Yousuf was a stone-pelter, they would have kept quiet. “But he’s not a stone-pelter. They are trying to frame him under false charges.”
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He said Yousuf being young and eager was trying to make a mark in his chosen field so that he could be employed full time. He would work hard, covering all events in his town, and always trying to reach the spot first to click images and videos. “We would sometimes tell him not to work hard and cover every event given the situation in the valley, but he wanted to keep working. It was his passion,” said Ahmed, adding that “he deserved to be appreciated and encouraged, not arrested and booked under false charges.”
Yousuf lived alone with his mother in a modest two-room accommodation in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, close to his uncle’s home. Since his arrest in September 2017, his mother has been pleading for her son’s release. “She says Kamran was his only sahara and that he has been snatched from her,” said Ahmed, adding that “She hasn’t been eating properly after his arrest and remains unwell and depressed.”
On his recent visit to Delhi, where Yousuf is imprisoned since September last year, Ahmed said when he met him in the court, and later during their telephonic conversation, “Kamran told me that he was always a photojournalist and he wanted me to convey to his colleagues and other journalists to stand with him and call for his release as he’s innocent and not a stone-pelter.”
Call for release
Following the NIA charge-sheet against Yousuf, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based non-profit that promotes press freedom, in a statement released on its website asked the Indian authorities to “stop abusing their power” and immediately release the photojournalist. “Indian authorities must stop abusing their power and using heavy-handed tactics to go after a photojournalist who was merely doing his job,” CPJ Asia programme coordinator Steven Butler, in Washington, D.C., was quoted in the statement. “Kamran Yousuf has already unjustly spent four months in jail and should be released immediately.”
Soon after his arrest in September last year, several journalists in Kashmir held a sit-in protest in Srinagar’s press colony, demanding that the NIA make public the charges against Yousuf. Subsequently, the Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG), an amalgam of valley’s prominent newspaper editors and owners, also expressed serious concern over his continuous detention and asked for his immediate release. “NIA has arrested Kamran Yousuf without spelling out the reasons and that doesn’t gel with the set legal norms prevalent in any democratic setup,” a KEG spokesperson said in a statement.
Taking note of Yousuf’s arrest, the Press Council of India (PCI) had also issued notices to the NIA, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the state home secretary. “Since the matter (of Yousuf’s arrest) prima-facie concerns the free functioning of the press, the honourable chairman of the Press Council of India (Justice Chandramouli Kumar Prasad) has viewed the incident with concern, and taken suo motu cognisance of the matter,” the PCI wrote to the officials in its letter, seeking a reply to their notice within two weeks.
Media watchdog The Hoot, in its annual 2017 India Freedom Report, termed Kashmir as “most un-free” in terms of media freedom and free speech. As per the report, “Kashmir notched up the worst record in India for a population chronically affected by internet shutdowns and for journalists working in difficult, conflict-ridden conditions which included attacks, police actions and threats.”
Among all the states, as per the annual Hoot report, J&K topped with 75 incidents and had the worst free speech and media freedom record in 2017
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An earlier report also painted a grim scenario of the state of the press, highlighting the difficult working conditions of journalists in the valley. In its situation report titled “Kashmir’s media in peril”, which was released in November last year and compiled by senior journalist Laxmi Murthy for South Asia Media Solidarity Network, while noting Kamran’s arrest by the NIA, pointed out that press photographers are in particular at risk in Kashmir. “They rush to the spot of incidents even as they are unfolding. Except for those who work for national or international media, local press photographers and video journalists do not have protective jackets or helmets,” the report noted. “Due to the nature of their work, they are at the frontlines of conflict with no protection. Mir Javid, a journalist in Kupwara was deliberately targeted with pellets in August, blinding him in one eye despite extensive surgeries.”
The report further highlighted that journalists in Kashmir have had to survive “by treading a tricky middle path, carrying out balanced reporting in a conflict situation in which they and their families live.”
“The media (in Kashmir) has suffered in the form of killings, direct attacks, intimidation, threats and pressures from various quarters,” the report noted, adding that “twenty-one journalists have been killed due to the conflict – either directly targeted or caught in the cross-fire.”
On continued detention of Yousuf, senior journalist Naseer Ganie said the latest NIA chargesheet against the young photojournalist is unfortunate. “Kamran was a young photojournalist who was trying to do his job,” he said. “The government should come clean on his case and ensure his release.”
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.