Srinagar: A freelance reporter Sajad Gul, based in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, has been booked for “rioting, trespassing, and assault” after reporting on an alleged demolition drive in Bandipora district for The Kashmir Walla.
Speaking to The Wire, Gul says that on February 9, he reported on a demolition drive carried out by the tehsildar of Hajin, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, from an area where the locals had alleged that the officer in question was “harassing and threatening” them, and had also used abusive language against them while conducting the drive.
After the report was published, Gul received a call from Bhat threatening legal action. “He called me and threatened me of dire consequences. He says, ‘I will take legal action against you’. Later, he also called other reporters in the area and asked them to suggest ways to harm me,” Gul told The Wire.
The next day, the said officer went to Gul’s native village, Shahgund, five kilometres from Hajib town and demolished his maternal uncle’s fence and Gul’s property. “It was his reaction to my story. Normally, the demolition drive should start from the first house, but he deliberately chose ours to begin with,” alleges Gul.
Sensing malice in the official’s actions, Shahgund villagers started pelting stones and protested locally. Soon, Bhat filed a first information report (FIR) against the locals, including Gul’s four maternal uncles and Gul. “They were in jail for four days only for being related to me,” Gul told The Wire.
Gul has been booked under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 447 (punishment for criminal trespassing), and 353 (assaulting public servant) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by the police after Bhat’s complaint.
However, Gul claims that he was in Srinagar, some 40 kilometres away from the location where protests and stone pelting took place. Gul alleges that the tehsildar concerned is trying to implicate him in false and fabricated charges of stone pelting now.
“On that day, I was at Rajbagh in Srinagar and I told the same to the police station concerned. I have even requested them to trace my cell phone on that day, but to my utter dismay they are not resolving the matter,” adds Gul.
In addition to the FIR, Bhat threatened to end Gul’s journalism career by getting him behind bars. However, Gul maintains that his report was based on facts, and alleges that despite repeated requests, the copy of FIR has not been given to him by the police.
Gul then wrote to the Kashmir Press Club. On Sunday, a statement issued by The Kashmir Press Club expressed concern with the case registered Gul and stated that the organisation had flagged the case to the divisional commissioner as well as the deputy commissioner. But despite assurances from the two, an FIR remains registered against Gul.
The press club urged the divisional commissioner of Kashmir and the inspector general of police to look into the alleged misuse of authority by the tehsildar. It also urged authorities to thoroughly probe the matter, and particularly the assertion by the reporter that he was not even present at the location on that day. “Gul himself is ready to give all the proof in this regard,” the Press Club noted.
“The Club expresses deep concern on registration of such an FIR against the journalist concerned on ‘false and fabricated charges’ again, and reiterates that public-spirited journalism or highlighting the concerns of the affected is one of the primary duties of the media, and implicating a journalist for rendering public services on false and fabricated charges is an assault on journalism,” the press body said.
Surge in attacks on journalists
Since August 5, 2019, there has been a surge in complaints of harassment and intimidation against journalists in the Valley. For journalists, reporting from the region has become extremely difficult since the government introduced the ‘Revised Media Policy‘ following the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019.
The new media policy authorises government officers to decide on what is “fake news” and “anti-nationalism” – a step that media personnel say could be misused by authorities in the volatile region.
Last month, a first information report against The Kashmir Walla editor-in-chief, Fahad Shah, and reporter Yashraj Sharma was registered on January 31 on a complaint from the Indian Army, which accused them of spreading fake news. Besides them, the police also named the website, The Kashmiriyat, for publishing the same report.
Shah told The Wire that the government has been focused on controlling and silencing free media in Kashmir.
“I must stress “free media” because most media in Kashmir is already on their deathbed. Kashmir doesn’t have many independent media houses. So the few that remain are being targeted. We are being targeted for our work for more than a year now,” Shah states firmly.
He believes that this is only because they have been reporting the truth. “I was warned several times last year, I was told to remove stories we published at times. I was detained and booked. All these are only tactics to silence our work. It does affect us a lot mentally, and obviously, it takes a toll on how an organisation sustains itself.”
For Yashraj Sharma, the case against him has caused significant stress. “Every call from an unknown number makes me paranoid, I think it could be police summons. The fashion in which this FIR was filed – when neither me nor the newspaper was contacted by either the Army or the school administration – clearly underlines that the authorities sought to intimidate with these cases,” Sharma has tells The Wire.
“With growing polarisation over ideological divides in India, the vindictive nature of the state in criminalising the mere practice of journalism is for all to see,” he says.
Like Sharma, Gul, who is currently pursuing masters in convergent journalism from the Central University of Kashmir, says that such intimidation and threats from authorities rob one of peace of mind. “I’m not able to concentrate on studies or my work. My mother is asking me to quit this profession after witnessing the reaction to my work,” he says.
Shah says that such tactics clearly indicate a motive of imposing a media policy in the region. “Media policy is a draconian set of laws that are being used to curb space for a free press. See, with these tactics, only those journalists or media houses will be affected who have been reporting independently – so they will make a cry about it. Many will remain silent because they are not affected when they are told not to publish certain news. That’s not journalism,” explains Shah.
He stresses that until the media in Kashmir does not come together and start following the basic principles of freedom of expression, every crackdown on the media will be successful.
“We have many lessons from history, and also from the present. There are brave journalists too, in Delhi or a bit far in Egypt, Belarus, or many other places. We must learn from their struggles and achievements,” he adds.
The Wire has tried to contact the deputy superintendent of Hajin Police Station and Ghulam Mohammad Bhat for their comments, but they have not replied. The story will be updated once they respond.
Kaisar Andrabi is an independent journalist from Kashmir and tweets at @KAndrabi