In Kashmir, Threats Issued by a Blog Has Led to Police Questioning Nearly a Dozen Journalists

The residences of prominent journalists were also raided in the aftermath of life threats appearing on a blog which police say is associated with the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Srinagar: The owner of a prominent English daily is among nearly a dozen working and former journalists to have been questioned by Jammu and Kashmir Police in connection with the threat given last month by an anonymous blog to Kashmir-based media-persons.

The life threat given by ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog, which circulated on Telegram and WhatsApp platforms on November 12, triggered raids at 19 places in Kashmir, including the residence of Haji Hayat, owner of Kashmir Reader, an English daily based in Srinagar which is known to pursue an adversarial editorial policy.

On November 19, the J&K police said it raided the residences of active militants of Lashkar-e-Toiba’s offshoot, The Resistance Front (TRF), Sajjad Gul and Mukhtar Baba. Believed to be based in Turkey, Baba, a former militant who has worked with newspapers in Kashmir, is accused of being the mastermind of the threat.

Raids also took place at the house of Basit Dar, in Kulgam, and Momin Gulzar, who hails from Srinagar. Dar is the TRF’s chief commander and Momin is a wanted militant who is believed to be Basit’s close associate. An advocate’s house in Srinagar was also searched.

A J&K Police statement said the residences of journalists Gowhar Geelani, Rashid Maqbool, Khalid Gul, Wasim Khalid, Mohammad Raafi, Sajjad Kralyari and Qazi Shibli were also raided on November 19. Some of these journalists were subjected to questioning for at least six days in a row at Shergari police station in Srinagar regarding their professional associations.

Some of the journalists were probed over their association with Baba. At least two journalists told The Wire that they were questioned for their work before August 5, 2019 when Article 370 was read down by the Union government. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Top reporters and columnists questioned

Among those raided by cops is Gowhar Geelani, author and journalist who writes for Germany’s public broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Chennai-based outlet The Federal. In February this year, a court in Kashmir issued an arrest warrant, purportedly over a tweet in which Geelani had described militants as ‘suspected armed rebels’. He later deleted the tweet.

Geelani was booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2020 for his social media posts. J&K Police has accused him of “glorifying terrorism” in Kashmir.

Rashid Maqbool, an academic and journalist who was also questioned at Shergari police station for days in a row, started his career at Rising Kashmir newspaper, which was named among the three media houses in the ‘Kashmir Fight’ threat.

Another journalist quizzed in the case is Khalid Gul, a freelance reporter based in Anantnag and a former correspondent of the daily Greater Kashmir, the second media house named in the threat letter. Greater Kashmir is the largest circulated English daily of J&K.

Senior journalist Wasim Khalid, a former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford University, was also questioned in the case. He has worked at both Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera, Turkey-based TRT World, along with The Caravan and Hardnews magazines. Khalid was also associated with Kashmir Press, a Srinagar-based news website which police believe was also managed by Mukhtar Baba, who has been named as the mastermind of the ‘Kashmir Fight’ threat against at least 12 journalists, editors and media owners based in Kashmir.

Mohammad Raafi, who was also quizzed by cops, has also worked with Rising Kashmir. His work has also appeared in Financial Times and TRT World among other digital news platforms. Raafi has previously expressed concern about the shrinking space for independent journalism in Kashmir.

Sajjad Kralyari, who reportedly runs a local sports magazine, has also worked with Rising Kashmir.

Also read: J&K Police Summon ‘Kashmir Walla’ Acting Editor Who Was 12 When ‘Seditious’ Article Came Out

Some journalists were earlier penalised for tweeting and reporting

Another journalist raided by police on November 19 is Qazi Shibli, who runs a news portal called The Kashmiriyat. He was detained under the draconian Public Safety Act on July 25, 2019 for tweeting an official order regarding the deployment of additional paramilitary troops across Kashmir ahead of the reading down of Article 370. His home and office have been raided by J&K Police on at least two occasions.

The second set of raids took place on November 24 at seven places targeting Haji Hayat and Showkat Motta, a former editor of Kashmir Reader who was detained by police last year in connection with FIR No 82/2020 filed at Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh police station in connection with another threat previously issued by the same ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog. Motta works as editor of Kashmir Narrator magazine whose journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail since August 2018.

The residence of Ishfaq Reshi, whose recent work has appeared in The Quint and The Citizen, was also raided by police in Srinagar in the second raid. A former reporter of Kashmir Reader, Reshi was arrested by J&K Police over a story in which the residents of Budgam and Anantnag areas had accused security forces of allegedly setting fire to rice crops.

The story appeared in Kashmir Reader on September 28, 2016, under the headline, ‘Forces set ablaze rice crop in Budgam, Anantnag areas, say local residents’, after which the newspaper was banned by the then PDP-BJP coalition government led by Mehbooba Mufti for two weeks.

A freelance journalist whose house was raided in Srinagar on November 24 is Saqib Mugloo whose work has appeared in the news agency AFP and Vice among others. He is presently based in Delhi.

The houses of a Kashmiri activist Asif Dar, who has also been issuing oblique threats on social media, and Khaksar Nadeem Adnan, another Srinagar resident about whom police didn’t share any further details, were also raided on November 24.

“Some suspects have been detained for questioning, however, those on whose houses searches were carried earlier are being summoned on daily basis for examination.This is subsequent to the leads received from searches done a few days ago (November 19),” a police spokesperson said on November 24.

Sources said that at least eight journalists were questioned by police in the case which has been filed at Shergari police station against ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2008 (UAPA) and sections 124A (sedition), 505 (public mischief), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of Indian Penal Code on November 12.

‘Threat sets stage for justifying killings’

The latest threat by ‘Kashmir Fight’, which also named Asian News Network, a Srinagar-based TV channel and digital news platform, prompted at least five journalists and editors associated with these organisations to resign from their positions and also publicise their resignations on social media to avoid reprisal by militants. Although some journalists of Kashmir have been provided security cover by the administration following life threats, those who resigned are not among them.

The J&K Police believes that the ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog, which has been taken down from WordPress by the US administration on the request of the Government of India and now uses only social media for publicity, prepares the ground for justifying the killings in Kashmir by accusing the victims of being “agents” of Indian state.

In 2020, it accused 39 Kashmiri journalists of working as “Indian agents” following which a case was filed at Kothi Bagh police station. Among the prominent people, the blog named editor Shujaat Bukhari and human rights lawyer Babar Qadri before their assassination in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Punjabi businessman Satpal Nischal, who had got a domicile certificate following the change of J&K laws by the Union government in 2019, was also named in the blog before his killing by militants on December 31, 2020.

The Resistance Front (TRF), which police believes is an offshoot of Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Toiba outfit and runs the ‘Kashmir Fight’ blog, had claimed responsibility for Nischal’s killing. A TRF statement after the murder alleged that Nishchal “was part of a settler project and anyone who obtains domicile will be treated as occupiers”. The assassination of Bukhari and Babar was also linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba.

In July last year, the J&K Police claimed to have made a breakthrough in the Kothi Bagh police station case (FIR No 82/2020) by arresting Mohammad Akbar Sofi, a senior officer in Srinagar Municipal Corporation, his son Nazish Yasrab Rehman, daughter Tabish Akbar Rehman, fiancé of Sofi’s daughter Javed Khalid and Rakib Makhdoomi, a Srinagar-based law student, in the case.

On November 18, a day before the J&K Police carried out the first set of raids in Kashmir and questioned the freelance journalists, Tabish and Rakib were granted bail in the case by a Srinagar court.