Srinagar: Four Kashmir-based journalists, including a senior editor, were raided on Wednesday and later detained at a police station in Srinagar in an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act case that was filed by Jammu and Kashmir Police last year.
Rights activists see the detentions as part of a wider crackdown by the Narendra Modi government on the free media in Kashmir after Article 370 was read down in 2019 and the erstwhile state divided into two union territories.
At least four journalists have been booked under the anti-terror law since 2019 by the J&K Police, and several others in Kashmir claim to face obstruction and harassment by officials in their line of work.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international non-profit based in Paris, condemned the latest detentions, saying that journalism was not a crime.
In a tweet, the RSF said it “condemns as crude intimidation this morning’s police raids at the residence of 4 journalists – @KashmirNarrator editor Showkat Matta, @trtworld & @HuffPost’s @mirhilaal, and freelancers @AzharQadri and Abbas Shah. #JournalismIsNotACrime.”
Officials said the residences of Motta, Hilal, Abbas and Azhar in Srinagar were raided simultaneously by teams of police and paramilitary forces on Wednesday. They have been asked to reappear for questioning on Thursday.
Motta is the editor of Kashmir Narrator magazine whose journalist, Aasif Sultan, has been jailed since 2018. Hilal is a freelancer who was previously working with Hindustan Times at its Delhi office. His work appears in Turkey-based TRT World and Anadolu agency.
Abbas is associated with a Srinagar-based daily and Qadri is a freelancer whose work has appeared in The Tribune and The Guardian. All four live in Srinagar and the raids took place simultaneously in the early morning hours.
“They seized a hard drive which contained my work, a desktop, hardcopies of the magazine’s archives and phones. I was later taken to the police station and set free in the evening,” Motta, 52, said, adding that he has been asked to return for questioning on Thursday.
Police claimed to have seized several documents and electronic devices belonging to the journalists and their spouses during the raids, which lasted for several hours. The journalists were detained for the whole day at Kothi Bagh police station.
“They showed me the warrant but they were very polite. At the police station, a cop noted my basic details and then asked to wait. No one spoke with me the whole day. I was not informed about the charges against me,” another detained journalist, who didn’t want to be named, told The Wire.
According to the police, the detentions were made in connection with a case filed last year against unknown persons at Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh police station (FIR No. 82/2020) under Section 13 of the UAPA and 506 IPC.
Section 13 of UAPA deals with suspects who “advocate, abet, advise or incite the commission of any unlawful activity” while 506 IPC is filed in the cases of “criminal intimidation”.
The case was filed against the unknown handlers of a blog (kashmirfight.wordpress.com) which has been issuing death threats against Kashmir-based journalists and political activists, accusing them of acting as the “collaborators” of New Delhi.
The names of senior editor Shujaat Bukhari and human rights lawyer Babar Qadri had also figured in the articles posted on the blog before their assassination in 2018 and 2020. The two killings were linked by investigators to Pakistan-based militant outfits.
“These posts uploaded on the said URL are prejudicial to the integrity, the sovereignty of country and maintenance of peace and tranquillity as the handler of the above-said URL is propagating secessionist and terror-related ideology with the intention to achieve the goal of separating UT of J&K from Union of India,” a police spokesperson said in a statement last year.
In May this year, the Kothi Bagh police station filed another case (FIR No. 41/2021) under similar sections of UAPA after another post on the blog issued threats to social activists, government officers, political leaders and journalists.
The J&K Police claimed to have made a breakthrough in the case in July by arresting Mohammad Akbar Sofi, a top officer in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, his son Nazish Yasrab Rehman, daughter Tabish Akbar Rehman, fiancé of Sofi’s daughter Javed Khalid, and Rafiq Mukhdoomi, a law student in Srinagar.
The latest detentions in the case took place barely a day after the blog, which has been banned by the Government of India, issued fresh threats against the owners of four English newspapers and an Urdu daily published from Srinagar.
After the reading down of Article 370, local print media in Kashmir have stopped critical coverage of the government, fearing reprisal in the form of harassment, intimidation and curtailment of advertisements.
According to the RSF, which ranked India at 142 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom, press freedom has significantly shrunk in the country following Modi’s re-election in 2019.
“India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials,” the RSF said in its latest report.
Since the last two years, the UN special rapporteur for protection of right to freedom of expression has written on at least three occasions to the Government of India over the reports of “arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists” in Kashmir .
In its latest communication sent to the Indian government on June 3 which was made public on August 25, the UN Rapporteur flagged the alleged incidents of harassment of Kashmir-based journalists Fahad Shah, Qazi Shibli, Sajad Gul and Auqib Javeed.
The letter also mentioned the closure of the office of the Kashmir Times newspaper.
“We express serious concern at the reported acts of harassment and seemingly arbitrary detention and criminal proceedings and detentions levied or imposed against the aforementioned journalists, which is reportedly related to their journalistic activities on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir,” the letter reads.