J&K Police File FIRs Against Two Websites After 'Fake News' Complaint by Army

The portals had published reports that said the army had ‘forced’ a religious school to hold a Republic Day function. Though the defence force calls this ‘baseless’, the two portals stand by their story.

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir police have registered first information reports (FIRs) against two Kashmiri news portals based on a complaint from the Indian Army. The two portals, The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat, had reported that a religious school in south Kashmir’s Shopian district had been ‘forced’ by the Army to hold a Republic Day function on January 26, which the Army complained was baseless and ‘fake’.

The police have filed the FIRs under Sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.

The incident

The Jamia Siraj ul Uloom, the religious school in question, which is located close to a police station and two military garrisons in Imam Sahib village, held a Republic Day function on January 26. When a video clip of the celebration, in which men and young boys were seen holding the tricolour while the Indian national anthem played in the background, was posted on social media, it went viral and was touted as a rare incident since few religious schools in Kashmir celebrate Republic Day.

Later, The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat carried news reports which claimed that Muhammad Yusuf Manto, the founder and chairman of the school, had told their reporters on record that the Army’s 44 Rashtriya Rifles had been pressurising the school administration to hold a Republic Day function for about a month. The Kashmir Walla was the first to report this incident, after which The Kashmiriyat filed a similar report.

After these reports were filed, the Jamia Siraj ul Uloom administration purportedly circulated a letter on social media, denying “any compulsion on behalf of any army personal (sic) or police”.

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Signed by the head of the school, the letter stated that the celebration on January 26 had ended with peace and pleasure, and that “the news item appearing in The Kashmir walla and Kashmiriyat regarding the pressure for organizing such events at the hands of security agencies is negated as being totally baseless allegation (sic).”

‘We have the facts’

The FIRs against the two portals include this sentence: “These kinds of fake news are serious concerns for security of region as they can cause riots and create problems for the law and order situation for police and armed forces.”

But the editors of The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat told The Wire that they have proof of the school administration’s earlier claim.

“We have not misrepresented any word or distorted the facts,” said Qazi Shibli, editor of The Kashmiriyat, and added that the move was a tactic to stifle bold voices.

Fahad Shah, the founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla, also said the portal has recordings and testimony as proof of the veracity of its report and they will respond to the charge properly in court.

According to Shah, two days after the article was published on the portal, social media users began tagging The Kashmir Walla while forwarding a handwritten statement that bore the seal of the school.

“We tried to call the school administration to fact-check it, but the chairman’s phone is not reachable even now,” Shah said. “We couldn’t verify the statement and hence didn’t take it seriously. But later we learned that an FIR has been lodged against our portal.”

He added that The Kashmir Walla stands by its reporting and can prove it anywhere. “If I have to go to court, I can present all the evidence we have regarding the article,” he said.

The Wire tried repeatedly to speak to the head of the school, but each time received a message that ‘this number does not exist’.

DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a body that represents the country’s digital media organisations, has condemned the FIRs against The Kashmir Walla and The Kashmiriyat by the Jammu and Kashmir police. So far, however, there has been no condemnation from any journalists’ body or the Kashmir press club regarding the incident.

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According to Shah, some media organisations have published the police statement against the two portals without reaching out to the editors concerned for their side of the story.

“We got no call from the school when the story was published. So rather than believing anything else, the journalists in Kashmir should have approached us,” said Shah.

Controversies galore

After the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019, most journalists and news organisations in Jammu and Kashmir have been censoring themselves to avoid possible trouble.

“This is not the first incident of media portals being attacked. There were many such incidents before, but journalists in Kashmir should learn that it will not be the last one,” said Shah.

This is also not the first time that the Jamia Siraj ul Uloom has found itself in a controversy. Last year, the Jammu and Kashmir police in Shopian arrested three of the religious school’s teachers under the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act, claiming that they had been monitoring the school after they learned that some of its teachers were involved in militancy-related activities.

The school authorities, however, had refuted the claims of the police.

Quratulain Rehbar is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist.