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Kashmiri Photojournalist Charged Under UAPA for Unspecified Social Media Posts

Masrat Zahra's work has been published in several national and international publications.

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir police have booked a Kashmiri photojournalist under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for posting what they have called “anti-national” content on social media.

A statement issued by the police on Monday said it has registered a case against the photojournalist, Masrat Zahra, under Section 13 of UAPA and Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, in the cyber police station, Srinagar.

“Cyber police received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquillity,” reads the statement, adding the journalist was also “believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order.”

“The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country,” reads the statement.

The police statement, however, did not mention specific posts by the journalist. Senior police officials also refused to speak to The Wire about the case. Tahir Ashraf, who heads the cyber police in Kashmir, said the police has issued a statement regarding the case and will not be saying anything further.

Zahra has been working as a freelance journalist since 2016 end. Her work has been published in various national and international news publications including Washington Post, TRT World, Al Jazeera, The New Humanitarian and The Caravan.

Also read: When a Government Is Hostile to the Press

Zahra said she was contacted by the cyber police on Saturday and asked to appear before them. However, after the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) and J&K Directorate of Information intervened, the journalist was told the matter has been “sorted out”.

But, Zahra said, she has been asked to present herself before the police on Tuesday. “I haven’t been officially informed about the case. I came to know about it through colleagues and social media,” she said. She added that she does not know what posts it’s about.

In a statement, the KPC demanded that the case against the journalist be withdrawn. “It emerges the police have filed a case against her with stringent charges and stringent Act and as per the conversation with Masrat she has been asked to come to the police station on Tuesday,” the KPC said. “We stand in solidarity with our colleagues especially Masrat Zahra and declare that journalism is not a crime. The KPC demands that the charges be dropped against her.”

Journalists in Kashmir have also come out in support of Zahra and demanded revocation of the FIR against her. “Masrat Zahra is a a professional photojournalist who has honestly told the stories of people in her career spanning four years. The police have invoked stringent provisions of draconian UAPA against her, which is outrageous,” journalist Bilal Kuchay wrote on Facebook. “We stand in solidarity with our colleague and seek that the FIR against her is immediately revoked. Journalism is not a crime.”

Other cases

Condemning the harassment and summons to journalists by the police in Kashmir, the KPC said while journalism in Kashmir had never been easy, challenges and hardships have multiplied for journalists post August 5 last year.

“Even in this time of coronavirus pandemic, journalists in Kashmir have been called to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their stories,” reads the KPC statement.

The KPC also talked about police summons to senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq of The Hindu on April 19, wherein he was asked to explain the alleged factual inaccuracies in a story by him, published the same day.

While Ashiq explained his case to police in Srinagar, he was asked to travel to south Kashmir, some 40 km in the evening, and present himself before a police officer in Anantnag district, said the statement.

Also read: When Freedom of the Press is Stricken With the Coronavirus

Earlier also, the KPC said, a reporter of the Kashmir Observer, Mushtaq Ahmad, was thrashed and arrested by the police in Bandipora, when he was out during the lockdown on work.

“He was released only after securing bail from the court,” the KPC said.

The KPC has reiterated that the J&K government, especially the police, needs to understand there is a “vast difference between journalism and cybercrime.”

“…the cases against journalists for their stories and work are unwarranted and outrightly illegal and draconian. It is very unfortunate that when the world is in a grip of pandemic and when we need to stand together to combat the COVID-19, police have started filing cases against journalists and harassing them,” said the statement, terming the charges unacceptable.