Outrage as J&K Police Arrest 'Kashmir Walla' Editor After Portal's Report on Pulwama Gun Battle

J&K police said Fahad Shah was among unspecified number of “social media users” whose posts are “tantamount to glorifying terrorist activities."

Srinagar: A young Srinagar-based editor and journalist has been arrested by Jammu and Kashmir Police for “glorifying terrorist activities” on social media and causing “disaffection against the country.”

Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, a magazine with an online news portal which has a wide readership, was arrested on Friday, February 4, three days after he was questioned by police along with three other journalists for “incorrect reporting” about a gun battle in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

The news of Fahad’s arrest prompted massive outrage in Kashmir and outside. The Committee to Protect Journalists termed the arrest as “utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely” while the International Press Institute, a consortium of editors and journalists across the globe, demanded Fahad’s “immediate release”.

Sources said Fahad has been arrested in a case (FIR No 19/2022) filed by the police in Pulwama district under Section 13 (advocating, abetting, advising or inciting unlawful activity) of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Section 124-A (sedition) and Section 505 (public mischief) of Indian Penal Code.

Fahad received a phone call from a police official of the Pulwama police station on Friday afternoon and was told to show up “immediately” at the police station to “record a statement.” Once he reached with colleagues, one of whom spoke to The Wire requesting anonymity, police told them that a new case has been filed and he was under arrest.

Fahad’s associates are exploring legal options. “This is a battle for truth and we are hopeful that he will be back with us in the newsroom soon,” said his colleague.

Kashmir Walla was started by Fahad as a blog, when he was a student.

“It is an open FIR,” sources said, adding that “more journalists” are likely to be questioned in the case, “It (arrest of Fahad) is the first arrest in the case.”

Also read: J&K Police Summon Local Journalists for ‘Incorrect Reporting’ on Pulwama Encounter

A J&K Police spokesperson said in a statement: “The accused is on police remand. The investigation into the matter is in progress.”

Controversial encounter

The arrest comes days after the controversial Pulwama encounter in which security forces claimed to have gunned down Zahid Wani, a top commander of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad outfit along with his three associates – a suspected Pakistani militant, Kafeel Bhari alias Chotu, a local militant, Waheed Ahmad Reshi and Inayat Ahmad Mir, son of the owner of the house where the encounter took place.

An officer among two commandoes of the elite Garud forces were injured in the encounter.

The J&K police had said that Inayat, 17, joined militants “recently” but his family rejected the police version, claiming that their son was “innocent”. They also held a protest in Srinagar on Sunday to demand Inayat’s body which has been buried in north Kashmir. The police version of the encounter, the claims of Inayat’s family and the Srinagar protest were covered by sections of local media and the reports were widely shared on social media as well.

However, hours after the encounter, a 58-second video circulated on social media showing one of the sisters of Inayat seeking to reject her family’s claims. Surrounded by at least three to four male police officials, the young woman is seen biting her lips and looking around with startled eyes as the cops pose her short, pointed questions about the final moments before the encounter broke out at their home on January 30.

After her disclosure, which could not be independently verified by The Wire, the J&K Police had booked Inayat and his family members (FIR No 18/2022) under Section 307 (attempted murder) of Indian Penal Code, Arms Act and sections 16 (punishment for terrorist act), 18 (punishment for conspiracy), 20 (punishment for being a member of terrorist organisation) and 38 (offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation) of the UAPA.

Earlier this week, Fahad, who also writes extensively on Kashmir for national and international publications, including Foreign Affairs and TIME magazine, was among the four journalists who were called to testify as witnesses in the case against Inayat’s family. “We were preparing for our editorial meeting on Saturday when the news of his arrest came in,” said another staffer at Kashmir Walla.

Fahad has been facing the heat from security agencies in Kashmir for years. At a time when the local media has been arm-twisted into silence by the administration, which is run directly by New Delhi, Kashmir Walla has managed to largely preserve its editorial integrity. The publication has been consistently writing on critical issues, including human rights, which has become a ‘no-go zone’ for local media after the reading down of Article 370.

In a letter last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan and Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Elina Steinerte, raised concerns with the government of India about four Kashmir journalists – Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajad Gul and Qazi Shibli.

Last month, Sajad, who also works at Kashmir Walla, was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act for his reportage and lodged in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu alongside hardened criminals.

Also read: ‘Vague Terms Used to Silence Critics’: Activists Slam PSA Dossier on Sajad Gul

According to the UN letter, Fahad has faced six cases of intimidation between June 2017 and January 2021. He has been probed by security agencies on several occasions and a case was filed against him last year after Kashmir Walla reported that the management of a school in south Kashmir’s Shopian district had forced their students to celebrate the Republic Day.

‘Anti-national’ social media users

In a statement after the arrest, the J&K police identified Fahad among unspecified number of “social media users” whose posts are “tantamount to glorifying the terrorist activities and causing dent to the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing ill-will & disaffection against the country.”

Although the J&K Police has not given out the details of the case, the “anti-national” content in question which can cause “fear among public” and “disturb law & order” seems related to the claims made by Inayat’s family about their son’s innocence, which was included in the reportage on the Pulwama encounter by all the news outlets which covered the encounter.

“In journalism classes, we are taught to include versions of both sides in a story if we wanted to become true professionals. Taking sides with one or the other is either public relations or propaganda,” a senior journalist based in Kashmir told The Wire.

“These cases and arrests are a message to others to either fall in line or prepare for a jail term,” the senior journalist said, wishing anonymity.

Steven Bulter, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C said the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir “must immediately release Shah, and all other journalists behind bars, and cease detaining and harassing journalists for simply doing their jobs.”

“Standing up for the truth is deemed anti national. Showing the mirror to a deeply intolerant & authoritarian government is also anti national. Fahad’s journalistic work speaks for itself & depicts the ground reality unpalatable to GOI. How many Fahad’s will you arrest?,” former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted.