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Srinagar: The Press Council of India (PCI) has announced that it will form a three-member ‘fact-finding committee’ to investigate the allegations of harassment and intimidation of journalists in Kashmir following a communication from People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
In the communication, Mufti listed out the instances of harassment against journalists at the hands of authorities in Kashmir.
“The Hon’ble chairman, Press Council of India while taking a suo moto cognisance on the communication of Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, President PDP concerning intimidation and harassment of journalists in Jammu and Kashmir has constituted a three member Fact Finding Committee consisting of S/Shri Prakash Dubey, Convener and Group Editor Dainik Bhaskar; Gurbir Singh, Journalist, The New Indian Express; and Dr Suman Gupta, Editor, Jan Morcha, Member of the committee to inquire into the matter,” the PCI letter reads.
The top statutory press body has urged J&K authorities to “extend full cooperation and assistance”. The letter also says the “fact finding committee is required to make a thorough probe into the matter holding discussion with the concerned authorities and the affected journalists and collect such information as it deem fit to submit its report to the Council at the earliest”.
Mehbooba had written to the PCI two days ago to apprise the Council of issues related to raids against journalists, the summons issued to them and the cases filed under controversial anti-terrorism laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
“In a democratic setup, a free and independent press is crucial and essential for government institutions to function in a transparent manner with due accountability to its citizens,” Mehbooba’s letter reads. “We have witnessed the manner in which fundamental rights such as freedom of speech & expression enshrined in the Indian constitution have increasingly come under attack especially in the last two years by a hostile and insecure dispensation.”
Mehbooba’s letter also broached the subject of a number of journalists being made to disembark from foreign-bound flights and returned to J&K on account of look-out circulars. Recently, The Wire reported that there are more than 43 people in J&K on the look-out circular list who are not allowed to travel abroad following an “adverse report” against them from different agencies. Out of 43 people on the list, around 22 are journalists.
The issue of diminishing press freedom in the former state has become a raging debate in recent times.
Earlier this month, authorities raided the residences of at least four journalists. Their electronic gadgets were seized and sent for technical evaluation. In an official statement, police linked all four journalists with FIR 82/2020 registered at Kothibagh Police Station in Srinagar city. The FIR pertains to the blog firstname.lastname@example.org that is known for publishing controversial and defamatory material against a number of people living in the Valley.
Reacting to the raids, the Paris-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asked the J&K Police to “stop raiding the homes of journalists and immediately return any seized electronic device”.
“The repeated harassment of journalists in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir needs to stop immediately,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator said. “Police should halt any interrogations of and investigations into journalists Showkat Motta, Azhar Qaddri, Abbas Shah, and Hilal Mir, and return all electronic devices seized from the journalists’ homes.”
Recently, the District Magistrate of Kupwara, a frontier district in north Kashmir directed “unauthorised/unregistered” journalists to “complete their registration or obtain approval” (of administration) before they can be allowed to perform their professional duties. The order has been condemned by legal experts who said the bureaucrat was acting ultra vires.
In August, the UN Special Rapporteur for protection of the right to freedom of expression voiced “serious concerns” over the reports of arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists in Kashmir, joining a growing chorus by global bodies and international watchdogs against the worsening press freedom scenario in India.
In 2021, India has been ranked 142 on World Press Freedom Index making it one of the least free countries in the world for journalists.
The communication from UN’s special mandate holders took note of alleged incidents of harassment meted out to Kashmiri journalists Fahad Shah, Qazi Shibli, Sajad Gul, Auqib Javeed and also raised the issue of closure of the office of the Kashmir Times newspaper.
In yet another instance that restricted the freedom of journalists to operate, authorities in Kashmir in May directed the health services department to desist from speaking with journalists amid spiking COVID-19 infections and escalation of fatalities.
Before that, the J&K police’s decision to pursue legal action against scribes and photographers who come close to gunbattle sites or near scenes of clashes between forces and protesters had created a flutter in the press fraternity in Kashmir, with media bodies terming the decree as a “tactic to coerce journalists into not reporting facts on the ground”.
The J&K administration also invited the censure of global media watchdogs earlier this year in March where two journalists alleged they were manhandled by the police during protests outside Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. Shafat Farooq, a multimedia journalist at BBC Urdu, said that doctors diagnosed him with an injury while Saqib Majeed, a freelance photographer, alleged that an officer held him violently to point of “choking”, although police strongly denied that claim.
Besides, the administration in the union territory has also filed charges, including two under UAPA, against a number of journalists. FIRs have been lodged against Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter with The Hindu; Sajad Gul, a journalism student at Central University in Ganderbal; Yashraj Sharma, a former editor at Kashmir Walla; and Mir Junaid and Qazi Shibli, who work for The Kashmiriyat, an online news venture.
In another surprising development that brought the issue of press freedom in Kashmir into the international spotlight is The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), founded by Hollywood actor, producer and screenwriter George Clooney and his lawyer wife Amal Clooney, announced that it will monitor the trial of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who has been under detention for more than two years on terror charges.
Journalists in Kashmir said they are wary about the current “onslaught”. Many reporters said they have started to self-censor and abstain from writing stories they believe could elicit adverse reaction from the establishment.
A number of journalists also alleged that they are being contacted by J&K Police’s criminal investigation department wing and told to divulge details about them. However, CID officials in Valley told The Wire that such an exercise did not constitute harassment.
“The details are not sought because of any ulterior motive,” an official said anonymously because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “Such database has been there since 1947. We keep updating it. Besides, we received complaints from a number of government departments alleging misbehaviour at the hands of people who claim to be journalists. So we are verifying the credentials of many of these people.”
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.