Srinagar: The Union government has reportedly blocked Srinagar-based news outlet The Kashmir Walla‘s website, while its social media accounts have also been taken down, in what the organisation described as “another deadly blow” to its work in Jammu and Kashmir.
The action comes at a time when the founder-editor of The Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, has remained incarcerated in a Jammu jail for 18 months on terrorism charges, while Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter with the outlet, is also languishing in a prison in Uttar Pradesh from January 2022 under the Public Safety Act.
Geeta Seshu, founding editor of the Free Speech Collective, which was set up in 2018 to protect the right to freedom of expression in India, condemned the government’s action against The Kashmir Walla.
“The media in Kashmir has all but disappeared. The young team of journalists in The Kashmir Walla, against all odds, kept trying to publish their stories and question the official narrative. Now, one more independent space for news has been blocked,” she said.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, also tweeted about the incident, pointing to the lack of press freedom in Kashmir.
Kashmir story in short pic.twitter.com/JzUMSUT16g
— Anuradha Bhasin (@AnuradhaBhasin_) August 21, 2023
DIGIPUB, a group of digital media organisations, issued a statement expressing deep concern about the website takedown. They called the closure “yet another act of intimidation of journalists in Kashmir” and part of a “pattern of arbitrary misuse of the law to silence the media in Kashmir”.
DIGIPUB’s statement on the closure of The Kashmir Walla’s website and social media accounts. pic.twitter.com/MZYRjNKKP0
— DIGIPUB News India Foundation (@DigipubIndia) August 21, 2023
Several international organisations, including the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Christian Science Monitor have urged the Indian government to release Shah, describing his arrest as “a sharp reminder of the need to strengthen free voices … around the globe.”
In a statement shared by Yashraj Sharma, the interim editor of The Kashmir Walla who took over after the arrest of Shah, the news outlet said that the staff found that access to the website and its social media accounts was blocked on Saturday, August 19.
“When we contacted our server provider to ask why thekashmirwalla.com was inaccessible, they informed us that our website has been blocked in India by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under the IT Act, 2000,” the statement said.
The Union government has been blocking websites operating out of India under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 by citing security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order or prevention of incitement to offence, amongst other reasons.
If the intermediary fails to comply with the government direction, they are liable to be punished with imprisonment which may extend to seven years and fine.
According to The Kashmir Walla‘s statement, its staff later realised that the outlet’s Facebook page, which had nearly half a million followers, was removed by the social media behemoth.
It also says that its X (formerly Twitter) account that has over 54,000 followers shows that it has been “withheld in India in response to a legal demand.”
“In tandem with this move, we have also now been served an eviction notice by the landlord of our office in Srinagar and we are in [the] process of evicting [sic] the office,” The Kashmir Walla‘s statement said.
“We are not aware of the specifics of why our website has been blocked in India; why our Facebook page has been removed; and why our Twitter account has been withheld. We have not been served any notice nor is there any official order regarding these actions that is in the public domain so far. This opaque censorship is gut-wrenching,” the statement added.
The news outlet said that it was “still processing the ongoing events” which began with the arrest of Shah in February last year, when the J&K police nabbed the young editor over the reporting of a gunfight in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Shah, who has reported extensively on Kashmir for national and international publications, was arrested on February 4, three days after he was questioned by police along with three more journalists for “incorrect reporting” of the gun battle.
Zahid Wani, a top commander in the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad outfit, was gunned down along with his three alleged associates – Kafeel Bhari alias Chotu, a suspected Pakistani militant; Waheed Ahmad Reshi, a local militant; and Inayat Ahmad Mir, son of the owner of the house where the encounter took place.
While the J&K police claimed that Inayat had joined the militants “recently”, his family initially rejected the police version. They also held a protest in Srinagar to demand the body of Inayat, who they said was “innocent”.
Both the police version and the claims of Inayat’s family were reported by sections of local media and the reports were widely shared on social media as well.
However, Inayat’s sister later retracted her family’s claims during questioning by police, following which a case was filed against The Kashmir Walla, which was founded as a blog by Shah more than 12 years ago.
“It was the beginning of the saga of his revolving door arrests. He went on to be arrested five times within four months. Three FIRs under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and one [under the] Public Safety Act have been registered against him,” the news outlet said in its statement.
The statement added: “For the past 18 months, … we’ve lived a horrifying nightmare with the arrest and imprisonment of our founder-editor … and the harassment of our reporters and staff, amid an already inhospitable climate for journalism in the region.”
The State Investigation Agency (SIA) that has been set up to exclusively probe terrorism cases in J&K raided The Kashmir Walla‘s office as well as Shah’s Srinagar residence in April 2022.
This was in connection with an ongoing investigation into a “seditious” opinion piece authored by a Kashmir University scholar, Alaa Fazili, which was published by the outlet in 2011.
Fazili has also been arrested in the case and is languishing in a Jammu jail since last year. Shah’s bail application in this case is coming up for hearing before the J&K high court on August 25.
“During the raid, most of our gadgets were seized, reporters were interrogated, and all documents were scrutinised. Since then, our interim editor has been summoned and questioned by the SIA multiple times,” the news outlet said in the statement.
Earlier, the J&K police booked Shah over The Kashmir Walla’s coverage of an encounter in Srinagar city on May 19, 2020, during which over a dozen houses were razed to the ground.
Locals had accused the security forces of looting cash and jewellery before setting their houses on fire, a charge denied by officials. Shah has got bail in this case.
A second case, in which Shah also got bail last year, was filed in Shopian on January 30, 2021 after The Kashmir Walla reported that the Army was “pressuring” the management of a private school in Shopian, then a hotbed of militancy, to organise the Republic Day celebrations.
The Army denied the charge and filed a complaint with police, following which a case was filed. A court has granted bail to Shah in this case also.