Use of UAPA Against Journalists is Last Nail in Coffin for Press Freedom in Kashmir

What's happening is a plan. It is hard to believe the Modi government would leave it to the discretion of an obscure police officer heading Kashmir’s Cyber Cell to take decisions that further affect its reputation internationally

In addition to the crisis unleashed by COVID-19, there is another kind of onslaught underway in Kashmir.  Press censorship and repression of the media, which is nothing new for the former state, has taken a starker turn, if the string of events unfolding over the last few days are any indication.

On April 20, the J&K Police announced that it had filed an FIR against Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the Unlawful Activities  (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a draconian anti-terrorism law under which a person can be designated a terrorist and  jailed  for up to seven  years.

Twenty-six-year-old Zahra is a tenacious reporter who has had to navigate the challenges of a patriarchal society and the tough conditions facing journalists in Kashmir to produce noteworthy stories for a range of foreign publications, including The Washington Post and Al Jazeera. The police, however, refused to call her a journalist, identifying her in its press release as a ‘Facebook user’.

Photojournalist targeted for 19-month-old post

Later, while citing the posts it claimed were violative of the UAPA’s provisions, the police posted a screen grab of a photograph by Zahra which she had uploaded on her Instagram account in September 2018.

The photo in question is of Shia protestors holding aloft a poster of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander killed in an encounter a few years ago. The poster is labeled (in Urdu) ‘Shaheed Burhan Wani’ and Zahrah’s description of the photo on Instagram duly reflects that.

Why it took the police more than 16 months to decide the posted image merited penal action is a mystery, considering the photograph in question happens to be  the property of a Western visual media company, Getty Images, and is still accessible on its website.

Zahra was summoned to the Cyber Police station in Srinagar and told  that the investigation in her case is underway.

The Hindu reporter targeted under terror law for factual error

This was not an isolated incident. It followed on the heels of a similar case where the police issued a summons to Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper, for an April 19 report.

Ashiq’ s report was about the family members of two militants who were refused the bodies of their deceased kin. The two militants had been killed by the security forces during a gunfight at Dairoo-Keegam in Shopian (in the southern part of the Valley) on April 17, but their bodies were withheld and buried almost 110 km away, in Baramulla district, in north Kashmir, on a hillock where non-local insurgents, killed during gun-battles, are interred.

The trigger for the unprecedented government decision to bury these two local militants far away may have been the large gathering at the funeral of Jaish militant Sajad Dar who was killed a week earlier. His funeral drew thousands of mourners despite the total lockdown  announced by the Union Territory administration to fight the spread of COVID-19. Pictures of Dar’s funeral, which appeared on social media, showed a huge crowd of mourners stretching several hundred metres.

In the Shopian case, the families of the slain militants – who were demanding that they be allowed to identify their kin – had wrongly conveyed to Ashiq that the police had given them permission to exhume the bodies when, in fact, they had merely been given curfew passes.

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As a seasoned journalist, Ashiq had dutifully called the Shopian district magistrate to cross-check this claim with him, but there was no response from the other end. It is a common practice among reporters facing deadlines pressures to mention that the concerned official could not be reached for a comment in their report unless the story is investigative in nature, involving sensitive allegations and the unearthing of serious facts of overriding public importance – in which case the story can be put on hold until the official version arrives.

What is instructive is the way the police reacted to the report. In what was clearly a case of overreaction disproportionate to the nature of the ‘offence’, Ashiq was summoned to appear before them in Srinagar first and then to a police station in Anantnag, in South Kashmir, on the same day, covering a total distance of more than 100 km before he eventually reached  home in the evening.

The police later termed Ashiq’s report as “fake news”. “The details quoted in the news item were factually incorrect and could cause fear or alarm in the minds of public,” the police press release read. It said, “The news [was] published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.” An FIR (No. 81/2020) was registered in connection with the news item at the Anantnag police station. As the Editors Guild of India has rightly pointed out, the correct course of action would have been to take the matter up with the concerned newspaper and ask it to issue a clarification.

Clearly, a full-fledged FIR is an instance of heavy-handedness designed not to address the issue of an inaccuracy that has crept into a story but to impose costs on the practice of journalism itself.  Would it be so unexpected for any journalist, who has had such a nerve-wracking  experience with the security agencies, to think about tempering his or her reports, downplaying  details critical of the government or just abandoning investigative story ideas seeking to unearth a systemic abuse of rights and civil liberties? An FIR in the hands of the police in Kashmir acts as leverage more than anything else.

Journalist targeted for sarcastic tweet

On April 21, a day after J&K Police booked Zahra under the UAPA, it also booked journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism” and indulging in activities deemed “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

Geelani is the third journalist against whom charges of unlawful conduct were slapped. However, unlike the other two cases, practically nothing was known about the nature of content that the police found offensive in his case until April 24, when the inspector general of J&K Police issued a press release which, without naming Geelani, gave some idea of why he might have been charged.

“There are written complaints as he has exposed life of some peaceful and law abiding citizens to grave risk by posting incriminating and provocative adjectives against them on social media,” the press release stated.

Geelani is well-regarded for his wide reading and erudition as a journalist and his reports are usually illuminated with historical insights. His radio voiceovers, in impeccable Urdu, for the Voice of America or Deutsche Welle are imprinted on the minds of almost every journalism student in Kashmir. The question is what did the police find so objectionable about his work?

Going by the press release, the charges appear to be the fallout of an aspiring politician’s error in juxtaposing a clip from Republic TV posted by a Kashmiri expatriate on Twitter and an unrelated tweet by Geelani.

The Republic TV clip showed the channel’s anchor, Arnab Goswami, introducing a group of Kashmiri political lightweights in an effusive, laudatory manner, describing them as the embodiment of a ‘new Kashmir’ which was willing to forgo the politics of autonomy and celebrate its ‘integration’ with India instead. The anchor portrayed them as ‘heroes’ who would amplify the discourse of Kashmir’s post-Article 370 reality – a reality in which issues of civil liberties, human rights and the need for political resolution figure only as the hangovers of a decaying past that need to be supplanted with a fresh sense of purpose, emphasising the crying need for jobs and national integration.

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One of the aspiring politicians who was lauded by Goswami, and whose name this reporter is withholding,  tweeted a complaint to the J&K police alleging that he was being intimidated and that his life was in grave danger. He attached a screenshot of the tweet of the Republic TV clip as well as a screenshot of a separate, standalone tweet posted by Geelani in which he had described – an act of ironic appropriation of the police’s own militarised idiom – those who had launched a vilification campaign against non-resident Kashmiris as “over ground workers” of the state’s organs. Geelani’s tweet did not speak of politicians, nor did he name any, and the Republic TV clip in which the aspiring politician had featured was posted by someone else several hours later. Yet, the politician reversed the sequence of tweets  in order to imply his life had been placed in danger.

A simple look at the time stamps of all these tweets would have cleared up the confusion spread by the politician, yet the cyber cell went ahead and registered a case under UAPA.

UAPA has sweeping provisions 

Zahra’s case is even more shocking as she was booked under laws intended to deal with terrorism. Days before she was booked, the police official who oversees the newly expanded Cyber Police Station Kashmir had warned Twitter users to read the provisions of the UAPA  carefully to know what kind of content would attract punishment. The problem is that the Act’s provisions allow for such a wide range of interpretations that they leave almost everyone in Kashmir vulnerable to its charges. For example, it describes “unlawful activity” as action – the spoken and written word included – that “provokes disaffection against the country” or supports claims of India’s territorial dismemberment or questions its sovereignty. And Section 39, which covers the “offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation” says that a person who “invites support” for the terrorist organisation  would be guilty of this offence. What inviting support means is not defined but it says this need not involve providing money, which is covered by a different section.

It is not hard to see how normal journalistic writing that either reports facts inconvenient to the government or analyses the Kashmir problem from the perspective of the need for an expedited political resolution could easily fall foul of these sweeping sections.

On April 16, just a few days before it unleashed a  fresh wave of summons and slapping of charges against journalists, the J&K police released the following statement: “The Cyber Police Kashmir is monitoring all the profiles and the content being uploaded by the users.  Cyber Police Station is also exploring the possibilities of invoking all the appropriate provisions of law available against such users. The anonymity of the profiles of users is of no defence and we can track them and bring them to face the law.”

Cyber police cell not acting alone but to plan

To say that such actions are merely driven by concerns over fake news would be disingenuous.

In the past six months or so, the Modi government has been trying hard to  overcome the international backlash it has received on a number of issues, be it after the revocation of Article 370 and the imposition of the world’s longest Internet shutdown in Kashmir; the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Shaheen Bagh protest; the communal violence in north-east Delhi and ultimately the virulent eruption of Islamophobia across the country in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis, attributing its spread to Muslims.

In fact, in December 2019, the Modi government hired a celebrated lobbying firm to “promote its interests” in Washington. Last month, a US publication reported that “to mitigate a groundswell of scrutiny emanating from [US] Congress, the Indian Embassy has launched a full-court press of lobbying initiatives.”

In January, the Modi government heaved a sigh of relief after the European parliament deferred a vote on a draft resolution denouncing its measures in Kashmir and the enactment of the CAA. The postponement was attributed to Modi’s proposed visit to Brussels in March 2020 as the EU was believed to have given him the “benefit of the doubt.” Then there were also the ‘sight-seeing’ tours to Kashmir of members of the European Parliament that were arranged at the behest of the government to diffuse global criticism.

All these rigorous efforts notwithstanding, India has not won the perception game entirely. Its ranking on the Press Freedom Index fell by two positions earlier this week, to 142 out of 180 nations. Last month, the US NGO, Freedom House, in its report, flagged the alarming decline of civil liberties in Kashmir. India’s score fell by four points to 71 – the worst decline among the world’s 25 largest democracies this year.

Given such a scenario, it is somewhat hard to believe that the Modi government would leave it to the discretion of an obscure police officer heading Kashmir’s Cyber Cell to take decisions that further affect its reputation internationally. Zahra’s case has provoked a fresh wave of global censure, with Noam Chomsky and others lending thir name to a  letter seeking the intervention of David Kaye, UN Special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, in her case. Further condemnations have poured in from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as well.

From the recent instances of journalists being summoned by the police and charged under various laws, including the draconian UAPA, it is evident that the aim is to intimidate the press and prevent it from doing its job of holding a mirror to power. The government’s official narrative is clear. Having torpedoed the special status of Kashmir – which it believes was at the core of the Kashmir problem – it now wants to supplant the older discourse with a new one. That means obliterating every possible expression that reflects an attachment with the older political discourse of resistance.

It has been nearly nine months since the “electronic curfew” was put in place in Kashmir. It still remains in place, in the sense that even relaxations – such as on social media – are being actively policed. The larger claim of ‘state security’ has been placed centerstage to justify this. Even the judiciary seems to have less patience for the idea of the rights of the people who were subjected to a collective internet lockdown despite the Indian state’s own words that separatism is limited to a subversive few.

Controlling the mass media in Kashmir is, therefore, a vital instrument in the government’s arsenal and the present trend of booking journalists under anti-terrorism laws is part of it.  The regional press has already lost whatever little autonomy it had. Now, faced with the spectre of the government withholding advertisements, newspapers have receded into the domain of self-censorship. Columnists writing for them have been asked to either tone down their opinions or stop writing altogether.

Now the state of affairs is such that newspapers no longer mention any details of slain militants other than those divulged by the police. Earlier, reporters would try to piece together the larger story by talking to the parents of the militants in an attempt to explore why they had joined militant groups. That is no longer the case. When I posed this question to a reporter with Greater Kashmir, one of Kashmir’s largest circulated English dailies, he shrugged. “This is going to be a permanent feature now,” he said.

Last year, artist Suhail Naqshbandi resigned from Greater Kashmir once it became clear that the newspaper had taken to censoring his cartoons. Just months before this, the Information and Broadcasting ministry at the Centre had asked the administration in J&K to crack down on “resistance art” in Kashmir.

Clampdown as end to a means

Seen against this backdrop, the media scenario looks grim. The clampdown on the free flow of information is likely to tighten further in the next few weeks or months. Similarly, the possibility of detentions and charges against random individuals, not just journalists and writers, for provoking “disaffection against the country”, will increase.

For the Indian establishment, which is puzzled by the Kashmiris’ lack of response to its drastic experimentation with their status quo, there are only two options: either restoring for Kashmiris the same civil liberties that people across India enjoy under the constitution and then finding political means to respond to their freedom of expression, or treating Kashmir as a de facto colony – a place where the concept of universal rights remains conspicuous by its absence.

Judging from the way the establishment has brought out its arsenal against journalists, it is clear which path it wants to take.

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.