The recent booking of The Hindu’s Kashmir reporter Peerzada Ashiq and now photojournalist Masrat Zehra under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) over their published works, have come as a shocker for the journalists’ community in the valley, who have called it sheer “harassment” and “intimidation” of the press.
While Jammu and Kashmir police filed an FIR against Ashiq, on charges of spreading fake news over a report on ‘exhumation’ of the bodies of two slain militants, 26-year-old Zehra on Sunday (April 20) was booked under UAPA for her social media posts which the police said was “anti-national” in nature.
Photojournalist booked under UAPA
A resident of Srinagar, told The Federal that charges of posting messages against a particular community on social media, levelled against her by the Superintendent of Jammu and Kashmir police was a “blatant lie”. The 26-year-old’s photographs on Kashmir have found place in international publications including The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Sun and Arab News.
She says while the Director of Information Dr Syed Sehrish Asghar had assured her a few days back that the matter has been amicably resolved and that she need not go to the police station anymore, she was shocked to find that the police registered an FIR against her and summoned her to come on Tuesday (April 21).
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According to Kashmir Press Club (KPC)’s general secretary Ishfaq Tantry, Zehra was first summoned by Cyber Police, Aircargo in Srinagar on April 18, 2020. “However after the intervention of KPC and Directorate of Information, the police dropped it. But now the police have filed a case against her with stringent charges,” he said.
The police in the charges made against her have described her as a “social media user,” and not a journalist.
“Cyber Police Station Kashmir registered FIR against a social media user (Masrat Zehra) for posting incriminating material which attracts the provisions of UA(P)A and IPC. Investigation has been set into motion,” Tahir Ashraf, SP, In-charge Cyber Police Kashmir, said in a tweet.
This tweet came soon after #IStandWithMasratZahra hashtag started trending on Twitter on Sunday. Exactly at 2 pm, hundreds of print and broadcast journalists and photojournalists in unison changed their display picture on their social media platforms with “STOP INTIMIDATING KASHMIRI JOURNALISTS” message inscribed on Zehra’s picture in the backdrop.
“Masrat Zehra is a professional photojournalist who has honestly told the stories of people in her career spanning over four years. The police has invoked stringent provisions of draconian UAPA against her, which is outrageous. We stand in solidarity with our colleague and seek that the FIR against her is immediately revoked. Journalism is not a crime. Intimidation to censor words, spoken and written, won’t silence the journalists of Kashmir. #JournalismISNotACrime, #SummonUsAll.”
The above message started doing the rounds on the social media pages of many journalists.
Was booking Ashiq necessary? ask journos
The FIR filed by Jammu and Kashmir police against The Hindu’s Peerzada Ashiq was regarding a story which they alleged was “factually inaccurate.” In the report titled ‘Kin allowed to exhume bodies of militants in Baramulla’ (published on April 19) Ashiq, quoting the relative of one of two militants who were gunned down by security forces at Dairoo-Keegam in Shopian, had reported that the Jammu and Kashmir administration on April 18 allowed the families to exhume the bodies.
The police, however, claimed that the “details quoted in the news item were factually incorrect and could cause fear or alarm in the minds of public.” “The news published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities,” a police release said on April 19.
The Hindu in a report published on Monday (April 20) clarified, that slain militant Ghulam Nabi Magray’s uncle (on whose statement the report was based), had misconstrued “grant of curfew pass” as a permission for exhumation. The daily has also made necessary changes to the controversial report.
The clarification report, however, stressed that contrary to what the police said, Aashiq, in his report had clearly mentioned that his repeated attempts to reach deputy commissioner of Shopian did not bear any fruit.
On Sunday (April 19), Ashiq was first summoned by the Cyber police headquarters in Srinagar to explain the alleged factual inaccuracies in his story and was later asked to travel 40 km to south Kashmir to present himself before the Anantnag police for further questioning, the KPC said in a statement. “The police is under duty and lawfully empowered under CrPC to call for questioning. The investigation is in progress,” the police said.
He returned late in the midnight to his home in Srinagar but in the meantime his family was terrified and concerned about his safety.
Usually, in such cases the government issues rebuttals which are then carried by the newspapers. But, registering an FIR against a journalist for not getting the official version although he had made attempts, is being seen as a part of an ugly pattern of intimidating journalists in Kashmir.
While the Kashmir Working Journalists Association (KWJA) condemned the “harassment meted out to Ashiq” former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter Iltija Mufti sent out a tweet in support of the journalist.
“…Any dissent/counter opinion has been criminalised. Filing FIRs & invoking stringent laws (against journalists) meant for criminals is a blot on democracy,” she tweeted.
“If the government had any objections to the report or wanted to clarify its stance, it could have done through a statement or a rebuttal, which would have been carried out by the paper. But, as usual, the government chose a route of undue harassment,” KWJA said in a statement.
Support for Zehra, allegations of muzzling press
Also, the act of registering an FIR against a female journalist amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been lampooned by several journalist bodies, gender rights groups and major political formations operating in Jammu and Kashmir.
KPC said that while journalism in Kashmir had never been easy, the challenges and hardships have multiplied for journalists since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. KWJA cites examples of journalists who have been harassed for their reportage since August 5, 2019.
“A senior journalist and author was stopped from travelling to Germany to join work at Deutsche Welle. Peerzada Ashiq, Naseer Ganai, Basharat Masood, Hakeem Irfan and many others have been summoned by the police’s counter-insurgency grid to explain their news reportage,” it said in a statement.
KWJA, while condemning the “muzzling of press and free speech” in Kashmir, has said that government should promote a culture of accountability than submission. It has demanded the withdrawal of all charges against Zehra and asked the government to allow her to continue her professional work.
“It is the duty of journalists to report on all aspects of the society including conflict and dissent. By harassing journalists through intimidation, police beatings, cooked up cases, and other forms of harassment, the government is only exposing its failures in its duties towards people,” it said in a statement.
The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) expressing shock against the booking of the award-winning journalist has said that “it believes the charges are preposterous in the extreme and amount to rank intimidation of a journalist, and one who has won acclaim for her work, which documents the lived experiences of the people of Kashmir.”
Internationally acclaimed writer Mirza Waheed too came in support of Zehra, calling charges against her “a brazen assault on press freedom.”
Political parties react
Reacting on the charges against Zehra, Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), restive region’s oldest political formation said it is now becoming easy for the government to target journalists and arbitrarily book them. The party’s spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar demanded immediate dropping of charges against the scribe. Former chief minister and National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah endorsed the statement.
People’s Democratic Party (PDP) too issued a strong statement against the “intimidation” and “harassment” of journalists. “In any democracy, media is the fourth pillar of strength. What democracy is India shaping when it jails and blames a young professional woman photojournalist for capturing the most militarized world?…Intimidating & harassing journalists in J&K to stifle reportage has become the norm,” Iltija Mufti said in a series of tweet.
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Another political group J&K People’s Conference led by detained leader Sajad Lone also protested. Party spokesperson Adnan Ashraf Mir while strongly deploring the act of invoking of UAPA against a female journalist said: “Hounding Masrat Zehra is a brazen attempt to thought police. The principles of ‘Naya Kashmir’ seem to be against the ethos of free speech.”