Kashmir journalist arrested as crackdown intensifies | News

Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir – Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have arrested a prominent journalist under a strict ‘counter-terrorism’ and sedition law, accusing him of ‘glorifying terrorism’ and ‘spreading false information’, as part of a an intensification of the crackdown on press freedom in the Himalayan region.

Fahad Shah, 33, editor of local news portal, The Kashmir Walla, was arrested in the southern district of Pulwama on Friday – a month after Sajad Dar, a Kashmir Walla contributor, was arrested for social media posts.

A number of Kashmiri journalists have been arrested, questioned and investigated for doing their job since India’s Hindu nationalist government scrapped the region’s special status in 2019.

In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, called the arrest “a complete disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to make reports freely and safely”, while the International Press Institute (IPI) has also spoken out against the “continued crackdown” on the press in Kashmir.

“Authorities must immediately release Shah and all other journalists behind bars and stop detaining and harassing journalists simply for doing their job,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator.

Police, in a statement carried by local media, said Shah was among Facebook users and news portals who uploaded “anti-national” content with “criminal intent to strike fear among the public”.

Police said the messages “amount to glorifying terrorist activity and damaging the image of law enforcement, in addition to causing ill will and disaffection against the country.”

“The investigation into this matter is ongoing,” the police statement said.

“Anti-Terrorism Law”

Shah’s colleagues told Al Jazeera he was called by Pulwama police on Friday evening to take his statement regarding a shooting incident in the district that took place on January 30.

Police said at least three rebels and a “militant hybrid” were killed in the shooting. The police define “militant hybrids” as rebels disguised as civilians.

But the family of the house, which was the site of the shooting, claimed the fourth man killed was their teenage son and not a rebel as police claim. They demanded that the police return her body for a proper burial. The four were buried in unmarked graves away from their homes as part of the local administration’s counter-insurgency policy.

Last month, authorities also shut down the largest independent media outlet – the Kashmir Press Club. [File: AP Photo/Dar Yasin]

A video later surfaced on social media in which the slain teenager’s sister allegedly said her brother ‘refused to come out of the house and wanted to die with the rebels’.

Shah’s website had reported both the police and the family’s version of the story, including a video story of the family’s protest.

Shah was summoned for questioning by Pulwama police on February 1 over his portal’s report, his colleagues said. On Friday evening, he was again summoned and arrested by Pulwama police.

According to the police complaint (First Information Report or FIR), Shah was convicted of sedition and Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – “anti-terrorism” law – for advocating activities illegal. If charged and convicted, Shan faces up to seven years in prison.

The law has strict requirements for posting bail, which means individuals often spend months, sometimes years, in jail without being found guilty.

“Last Independent Media Standing”

Shah spoke about Dar’s arrest early last month. Dar was convicted under the controversial Public Security Act (PSA), under which a person can be jailed for up to six months or more without trial.

Last month, authorities also shut down the largest independent media outlet – the Kashmir Press Club, while local media outlets have already been forced into submission as their revenues are often squeezed by the government through advertisements.

The erosion of media freedom is reflected in India’s fall in the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks behind Myanmar and Afghanistan.

Yashraj Sharma, deputy editor of Kashmir Walla, told Al Jazeera that due to frequent police summons, “we knew this was coming”.

“The newsroom is baffled. We would continue to report. The law should take its own course and hopefully it should come out soon. Ours is the last permanent independent media in Kashmir and we have been targeted before and we are targeted now.

Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region said that “defending the truth is considered anti-national”.

Shah received the Human Rights Press Awards in 2021 for his coverage of the deadly anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in February 2020. His portal, which was established in 2011, reports on current affairs, environment, socio-cultural issues and has been intensely following human rights issues in the region.

‘Shocking’

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, an organization that champions freedom of speech in India, said it was “shocking”.

“They (the police) don’t even do him the courtesy of calling him a journalist,” Seshu told Al Jazeera.

She said that “the police also don’t bother to give examples of content that they have found objectionable and ‘anti-national’. There isn’t even a fig leaf of proof that they bothered to put forward. It’s like they don’t even think it’s important to follow basic legal processes.

“This denial of the journalist’s identity is disturbing.”

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