Srinagar, administered by India Kashmir – Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have arrested a prominent journalist under a tough anti-terrorism and riot law, accusing him of “glorifying terrorism” and “spreading fake news” and intensifying repression against press freedom in the Himalayan region.
Fahad Shah, 33, editor of the local news portal The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on Friday in the southern district of Pulwama, a month after Sajad Dar, an associate of Kashmir Walla, was arrested for posting on social media.
A number of Kashmiri journalists have been arrested, questioned and investigated for their work after the Indian nationalist government revoked the region’s special status in 2019.
– Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) February 4, 2022
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, said in a statement that the arrest was “a complete disregard for freedom of the press and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely”, while the International Press Institute (IPI) spoke out against “continuous repression” against the Kashmir press.
“The authorities must immediately release Shah and all other journalists behind bars and stop detaining and harassing journalists because they are just doing their job,” said Stephen Butler, CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia.
Police said in a statement from local media that Shah was among Facebook users and news portals that uploaded “anti-national” content with “criminal intent to create fear in society.”
Police said the posts were “tantamount to glorifying terrorist activities and tarnishing law enforcement agencies, in addition to causing ill-will and resentment against the country”.
“An investigation into the case is under way,” the police said in a statement.
Shah’s colleagues told Al Jazeera that he had been called by police in Puluma on Friday night to write his statement on a January 30 shooting case in the area.
Police say at least three rebels and a “hybrid fighter” were killed in the shootout. Police describe the “hybrid extremist” as insurgents disguised as civilians.
But the family of the house that was the scene of the shooting say the fourth man killed was their teenage son, not a rebel, police said. They asked the police to return his body for proper burial. The four were buried in anonymous graves away from their homes as part of the local administration’s policy to fight the rebels.
A video later appeared on social media in which the sister of the murdered teenager said that her brother “refuses to leave the house and wants to die with the rebels.”
Shah’s website reported both the police and the family version of the story, including a video story of the family’s protest.
Shah was summoned for questioning by police in Puluma on February 1st about a report on his portal, his colleagues said. He was again summoned and arrested by police in Puluma on Friday night.
According to the police complaint (First Information Report or FIR), Shah was accused of riot and section 13 of the Prevention of Illegal Activities Act (UAPA) – an “anti-terrorist” law – to protect against illegal activity. If convicted and convicted, Shan faces up to seven years in prison.
The law has strict bail requirements, which means that people often spend months, sometimes years, in prison without being found guilty.
“The last active independent media”
Shah spoke out loud about Dar’s arrest earlier last month. The gift was filed under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows a person to be imprisoned for up to six months or more without trial.
Authorities also shut down the largest independent media outlet, the Kashmir Press Club, last month, while local media were already forced to obey as their revenues were often suppressed by the government through advertisements.
The erosion of media freedom is reflected in India’s slide in the World Press Freedom Index, as it ranks below Myanmar and Afghanistan.
Yashraj Sharma, assistant editor at Kashmir Walla, told Al Jazeera that due to frequent police calls, “we knew he was coming”.
“The newsroom is surprised. We will continue to report. The law must go its own way, and we hope it will come out soon. Ours is the last permanent independent media in Kashmir, and we have been targeted before, and we are targeted now. “
Mehbuba Mufti, the region’s former chief minister, said “upholding the truth is considered anti-national”.
Shah was awarded the Human Rights Press Prize in 2021 for his coverage of the deadly anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in February 2020. His portal, which was launched in 2011, reports on news, environment, socio-cultural issues and is intensively monitoring human rights issues in the region.
Gita Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, an organization that advocates for freedom of speech in India, said it was “shocking.”
“They (the police) don’t even kindly call him a journalist,” Seshu told Al Jazeera.
She said that the police were also not interested in giving examples of what they found to be undesirable and “anti-national”. There is not even a fig leaf proof that they took care to present. It’s as if they don’t even think it’s important to stick to the basic legal processes. “
“This denial of the journalist’s identity is worrying.”