Responding to news that the Jammu and Kashmir police have invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against photojournalist Masrat Zehra and also initiated investigation against journalist Peerzada Ashiq for allegedly spreading ‘misinformation’, Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India said:
“The two new First Information Reports (FIR) against journalists in Kashmir that initiate investigations against them by the police signal the authorities’ attempt to curb the right to freedom of expression. Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal. In Kashmir, this has been compounded through the general lockdown, prolonged restrictions on internet speed and arbitrary detentions often without any kind of documentation, access to lawyers and recourse to justice. This severely undermines the human rights guarantees of the people of Kashmir and denies the people in India and around the world’s right to know.”
Journalists in Kashmir have been summoned to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their stories. In the case of Peerzada Ashiq, he was asked to travel some 40 kilometres to present himself to the concerned police officer. Peerzada Ashiq while speaking to Amnesty International India said, “This is second instance, since August 2019, when I was summoned and questioned by police. This time it was about two of my stories: one on diversion of COVID testing kits from Kashmir to Jammu and another on killing of two militants in South Kashmir, who were buried in North Kashmir’s Baramulla. I was questioned for reporting on the claims of the families who said that they were allowed to travel to collect the bodies (but were later denied the permission).”
In a press release issued on [date?], the Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone, Srinagar, justified the cases brought against both journalists. The press release said Masrat Zehra’s post could ‘provoke the public to disturb law and order’, ‘glorify anti-national activities’ and Peerzada Ashiq’s story could ‘cause fear or alarm in the minds of the public.’
“Under international human rights law, any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate. The media plays a crucial role in reporting human rights abuses and is essential to inform the public about the factual situation and measures taken by the governments in response to COVID-19. Yet time and again, UAPA, India’s principal counter-terrorism law, has been abused to target journalists and human right defenders who criticise government policies,” said Avinash Kumar.
“Access to information is essential in fighting the unprecedented pandemic we are facing. The government of India must not muzzle the press. It must immediately release and drop all charges against journalists Masrat Zehra, Peerzada Ashiq and others who remain incarcerated solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and refrain from abusing its power in this time of crisis.”
Peerzada Ashiq is a senior journalist with The Hindu newspaper. As per media reports, the police on 19 April 2020 verbally summoned him and asked him to explain the alleged factual inaccuracies in a story that was published the same day. Peerzada, who resides in Srinagar, was first questioned by the Srinagar Cyber Police and later in the evening was asked to travel to south Kashmir, some 40 kilometers away, and present himself before a police officer in Anantnag district. Later an FIR was registered against him.
Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old award-winning photojournalist from Srinagar, has been accused on 20 April 2020 of “uploading anti-national posts [on Facebook] with criminal intentions to induce the youth” and booked under UA (P) Act and Indian Penal Code. Masrat’s work, as a freelance photo-journalist, has appeared previously in international media such as Washington Post, Al-Jazeera and Indian media such as Quint, and Caravaan among others.
Both the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) and Kashmir Working Journalist Association (KWJA) have since demanded that the police should withdraw the charges.
This is not the first time journalists have been targeted under the draconian UAPA law. Asif Sultan, a local journalist, was arrested on 27 August 2018 and jailed under the same law and has not been released since. Other human rights defenders and journalists from across India that have been charged under this law include Arun Ferreira, Binayak Sen, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudha Bhardwa, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Akhil Gogoi among others
Parts of the UAPA do not meet international human rights standards. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed in the Parliament of India in July 2019. Beside other amendments, the Bill proposes that the central government may designate an individual as “terrorist” if such person 1) commits or participates in acts of terrorism, ii) prepares for terrorism, iii) promotes terrorism, or iv) is otherwise involved in terrorism.
On 5 August 2019, amidst a complete clampdown on civil liberties and communications blackout, the Government of India unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided special autonomy to Jammu & Kashmir. While restrictions on the freedom of movement were gradually relaxed, arbitrary detentions and restrictions on internet services continue to date. Amnesty International India has documented a clear pattern of authorities using arbitrary detention on activists, politicians and anyone likely to hold a dissenting opinion after 5 August 2019 in Jammu & Kashmir. At least a dozen journalists have been either harassed or physically attacked for their professional work.
On 14 August 2019, Irfan Amin Malik, was picked up by the police from his residence in Tral and detained for some hours, without any reason. He was later released.
On 31 August 2019, Gowhar Geelani, was stopped by authorities at the Delhi airport and barred from flying abroad.
On 1 September 2019, Peerzada Ashiq was summoned to a police station and pressurised to reveal the sources of his story. He had carried out a story on the detentions in J&K.
A freelance journalist, Muzamil Mattoo, was beaten while he was covering a religious gathering in Kwawja Bazar area in old city, Srinagar.
On 17 December 2019, Aazan Javid of The Print and Anees Zargar of NewsClick, were physically assaulted by the police while they were covering a protest in Srinagar. Azaan Jawaid, while speaking with Amnesty International India called the months since August 2019 ‘the darkest period in terms of journalism in Kashmir.’
On 30 November 2019, Hakeem Irfan of Economic Times and Basharat Masood of Indian Express were summoned by the police and questioned about the sources of their stories.
On 23 December 2019, Basharat Masood along with Safwat Zargar of Scroll were stopped by the police in Handwara, while they were on an assignment. They were taken to the office of the SP Handwara and questioned.
On 8 February 2020, Naseer Ganie of Outlook and Haroon Nabi were summoned by the police and questioned about reporting on a statement issued by J&K Liberation Front (JKLF), which has been banned by the government. Nasser Ganie while speaking with Amnesty International India said, “As a journalist, there had been multiple issues like accessing the internet, fear of reporting the ground situation because the government finds one or other way in discrediting our stories with rebuttals. It has led to self-censorship among journalists. Local media has been silenced as they are dependent on the government for advertisements, which has been blocked many times previously, forcing them to report the government narrative”. “The lack of communication facilities has also led to unemployment among journalists, many of whom have lost their jobs. There is a lot of anxiety and stress among the journalist fraternity”, Naseer Ganie added.
On 16 February 2020, Kamran Yousuf of NewsClick was picked up by the police from his home on the suspicion of using twitter. He was let go after two hours of questioning.
0n 12 April 2020, Mushtaq Ahmad, a journalist working with a local English daily, Kashmir Observer, was beaten and booked by J&K police while he was discharging his duties in Bandipora district in North Kashmir. He was detained for two days in a police lockup. However he was bailed out later.
Majid Maqbool, a senior journalist from Kashmir, while speaking with Amnesty International India on the recent arrests said, “Journalists are working in extremely tough conditions especially post August 5. Many of our colleagues have been harassed, called and summoned by the authorities in the past months. This continued harassment is meant to intimidate Kashmiri journalists, stifle press freedom, and put hurdles in their way to prevent them from performing their duties. Journalism is not a crime. Stop criminalising independent journalism in Kashmir.”
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