For journalists in Kashmir, journalism is not ‘free’, there is a cost. Scribes have to navigate through harassment, intimidation, surveillance, detentions, investigation under anti-terror laws, and to top them all, death.
This all is to do their professional duties. At times state and other times, nonstate actors want to muzzle their voices, influence their reportage.
Latest was the slapping of the Indian anti-terror laws on two journalists including a photojournalist, Masrat Zehra, for her social media posts.
Among them is Gowhar Geelani who also faces investigation under the new UAPA law, an Indian anti-terror law. According to this controversial law, if a person is declared terrorist, the onus of proof lies on the victim itself.
The controversy around the law has been happening since it was passed with many saying it has changed the basic norm of law. “It won’t be everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but everyone is guilty until proven innocent. And it is the accused who will have to prove otherwise,” an advocate told Maktoob wishing anonymity.
The situation turned worst for scribes in Kashmir soon after the Indian government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and made it a Union Territory on 5 August 2019.
Everything was closed, everything came to standstill. It was only Security Forces on the roads, in cities and in villages alike. Internet was shut and phone connectivity of all kinds was snapped. Literally Kashmir was taken off the telecommunication map of the world, it did not exist.
It was the longest internet shutdown world had witnessed for 134 days.
Journalists had only one place to work, Government established Media Centre with 10 desktops for almost 300 journalists, local, national, and international press.
Under those trying times, journalists did report the ground situation in the state.
Things changed. Journalists were being beaten, thrashed, physically assaulted, at times tear gas canisters threw on them, phones snatched, cameras checked.
Since then, the place has been becoming dangerous for a journalist with each passing day.
“The government of India must not muzzle the press. It must immediately release and drop all charges against journalists,” Amnesty International said in its criticism, “who remain incarcerated solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and refrain from abusing its power in this time of crisis.”
The latest wave of opening criminal cases against scribes, as RSF said, ‘reflects a deliberate desire by the Indian police to not just harass the three journalists targeted by the complainants’ but also to thereby ‘intimidate all the reporters trying to work freely in Kashmir’.
The third journalist to be summoned by police in the latest wave was The Hindu correspondent Peerzada Aashiq.
“Not only does Kashmir deserve freedom of expression,” Gowhar Geelani said, “but we as journalists also deserve freedom of expression”.
Geelani moved court against the charges slapped on him by the police. Court asked police to explain its position in the next hearing, but the charges have not been dropped.
Kashmir, an internationally accepted disputed region between India and Pakistan has been ugly for journalists. And their expression has earned them the worst situations.
Assassinations and bomb attacks have happened against journalists.
According to data compiled by CPJ Asia at least 13 journalist have been killed in Kashmir.
Among them are Asia Jeelani, who lost life in an Improvised Explosive Device blast on April 20, 2004, in the Lolab area of north Kashmir.
Shujat Bukhari, Editor in Chief of renowned daily newspaper Rising Kashmir was assassinated along with his two security guards just outside his office in broad daylight.
“Journalism in Kashmir has never been easy but, this time, especially after the clampdown, was enforced in the region on August 5 last year when Article 370 was abrogated,” complained Anees Zargar, who works with New Delhi based news portal, ‘there has been an unprecedented crackdown on journalism here’.
The journalist body has urged the government to drop the charges against them.
Asif Sultan, 31, an assistant editor with a local magazine continues to serve detention since September 2018. He was awarded the Press Freedom Award by American National Press Club in August 2019.
30-year-old photojournalist Zuhaib Maqbool, who is recuperating from pellet injuries on his left eye at his residence in a congested Rainawari locality here.
On September 4, 2016. “Suddenly, I saw a masked policeman pointing his pellet gun towards me and I abruptly stood up. As he was about to press the trigger, I displayed my two cameras shouting I am from ‘Press’. After a few seconds, I heard a deafening sound and some hot metal objects hitting me my left eye, nose, stomach, and thighs. I found myself in a pool of blood,” he recounts, and his face turns red. Zuhaib’s friend Muzamil Mattoo, another photojournalist, was also hit by a few pellets on his head. “It was a targeted attack on us. The cops fired pellets on us without any provocation,” he said.
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 world press Freedom Index.
“Press Freedom is on all-time lowest,” Anees Zargar lamented.
Mubashir Hassan is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir