(New York) – Indian authorities have arrested the prominent Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah on politically motivated charges as part of the government’s crackdown on the media and civil society groups in Jammu and Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said today. Since 2019, at least 35 journalists in Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault, or fabricated criminal cases for their reporting.
Shah, editor-in-chief of a leading Kashmir-based news site The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on February 4, 2022 and charged with sedition and support of terrorism after his site reported on a shootout in Pulwama in January in which security forces killed four people they claimed were militants. Police allege that Shah posted “anti-national” content on social media “glorifying terrorist activities, spreading fake news and instigating people.” The police have questioned and detained Shah multiple times in recent years for his writing.
“Fahad Shah’s arrest is only the latest attempt by the Indian government to frighten off the media for doing its job and reporting on abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of ensuring justice for security force violations in Kashmir, the government is more interested in silencing those who bring these abuses to light.”
Shah’s arrest comes amid increasing harassment, threats, and prosecutions of journalists and human rights activists in Jammu and Kashmir. The government intensified its crackdown after it revoked the state’s special autonomous status in August 2019 and split it into two federally governed territories.
In January, the police arrested Sajad Gul, another journalist at the Kashmir Walla, on charges of criminal conspiracy after he reported on a protest against Indian authorities. But after Gul was granted bail, the police charged him under the draconian Public Safety Act to keep him in custody. The journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail on terrorism charges since August 2018, after the police accused him of harboring militants. In October 2021, a freelance photojournalist, Manan Dar, was arrested under the abusive counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
In November, the authorities also arrested a prominent human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The authorities are increasingly using the counterterrorism law against activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, and critics of the government to silence dissent. The act contains a vague and overbroad definition of terrorism that encompasses a wide range of nonviolent political activity, including political protest by minority populations and civil society groups. In 2019, the government amended the law to grant officials the authority to designate an individual a “terrorist” without charge or a trial, putting the burden on the suspect to prove they are not a terrorist.
The authorities have ramped up raids on homes of journalists and activists, and confiscated their cell phones. In September, the police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists and confiscated their phones and laptops.
In January 2020, the government announced a new media policy in Jammu and Kashmir that gave more power to the authorities to censure news in the region. Since 2019, journalists have been routinely summoned to police stations for questions on their work and their social media posts, threatened with jail if their work criticizes the authorities, and pressured to self-censor. The Hindu correspondent Peerzada Ashiq, the Economic Times correspondent Hakeem Irfan, Basharat Masood of the Indian Express, and the Outlook correspondent Naseer Ganai are among those who have been summoned and questioned.
In April 2020, the police opened criminal investigations against Ashiq; Gowhar Geelani, another journalist; and Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist. In July 2020, the authorities questioned and detained Qazi Shibli, an editor previously held under the Public Safety Act. In recent months, the authorities have also increased scrutiny of independent journalists and freelancers reporting for major national and international media organizations, the news website Article 14 reported. Faced with raids, threats, and detention, many are fearful and compelled to self-censor, the report said.
The government has placed over 40 people, including 22 journalists, on lists instructing immigration authorities to stop them from traveling abroad, another news report said. In 2019, Geelani and Bilal Bhat, a rights activist, were prevented from traveling abroad.
In June, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.” They noted that these violations “may be part of a broader pattern of silencing of independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may ultimately deter other journalists and civil society more broadly from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region.”
In October 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government sealed the Srinagar office of the outspoken newspaper Kashmir Times in an apparent reprisal against its executive editor, Anuradha Bhasin, who filed a Supreme Court petition challenging the government’s telecommunications shutdown. The same month, the Jammu and Kashmir authorities also shut down Kashmir News Service, a local news agency.
Shah’s arrest has prompted condemnation from several journalism organizations and opposition politicians in Kashmir. The Editors Guild of India said Shah’s arrest was “part of a larger trend in Kashmir of security forces calling journalists for questioning and often detaining them, because of their critical reporting of the establishment.” Digipub, an association of several media bodies, said there was no indication that Shah was involved in anything unlawful and that the police had a record of intimidating Shah. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists also called for his release, saying his arrest “shows Jammu and Kashmir authorities’ utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely.”
“The Indian authorities in Kashmir should immediately release Fahad Shah and all journalists, activists, and critics jailed on politically motivated charges and stop harassing them with draconian laws,” Ganguly said. “When the government uses authoritarian tactics to silence journalists and activists, it only shows it has abuses to hide.”