Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have arrested a prominent journalist under stringent “anti-terror” law and sedition, accusing him of “glorifying terrorism” and “spreading fake news”, in an intensifying crackdown on press freedom in the Himalayan region.
Fahad Shah, 33, editor of a local news portal, The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on Friday from the southern district of Pulwama – 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 work since India’s Hindu nationalist government scrapped the region’s special status in 2019.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, in a statement called the arrest “utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely”, while the International Press Institute (IPI) also spoke against the “continuous crackdown” on the press in Kashmir.
“Authorities must immediately release Shah, and all other journalists behind bars, and cease detaining and harassing journalists for simply doing their jobs,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator.
The police in a statement carried out by local media said Shah was among Facebook users and news portals that uploaded “anti-national” content with “criminal intention to create fear among the public”.
The police said posts were “tantamount to glorifying the terrorist activities and causing dent to the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing ill-will and disaffection against the country”.
“The investigation into the matter is in progress,” the police statement said.
Shah’s colleagues told Al Jazeera he was called by the police in Pulwama on Friday evening to record his statement regarding a case about a gunfight in the district that took place on January 30.
The police said at least three rebels and one “hybrid militant” were killed in the gun battle. The police define “hybrid militant” as rebels disguised as civilians.
But the family of the house, which was the site of the gun battle, claimed the fourth man killed was their teenage son and not a rebel as claimed by the police. They demanded the police return his body for proper burial. The four were buried in anonymous graves far from their house as part of the local administration’s counterinsurgency policy.
Later, a video surfaced on social media in which purportedly the sister of the slain teenager said that her brother “refused to come out of the house and wanted to die with the rebels”.
Shah’s website had reported both the police as well the family version of the story, including a video story of the family’s protest.
Shah was called for questioning by the Pulwama police on February 1 regarding his portal’s report, his colleagues said. On Friday evening, he was again summoned and arrested by police in Pulwama.
According to the police complaint (First Information Report or FIR), Shah has been booked under sedition and section 13 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – “anti-terror” law – for advocating unlawful activity. If charged and convicted, Shan faces up to seven years in jail.
The law has stringent requirements for granting bail, which means individuals often spend months, sometimes years, in jail without being found guilty.
‘Last standing independent media’
Shah has been vocal about Dar’s arrest earlier last month. Dar has been booked under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), under which a person can be jailed for up to six months or more without a trial.
The authorities last month also shuttered the largest independent media body – the Kashmir Press Club, while the local media has already been coerced into submission as their revenues are often being squeezed 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, an assistant editor with the Kashmir Walla told Al Jazeera that due to the frequent summons by police, “we knew it was coming.”
“The newsroom is taken aback. We would continue to report. Law should take its own course and we are hopeful he should be out soon. Ours is the last standing independent media in Kashmir and we have been targeted previously and we are being targeted now.”
Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region said that “standing up for the truth is deemed anti-national”.
Shah has been awarded 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 news, environment, socio-cultural issues and has been intensely following human rights issues in the region.
Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, an organisation that advocates for freedom of speech in India, said it was “shocking.”
“They (police) don’t even do him the courtesy of calling him a journalist,” Seshu told Al Jazeera.
She said that “the police also does not care to give any instances of what content they found objectionable and ‘anti-national’. There is not even a fig leaf of evidence they have cared to put forward. It is as if they don’t even think it is important to adhere to basic legal processes.”
“This denial of the identity of the journalist is disturbing.”