It was the evening of April 18, when Kashmiri photo-journalist Masrat Zahra’s phone rang, to tell her something that journalists in Kashmir are constantly expecting. The man on the other side was from the cyber police station in Srinagar telling her she had been summoned. Urgently.
‘We will talk when you come here, no one will stop you on the way,’ she was told.
Unsure why she was being called, Masrat knew there was no other option but to obey. It was past five, and Masrat wasn’t comfortable going to the Police Station.
She dialled the office of the Kashmir Press Club for help. It seemed to have worked at first.
But the joy was short lived.
Two days later, Masrat found out through social media that she was booked by the police under UAPA, a law used to “fight terrorism”. Invoking the law would allow the government to detain her, without any chance of bail, for at least 90 days.
The police had identified her as ‘social media user’ and accused her of uploading “anti-national posts with a criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility.”
“Journalists use social media for our work. Almost all my projects were finalised via social media. Editors check your social media handle, which is your portfolio,” Masrat says.
“I wasn’t sharing my opinion. As journalists, our opinion doesn’t matter. We put forward the facts, and that is what I was doing. We as photo journalists can’t ‘misquote’. What is there in reality, will be there on the photographs,” she says.
“I was told that my internationally published picture was fake! After 2 years, suddenly one fine day they realised that something is glorifying terrorism,” she adds.
But Masrat was not alone in this. In 48 hours within Masrat getting that call, news of two other Journalists being booked was shared in journalist circles.
An FIR was lodged against Peerzada Ashiq, corespondent for India based The Hindu newspaper.
And Gowhar Geelani, a broadcast journalist/commentator, was accused of “glorifying terrorism on social media” by the police.
All these journalists see a pattern in the way they are being booked ‘for one reason or the other’.
“Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, Basharat Masood, Naseer Ganaie or me, it is not about a few journalists. It’s about the institution of journalism and an attempt to criminalise opinions in Kashmir,” says Gowhar Geelani.
“There is this pattern since last August, starting with Peerzada Ashiq when he was summoned by Kothi Bagh Police station over a story, and pressurised to reveal his sources. After that, Basharat Masood of the Indian Express and Hakeem Irfan of the Economic Times were called and questioned by the Cyber Security. Then it continued with Naseer Ganaie and Haroon Nabi and it’s still going on,” says Geelani.
Geelani says that in the 90s too, Journalists were under pressure from all sides. “There were pressures that you had to publish the statement on the front page. If you published the statement of the government on the front page, militants would get angry, and vice-versa.”
In the mid 90s the government-supported-counter-insurgents, also called Ikwaan or Nawabaeyd, started kidnapping and attacking journalists.
“From 2008 though, there was a new pattern. The UPA Congress government, at the time of Home Minister P. Chidambaram, started curtailing advertisements to the newspapers: Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Times, Rising Kashmir for allegedly giving space to ‘separatist’ content,” says Geelani.
“In 2016, Kashmir Reader was banned. Editors started losing their jobs including Hilal Mir, Parvaiz Bukhari, Najeeb Mubarki, Tariq Mir and Riyaz Wani. The idea was to allow only the state narrative. The government wants journalists to become arms of the state, like the Information Department, or stenographers who report what the government wants them to report. The real stories are the ones that the government does not want you to report,” he adds.
It is an ugly pattern, he says, which has only intensified since last August with an attack on Freedom of Press, Free Speech and the institution of Journalism.
Geelani says, “there are some unwritten rules even in a conflict zone, in war. You do not touch journalists. When such unwritten rules are broken, it becomes a major escalation. It can have a devastating impact.”
For Peerzada Ashiq, however, such incidents can never deter him from doing his job which he says he does objectively.
“I have always tried to be as balanced as possible in my reports. So, I never thought that I will have to face an FIR for a story which was again balanced where the onus of clearing the things lied on the officer who I approached. Unfortunately, he did not clear whether they are allowing the exhumation of the bodies or not,” he says.
“They released me at around 10.15 in the evening at Anantnag. I drove back and it took me another hour to reach back home. My family was anxious and waiting for me for dinner. Given all that, I have chosen this profession because I believe in it. This incident will not deter me from doing my job passionately.”
Like other hopeful journalists, he says, “There are phases where you might be fearful because of the regimes but then regimes are temporary and journalism is permanent.”
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