Aasif Sultan, Fahad Shah, Sajad Gul
From left, Aasif Sultan of the Kashmir Narrator, and Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul of The Kashmir Walla were recently re-arrested during a crackdown on the press in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photos: Muzamil Mattoo; The Kashmir Walla/Umer Asif; Newsclick/YouTube)

Kashmir media at a ‘breaking point’ amid rising number of journalist detentions

Sajad Gul’s mother had prepared his favorite dishes as she anxiously awaited his return home. The Kashmiri journalist, who had been granted bail the day before, on January 15, 2022, was to be released following his arrest earlier that month in a criminal conspiracy case, according to a journalist friend who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. By the time Gul’s mother found out that he had been re-arrested under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, which allows for preventative detention for up to two years without trial, he had been moved from a police station in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district to Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail, about 200 miles away, his journalist friend said.

Reporting in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has become so difficult that dozens of Kashmiri journalists have fled the valley in recent months, fearing they will be the government’s next targets, three journalists told CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.  Gul, a journalism student and trainee reporter at the independent online news portal The Kashmir Walla who was initially arrested for tweeting a video of a protest, is one of three journalists targeted amid the recent Public Safety Act crackdown.

Police have since re-arrested two other journalists — Fahad Shah, founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla, and Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the independent monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator — under the law after they were granted court-ordered bail in separate cases.

The re-arrests follow the government shutdown of the Kashmir Press Club, the largest elected trade body representing the region’s journalists, in January.

The following month, an executive magistrate issued an arrest warrant for Gowhar Geelani, a prominent Kashmiri writer and commentator, on grounds of preventative detention to keep the peace. A self-identified “civil society” group plastered “wanted” posters in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district offering a reward for information on Geelani, who has gone underground, a local correspondent for a news magazine, who is familiar with his case, told CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

On April 17, officials with the newly created State Investigation Agency (SIA), tasked with investigating terrorism cases, arrested research scholar Abdul Aala Fazili for an opinion article published in The Kashmir Walla in 2011.

The arrests and harassment of Kashmiri journalists follow the resurgence of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Intent on converting India from a secular democracy to a Hindu rashtra (nation), the BJP-led government has worked to extend its dominance over Muslim-majority Kashmir through heavy militarization as well as arbitrary detentions and crackdowns on freedom of expression. By targeting the local press, the government seeks to tighten its control over the narrative surrounding its human rights abuses in Kashmir, two of the journalists who requested anonymity told CPJ.

Sambit Patra and Syed Zafar Islam, national spokespeople for the BJP, did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app. Dilbag Singh, director-general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, also did not respond to requests sent via messaging app. The offices of Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and India’s Home Ministry, which oversees the Jammu and Kashmir administration, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In 2017, the government began targeting Kashmiri journalists under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which carries harsh bail provisions. At age 22, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was the first Kashmiri journalist detained under the law, from September 2017 until March 2018. In March 2022, a court finally discharged him of the UAPA terror funding allegation due to lack of evidence.

Sultan was also arrested under the UAPA, in August 2018, after he published an article in the Kashmir Narrator on Burhan Wani, leader of the armed Hizbul Mujahideen group, whose killing by Indian security forces in 2016 sparked massive anti-government protests. The case against Sultan, who is accused of “harboring known terrorists,” has been marred by procedural delays and evidentiary irregularities.

Sultan was finally granted bail in the UAPA case on April 5, but he was held at a police station in Srinagar for five days without legal basis before being re-arrested under the Public Safety Act. He is now detained in a jail in Uttar Pradesh, which is experiencing a massive heat wave.

After the BJP-led government’s unilateral revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy status in August 2019, Kashmiri journalists faced significant obstacles when authorities imposed an internet shutdown and communications blackout. 4G access was not officially restored until February 2021. Authorities have shut down the internet in various areas of Kashmir at least 25 times this year, according to the digital blackout monitoring website InternetShutdown.in.

Meanwhile, legal harassment, threats, physical attacks, and raids on the homes of journalists and their family members have become the new norm. In 2020, the government introduced a stringent media policy that presented new guidelines on media accreditation and empowered the government to determine what constitutes “fake news.”

Online archives of local newspapers are disappearing as well, in what freelance journalist Aakash Hassan called an “erasure of memory” in a phone interview. While some archives were deleted because publications did not pay maintenance fees, others were removed in response to government pressure, two of the journalists who requested anonymity told CPJ.

Still, the use of the Public Safety Act to keep the three journalists locked up marks a disturbing new trend. While authorities have repeatedly used the law against Kashmiri human rights defenders and political leaders, CPJ has documented only one prior use against a journalist: Qazi Shibli, editor of the independent news website The Kashmiriyat, who was detained for nine months without trial from July 2019 to April 2020.

“The PSA was slapped against [Gul] only to keep him in jail after the court granted him bail,” Shah told The Wire news website prior to his own arrest just weeks later. Police first arrested Shah on February 4, on accusations of sedition and violating the UAPA. He was then trapped in a cycle of arrest, court-ordered bail, and re-arrest involving years-old criminal cases in which The Kashmir Walla and other journalists associated with the outlet, though not Shah, had been accused. On March 14, police arrested Shah for the fourth time in 40 days, under the Public Safety Act. He has since been moved to Kupwara district jail, about 80 miles from his family.

On April 17, SIA officials and police raided Shah’s home and the office of The Kashmir Walla. The police report against Fazili led to the opening of an additional terrorism investigation into the unnamed editor of The Kashmir Walla and an unspecified number of other unnamed people associated with the news site.

Since its founding in 2009, the outlet had shut down three times due to lack of funding, interim editor Yashraj Sharma told CPJ in a phone interview. “The economic situation of independent media in Kashmir was always disappointing. Now, while we cling to hope of a speedy judicial process, we face a really uncertain future ahead of us,” Sharma said.

Journalists who spoke to CPJ denounced the recent use of the Public Safety Act, particularly the vague arguments given in the government’s detention orders, which CPJ reviewed. Authorities argued that extending Gul’s detention was necessary because he would otherwise be released on court-ordered bail.

The orders against Shah and Sultan deploy eerily similar arguments, accusing the journalists of “having a radical ideology right from your childhood,” “circulating fake news,” and “working against the ethics of journalism.” And although the police asserted that Sultan was not arrested in relation to his journalism in a response posted on Twitter to CPJ’s August 2020 advertisement on Sultan’s detention in The Washington Post, the detention order specifically cites his article on Burhan Wani.

“Even if you don’t commit any crime, they are sending the message that they can jail you anytime without any real case,” a freelance Kashmiri journalist told CPJ on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

The Kashmiri media “has reached a breaking point, where journalists are wondering whether it’s worth it to report from Kashmir,” said the journalist, who recently fled the valley due to fear of government retaliation. While hoping to continue his work or studies abroad, the journalist said he has been informed by police sources that he is on a government no-fly list.

About 22 Kashmiri journalists appeared on the no-fly list as of September 2021, according to The Wire. This is in line with the accounts shared with CPJ by numerous Kashmiri journalists, who have reported significant difficulties in traveling abroad, particularly to attend panels and award functions.

The persecution of Shah and Geelani, who have contributed to foreign-based media, demonstrates that “being associated with foreign outlets doesn’t guarantee you a degree of protection anymore,” said Raqib Hameed Naik, an independent multimedia journalist from Kashmir. After Hameed Naik fled abroad in 2020 following repeated intimidation by law enforcement, his family members in Kashmir have continued to face harassment and questions about his reporting, social media posts, and plans to return, he said.

Meanwhile, self-censorship prevails among Kashmiri journalists, with local newspapers refraining from reporting on the recent arrests due to fear of reprisal and cuts to government-funded advertisements, two of the journalists who requested anonymity told CPJ. Many write without bylines.

“Everyone is grappling with the single question,” Hameed Naik said. “Who is next on the list?”