Fahad Shah Arrest: 'Worst Assault on Press Freedom in Recent Times', Say Critics

The latest incident has been described by critics as the worst assault on press freedom in recent times in Kashmir.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Jammu and Kashmir Police on Friday, 4 February, arrested Fahad Shah, editor-in-chief of a Srinagar-based news publication The Kashmir Walla on allegations of “glorifying terrorist activities and causing dent to the image of the law enforcing agencies.”

Besides invoking Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terrorism law, the authorities have also slapped further charges under sections 124A (sedition) and 505 (incitement) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The latest incident has been described by critics as the worst assault on the press freedom in recent times in Kashmir where media fraternity frequently complains about heightened levels of “official harassment” since the revocation of article 370.


Why Did the Arrest Happen?

A police statement accused “some Facebook users and portals” of “uploading anti national content including photographs, videos and posts with criminal intention to create fear among the public and the content so uploaded can provoke the public to disturb the law and order.”

Police said they have registered a First Information Report 19/2022 at Pulwama Police Station in south Kashmir and identified Shah as “one accused person” who was taken on a police remand.

Since it’s an “open FIR” which doesn’t make it a person-specific, there are reports that more arrests could be likely.

Shah was also summoned by Pulwama Police recently following a gun battle in which 4 militants were killed in Naira village of Pulwama including one 17 year old Inayat Mir whose family assembled outside the Police Control Room in Srinagar and staged protests demanding his body.

Authorities buried Mir faraway in north Kashmir as part of a policy to conduct the last rites of militant bodies discreetly amid claims that big funerals gave a fillip to the recruitment. The family also claimed that Mir was “innocent.” A video statement by his sister disproves this claim.

The Kashmir Walla, of which Shah is the editor in chief, had released a news story featuring versions of both the police as well as those of the family. Shah was let go later after the questioning session ended.


Fahad Looked Distraught at the Time of His Arrest

“We had considered that matter as closed,” said Pirzada Shakir, his colleague. “Then he was called again yesterday for recording a statement. We were at the office at that time. I accompanied him to the Pulwama Police Station and after making us wait for some time, we were told that Fahad will be arrested.”

Shakir said that Fahad looked distraught at the time of his arrest. “He was made to speak to his family before being taken into custody. It was very late at that time so no family member of his was available. He is still in Pulwama Police Station as of now.”

The arrest had once again shone a spotlight on what media professionals insist is a tightening space for press freedom in Kashmir.

Last month, a feud erupted in Kashmir Press Club after the government refused to re-register the body on the basis of reports submitted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) unit of J&K Police.

A rival media faction accompanied by police personnel waltzed into the Club the next day and seized control of the facility leading an outcry from other journalist bodies. Later, the government forfeited the Club’s right over the building in which it was based citing “threats” to the safety of journalists at the hands of “terrorist groups.”


The Declining Press Freedom in Kashmir

The Club provided journalists a common space to sit, fraternise and exchange debates, ideas and sources. The media fraternity now considers the Club’s dissolution a foregone conclusion.

In the same month, police in north Kashmir district of Bandipora booked Sajad Gul, a trainee journalist with The Kashmir Walla. Police accused Gul of instigating people against the government hours after he uploaded a clip of the women protesters who were shouting ‘Azadi’ slogans following a gunfight in Srinagar’s Shalimar area where forces had gunned down Saleem Parray, a wanted militant hailing from Bandipora.

“The arrest of Fahad Shah shows Jammu and Kashmir authorities’ utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely,” Steven Butler, New York based Committee to Protect Journalist’s Asia program coordinator said. “Authorities must immediately release Shah, and all other journalists behind bars, and cease detaining and harassing journalists for simply doing their jobs.”

Political parties in Kashmir have weighed in on the issue and voiced very guarded but premonitory statements following the arrest. “Fahad Shah arrested. What times we are living in,” Sajad Lone, who headed J&K People’s Party tweeted. “Just a word caution for the administration. This is not the worst that we in Kashmir have seen. We have seen even worse in nineties. That didn’t change anything. This won’t change anything either. Take my humble word for it.”


'Standing Up For the Truth is Deemed Anti National'

People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti accused the J&K authorities of being intolerant.

“Standing up for the truth is deemed anti national. Showing the mirror to a deeply intolerant & authoritarian government is also anti national,” she tweeted. “Fahad’s journalistic work speaks for itself & depicts the ground reality unpalatable to GOI. How many Fahad’s will you arrest?"

The Kashmir Walla is an independent online publication that has been in operation at least since 2011. The outlet weathered the worst of times even when other newspapers in Kashmir “moderated” their coverage and dialled down critical reporting after a slew of summonings by the premier probe bodies like the NIA, or when J&K government withdrew advertisements to some papers.

The Kashmir Walla managed to retain some editorial autonomy and frequently marshalled ”bold” reporting that shed light on alleged incidents of human rights violations and excesses committed by the government.

Aqib Shah, Fahad’s brother told The Quint that said that the detained editor’s legal counsel was filing for a bail application today.

“We came to know from Twitter that he has been arrested,” he said. “We spoke to the lawyer and he said he will check everything. He was yet to get the details. Press release didn’t mention much. It was only about social media posts and all that.”

Aqib said that Fahad was at the office when he received police’s call. “We never discussed these things at home because it isn’t the first time that he was being summoned,” he said. “Fahad spoke for truth. He raised this organisation from scratch.”


What's Next?

Umair Ronga, legal counsel for Fahad said that they have not received any report yet. “We have filed a bail application in the court in Pulwama,” he said. “The filing of the report has been scheduled for Monday. They (police) will file the report and we will come to know what exactly it (case is),” he said. “The chief judicial magistrate has transferred it to the first munsiff and he has asked the respondents to file a reply by Monday. Also Fahad’s custody has been extended till 15th February.”

Shah is an alum of SOAS University of London. Besides editing The Kashmir Walla, he is also a contributor for a number of premier international publications like The Christian Science Monitor, TIME Magazine, The Atlantic, Jacobin Magazine, The Nation and more.

On Friday evening, The Nation’s editor DD Guttenplan issued a statement calling Fahad’s arrest a “transparent assault on the freedom of press.”

News of his arrest is expected to evoke more denunciations from international press bodies and rights-advocacy groups.

In a statement to The Quint, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “The repeated targeting of journalists for reporting uncomfortable issues is truly shocking,” the statement read. “Indian authorities can dispute facts, but when they start using counter terror, sedition or other laws against the media, it suggests that there is something to hide, that when rights abuses occur, the government wants to silence the messenger instead of delivering reforms and ensuring accountability.”

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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