J&K Scribe Sajad Gul Arrested: How Press Freedom Is Crumbling in the Valley

Police have accused Gul of uploading tweets that are instigating “people against the government”.

8 min read
Hindi Female

The Jammu and Kashmir Police have arrested a journalist from the north Kashmir district of Bandipora on charges of provoking “ill-will against the government” amid concerns over deteriorating press freedom in the former state where mediapersons complain about heightened levels of official persecution since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution.

Sajad Gul (26), a native of Shahgund, a picturesque village in Hajin, was detained by the Army on Wednesday, according to his family members. Gul is a student of Convergent Journalism at Central University, Kashmir. He also works as a trainee reporter for Kashmir Walla, a Srinagar-based independent publication.


'At 1 am, His Phone Was Answered by Cops'

Police have accused Gul of uploading tweets that are devoid of facts and of instigating “people against the government”. A police statement said, “The said person under the garb of a journalist is habitual of spreading disinformation, false narratives through different social media platforms in order to create ill will against the government by provoking general masses to resort to violence and disturb public peace and tranquillity… his overall activities are prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and unity of India.”

The family members of Gul said he was in Srinagar on Wednesday afternoon when the Army first came looking for him. “They came at around 2 pm,” said one of his family members. “They also sought his phone number.”

The family said that it was around 10 pm that night when Gul’s phone rang. The Army was calling him to come outside. “He said he will check what the call was about,” a family member said. “But he did not return.”

As hours went by, the family grew worried. They continued to place calls on his number but to no avail. “At 1 am, his phone was answered by cops who confirmed that Gul was being held at Police Station Hajin,” family members said. “We could also hear Gul’s voice in the backdrop as he was assuring us that he was okay. He also told us that we must inform the press.”

Later, the family called the Station House Officer of the Hajin Police Station. “He confirmed that he was with them but refused to allow us to speak to him,” a member said.

On Friday, when his family contacted police officials one more time, they disclosed that Gul had been booked under stringent sections such as 120B (Punishment of criminal conspiracy), 153B (assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505 (Statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).


Journalism Becomes a 'Dangerous' Career

Last week, security forces gunned down Saleem Parray, one of the most wanted militants associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba group. Although the gun battle took place in Shalimar in Srinagar, Parray’s death triggered protests in his hometown in Hajin in north Kashmir.

Hours after the gunfight ended, Gul uploaded a clip of the protests on his Twitter handle. The video shows scores of women leading a demonstration and shouting slogans of “Azadi”.

Gul lives with his mother, sister-in-law and four siblings. His father died in 2008 after a long bout of illness.

His arrest has come as a shock to Gul’s classmates, who said their parents have since become averse to their plans to pursue journalism as a career.

“My father supported me initially but now there’s a general belief in Kashmir that reporting that goes against government lands journalists in jail,” said Gul’s colleague at the Central University, who did not wish to be named. “I am very apprehensive and confused. I don’t know what to do after this.”

This is not the first time Gul’s work has exposed him to police action. In October, he had written a similar story around the killing of Imtiyaz Ahmad, a 25-year-old militant from Bandipora. Gul’s article featured comments from Ahmad’s family members, who contested the police claims about the details of the gun battle in which he was allegedly shot dead.

The next day, as reported by Article 14, cops turned up at his home, asking for Gul to report at the police station. When he did reach there, the cops, as per the report, accessed his handset and deleted some of the “objectionable” tweets he had made about the gunfight.

The incident had reportedly traumatised Gul, who deleted his social media and shut himself out.


Not the First Time for Gul

Before that, in February, Gul had experienced yet another gruelling brush with the police following a story of an “anti-encroachment” drive in Bandipora led by a revenue officer who locals had accused of being abusive and ill-tempered. The next day, the officer led another party that started tearing down the fence built around Gul’s house as well as those of his uncle’s.

This led to a face-off, in response to which the police slapped charges against Gul and his family members under trespassing, rioting and assaulting public servants. His family insists that Gul was at Srinagar the day the clashes took place, questioning the wisdom of including Gul in the FIR.

On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit, tweeted that it was “deeply disturbed by reports that Kashmiri journalist @SajadGUL_ was arrested days after posting a video of a protest on social media. Authorities must immediately release Gul and drop their investigations related to his journalistic work.”

Gul’s alleged mistreatment at the hands of police was also a subject of a UN communication in August last year, in which the global body’s special mandate holders had expressed concerns over the reports of “arbitrary detentions and intimidation” of four Kashmiri journalists.

The report decried the denial of legal access to journalists Auqib Javeed, Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah and Qazi Shibli while they were in detention.


A Slew of Curbs  – Official & Unofficial

Over the last two years, press freedom in Kashmir has come under tremendous strain. The prolonged internet shutdown instituted by the government after 4 August 2019 had all but obliterated free and fair public-interest journalism. Reporters filed stories via a government-authorised ‘Media centre’ that provided exclusive access to a dozen computers connected to the Internet.

In the following year, the Jammu & Kashmir government rolled out a ‘media policy’ that enshrined retributive stipulations such as striking journalists and publications off the official empanelment if their reporting reflects an “anti-national” slant.

Last year, the police detained Junaid Mir and Salman Shah, both of whom are employed with Kashmiriyat, a south Kashmir-based online publication. Two editors of Kashmir Walla faced an FIR for reporting how the Army had allegedly forced a religious school in south Kashmir to observe Republic Day last year.

Similarly, Shafaat Farooq, a multimedia journalist with the BBC, and Saqib Majeed, a freelance photographer, alleged that police assaulted them while they were covering stone-pelting clashes outside the 620-year-old Jamia Masjid in Srinagar last year.

Later, the police also issued directives prohibiting photographers from covering live clashes or coming close to the gunfight scenes.

In October, police raided the house of photojournalist Zahoor Mukhtar and detained him for a day before he was released. Ironically, the incident took place when a Press Council of India team had arrived in Srinagar to investigate the alleged intimidation and harassment of journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. The team comprised Dainik Bhaskar editor Prakash Dubey, New Indian Express journalist Gurbir Singh and Jan Morcha editor Suman Gupta.

In the same month, the National Investigation Agency arrested 24-year-old Manan Gulzar Dar, a Srinagar-based photojournalist whose work has featured in international publications like The Guardian. Dar was arrested in connection with a “militant conspiracy case”.

Before that, the police also raided residences of four journalists – Azhar Qadri, Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas and Showkat Motta. The grounds for the raids were linked to the “leads” that emerged during the investigation into the “Kashmir Fight” blog, accused of uploading posts that are “prejudicial to the integrity of the country”.


A Silver Lining in Court Judgments

Most recently, a number of independent journalists in Kashmir have reported being profiled by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Jammu & Kashmir Police, during which their personal information, including details of their annual incomes, was collected.

International media watchdogs like Reporters without Borders (RSF) and CPJ have repeatedly urged the Indian government to uphold its constitutional commitments guaranteeing the freedom of the press. These groups have been closely monitoring the situation in Kashmir and often issue media statements decrying what they see as wholesale assaults on media freedom in the Union Territory.

Not surprisingly, India’s score at World Press Freedom Index has slipped alarmingly to 142 this year.

But there’s been some silver lining as well. Over the last two years, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court has adjudicated at least three such cases that reiterate a strong defence of press freedom.

In May 2018, the J&K Police registered a case under sections 500, 504 and 505 of (Ranbir Penal Code RPC) against journalist Asif Iqbal Naik for reporting about a case of torture in police custody. Naik in his defence argued that an FIR against him “was an abuse of process of law” and that the allegations were “so absurd and inherently improbable on the basis of which no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there are sufficient grounds for proceeding against him”.

Last year, the High Court castigated the police for choosing a “unique method to silence” Naik and quashed the cases registered against him. The judgment observes, “No fetters can be placed on the freedom of press by registering the FIR against a reporter who was performing his professional duty by publishing a news item on the basis of information obtained by him from an identifiable source.” It further adds, “The mere fact that the FIR was lodged only against the journalist and not against the person who has disclosed the said incident to the journalist prima facie, establishes malice on the part of the respondents (the police).” This particular case finds strong echoes with that of Gul.


'But the Govt's Methods Evolve'

In another case in October last year, the High Court quashed a defamation case against Republic TVs editor Arnab Goswami and journalist Aditya Raj Kaul. The case had been filed by former Jammu & Kashmir Minister Nayeem Akhtar, who had accused the news presenters of invoking his name while citing a letter written by a BJP member levelling allegations of “corruption and favouritism” against a “close aide” of the former Chief Minister of the state, Mehbooba Mufti.

While quashing the case, the court observed that the media has “bounden duty to bring to the notice of the viewers and readers the day-to-day events, particularly those relating to public figures and public servants concerning their actions/omissions affecting the public at large”.

It also said that categorising such news as defamation would “be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the press guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution”.

In October 2020, the High Court quashed an FIR against Times of India reporter Saleem Pandit for publishing a story about stone-pelting in several areas frequented by tourists.

The judge observed that “merely because a report allegedly threatens to disrupt the tourist season does not bring its publication within the four corners of the offence as defined under Section 505(1) (b) of the RPC or the IPC”.

The judge further said, “Reporting of events which a journalist has a bona fide reason to believe to be true can never be an offence. Taking a contrary view would be violative of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India.”

These three judgments have laid down clear parameters for journalists and restrained the government from using official machinery to violate the rights of media persons. But analysts say the government’s methods always evolve. “It’s never the same reason. The patterns keep changing,” said Anuradha Bhasin, editor of Kashmir Times and senior political analyst. “Either the charges are ambiguous, or very disproportionate, or the courts are not working.”

(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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