The arrest of Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj at the hands of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has once again brought into focus what critics describe as diminishing press freedom in Kashmir which has seen a sustained crackdown on journalists and editors over the last three years.
The government insists that it is trying to stamp out separatism by arresting those individuals who are accused of being complicit in various militancy-related offences.
But local journalists say the phraseology that the government invokes as it clamps down on media persons is over-broad, vague, and reflective of alarming misuse of anti-terrorism laws.
“It seems as though the government is trying to goad us into adhering to a certain line,” said a young Srinagar journalist working with a national magazine. “No doubt that this has scared us, but we cannot forget our role as being the mirror of our society. We will only reflect what we see here. It looks like the government wants two choices for us. That we must either sing praises for it or do what journalists ought to do and face consequences.”
‘An Unprecedented Move’
Mehraj, who is an editor at Two Circles.net, was called to NIA’s Srinagar office on Monday morning. He appears to have not informed his father who grew worried after Mehraj did not return his calls.
“His wife returned from work and she too complained that she wasn’t able to reach Irfan on phone,” his father Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat told The Quint. “It was in the evening that my younger son told me that Irfan had been arrested.”
Shocked, the family members rushed to the NIA office in the Church Lane area in Srinagar where they saw Mehraj in the compound of the heavily guarded office. “He wasn’t cuffed. He assured us that he would be fine and that we must not worry. Then the officers instructed us to get him a blanket and some clothes because Irfan would be flown to Delhi the following morning,” he said.
Mehraj’s uncle and his brother too have left for Delhi, where they are going to arrange legal assistance for him. On Wednesday, however, the Patiala House Court in the city remanded Mehraj to police custody till 1 April.
Allegations of Terror-Funding: A Pattern That Repeats Itself
The NIA spokesperson said that Mehraj’s arrest was the first in what it described as an NGO terror funding case. “Following comprehensive investigations into the NGO Terror funding case registered in October 2020, the National Investigation Agency arrested Irfan Mehraj from Srinagar,” the official release said, adding that Mehraj was a close associate of Khurram Parvez and was working with his organisation the 'Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society' (JKCCS).
“Investigations revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activists in the valley and had also been in the propagation of a secessionist agenda in the valley under the garb of protection of human rights.”
Before it was raided in 2021 and forced to cease work, JKCCS was among the leading civil society organisations in Kashmir and produced critical work documenting the human rights offences allegedly committed by the armed forces, police, and militant outfits.
Its annual reports were authoritative surveys of all the reported adverse engagements of security forces with civilians and were packed with crucial data regarding instances when the state undermined the civil liberties of the people. As an important office bearer at JKCCS, Mehraj was responsible for the entire process that led to the publishing of these reports.
But after the 2021 raids, JKCCS was mostly dysfunctional and members such as Mehraj had to rededicate themselves to journalism. Over the last few months, Mehraj was filing video stories for DW News, Germany’s state broadcaster.
In the past, Mehraj has also held editorial positions at Valley-based publications like Rising Kashmir, whose editor-in-chief Shujaat Bukhari was assassinated by militants in 2018 outside Srinagar’s Press Colony. His work has also appeared in prominent Indian publications like The Indian Express, Caravan Magazine, and Article 14.
‘Parvez-Connect’ as Key Reason Behind Arrest
But perhaps more importantly, it is Mehraj’s association with Khurram Parvez that the NIA appears to have highlighted among the grounds for his arrest.
Parvez, a celebrated human rights defender, was arrested in November 2021 under Sections 120B (party to a criminal conspiracy) and Section 121 (waging war against the state) of the Indian Penal Code and under Section 17 (funding a terrorist act), Section 18 (conspiracy), Section 18B (recruitment for the commission of a terrorist act), Section 30 (membership of a terrorist organisation) and Section 40 (offences for raising funds for a terrorist organisation) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Besides being a ‘Program Coordinator’ at the JKCCS, Parvez was also the ‘chairperson’ at the Philippines-based Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD). He is a recipient of the 2006 Reebok Human Rights Award which recognises activists “under the age of 30 who fought for human rights through non-violent means.”
He was awarded the Martin Ennals Award as well, recognising his distinguished work in the field of human rights in January earlier this year. TIME magazine featured him among the 100 most influential people in the year 2022. The magazine described him as the “modern David who gave voice to families that lost their children to enforced disappearances.”
Press Freedom Going Downhill in the Valley
The issue of the worsening press freedom scenario in J&K isn’t new but the situation appears to have worsened since August 2019 after the Union government revoked Article 370.
The following year, the J&K administration passed a media policy that reaffirmed further restrictions on the journalists and threatened to strike them off from the official empanelment should they write or publish something that prejudices the integrity of the country.
In 2021, the government refused to re-register the Kashmir Press Club based on reports submitted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) unit of J&K Police, paving the way for its closure. The incident was seen as an attempt to deny the local journalists a common space of interaction.
At least three Kashmiri journalists Asif Sultan, Sajad Gul, and Fahad Shah are already suffering jail time under the draconian UAPA and Public Safety Act laws. Others have complained about being summoned by the police or other law enforcement agencies where they were questioned over the nature of their work.
Many Kashmiri journalists have also found themselves on 'No Fly' list. Last year, 28-year-old Sanna Irshad Mattoo was stopped from boarding a flight to the US where she was expected to receive a Pulitzer Award for her work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lt Governor Sees Local Journalists as 'Terror Sympathisers'
In 2021, an investigation by the Press Council of India found that “News media in Jammu and Kashmir is being slowly choked mainly because of extensive curbs imposed by the local administration.”
The report also observed that the normal lines of communication between the local government and journalists have been disrupted on account of suspicion that the majority of local journalists are “sympathisers of militants’ cause.”
While talking to the PCI delegation visiting the Valley, the Lt Governor is said to have frankly told the members that many Kashmiri journalists were of "anti-national” persuasion.
Meanwhile, Mehraj’s arrest has attracted widespread condemnation. Those who have denounced the NIA for detaining Mehraj include the Editors Guild of India, Press Club of India, All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice, Amnesty International and Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (HRD).
But most anguished are the local journalists based in the Valley, who fear that the latest arrest proves that the Modi government is unlikely to relent on its clampdown on independent journalism in Kashmir.
“Every 3 months or so, we see some law enforcement authority summoning, questioning or arresting journalists on one pretext or another,” said a local journalist who reports for a leading online news outlet. “These incidents are becoming our signposts of fear. When we see this happening with our friends, we feel that it can happen to us tomorrow.”
The reporter, who spoke anonymously for fear of being targeted, said that the government wasn’t invoking ordinary laws to come after them. “It's the paradigm of terrorism that has been made a frame of reference to carry out this intimidation. This is happening as per proper strategy intended to erase all autonomous voices.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)