The Public Safety Act (PSA) dossier against incarcerated Kashmiri editor Fahad Shah accuses him, among other things, of “having radical ideology right from your childhood”, and not reporting on stories “related to good governance, or positive intervention by” the Indian government.
The document, which is undersigned by District Magistrate Srinagar, and forms the basis of Shah’s further internment under the controversial preventive detention law, offers a crucial insight into the Jammu & Kashmir government’s ways of looking at journalists in Kashmir at a time when critics accuse the administration of trying to throttle independent media.
“There have been many occasions when you have promoted separatism through your articles, tweets and social media posts, thus clearly trying to advance your own radical ideology,” the dossier reads. “You have been found guilty of misguiding common masses by circulating fake news against the government and its policies. A journalist is one who lifts the curtains of darkness, but you are always trying to bring the people in dark by misrepresenting facts.”
A Series of Arrests
Shah was arrested on 5 February following a story regarding a gun battle in Naira village in Pulwama, in which four militants were killed. The family of one of the militants, Inayat Mir, had claimed that he was innocent.
This claim was reproduced in the story published in The Kashmir Walla, the publication that Shah heads. He was slapped with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and also charged with sedition (Section 124A of the IPC), and incitement to offence (Section 505 of the IPC).
When police remand of Shah was prolonged, Shah’s lawyers moved to a special court designated under the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act.
When the court issued an interim bail on 26 February, he was released from the Pulwama police station but placed in the custody of Shopian district police under a different FIR 06/2021 pertaining to a story in which the army was accused of forcing students of a religious seminary in Shopian to celebrate a Republic Day function. The Army has denied allegations of coercion.
Earlier this month, Shah was again granted bail by Shopian magistrate Sayeem Qayoom on the grounds that “in a barbaric society you can hardly ask for bail, in a civilised society you can hardly refuse it. In other words, ‘bail is a rule and its refusal is an exception’.”
However, just moments after getting the bail, he was arrested the third time under FIR 70/2020 regarding the publication’s reporting on a gunfight in the Nawa Kadal area of Srinagar.
'Anti-India Modus Operandi', 'Scheming Person'
On 14 March, Shah was lodged at police station Safa Kadal when the police from Soura, a different police jurisdiction in the city, came to take his custody. This was his fourth arrest in the past 40 days.
“Sensing that the Hon’ble Special Court may grant bail as the allegations levelled against the accused do not prima facie connect him with the commission on any offence, the authorities have taken recourse to J&K Public Safety Act,” said Shah’s lawyer, Umair Ronga, on Twitter.
Shah is presently in Kupwara in north Kashmir.
Shah’s PSA document, which is with this reporter, also blames him for imperilling the security of the nation as his “stories mostly highlight the allegations of Kashmir conflict and Indian State highhandedness”.
This kind of journalism, the document suggests, exposes Shah to charges of disseminating “a particular narrative which is in line with ISI/separatist propaganda”, it reads. “Over the last two years, you have followed a very selective/particular pattern of disseminating anti-India sentiment in a very subtle manner mostly though some of the stories are brazenly provocative as well.”
Shah has been accused of operating along a certain “modus operandi” that stipulates publishing “one to two stories per month which are based entirely on the victimhood narrative that portrays anti-India sentiment, glorifies stone pelters, terrorists, and justifies separatism and violence”.
The document states that Shah has been deemed as a “hard-headed and scheming person … who is ... creating fears among the majority population based on radical and unethical journalism”.
'Instigating Bent of Mind'
The invocation of the PSA became “imperative”, the document states, as Shah failed to make amends after the administration tried resorting to substantive laws to prevent him from committing “illegal and anti-national activities”.
Most interestingly, the document accuses Shah of possessing an “instigating bent of mind”. And because Shah is “well-qualified”, it reads, he can “brainwash people easily”. Other incriminating details include having a “good number of followers on social media”.
The issue of diminishing press freedom in Jammu & Kashmir is an enduring one, with rights groups accusing the Narendra Modi-led Central government of arm-twisting regional reporters into self-censorship.
A delegation of the Press Council of India visited the state last year in October following a request by former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who had solicited a fact-finding mission to probe the allegations of harassment and persecution of media personnel.
The fact-finding report, which came out recently, makes a number of observations, including the fact that Jammu & Kashmir’s Lt Governor perceived a large number of Kashmir journalists as having an ‘anti-national’ persuasion. “He conceded that when he was first appointed, he used to encourage open press conferences, but now had gone back to a ‘selective engagement’ with preferred journalists,” the report observed.
In its recommendations, the report suggests that “the security establishment cannot label writing against government policies, or quoting a family or civilian sources in a story about excesses of the armed forces, or tweeting a point of view as ‘fake news’ or ‘anti-national activity’ and then arresting the journalist for sedition”.
It suggests that it was not the business of journalists to support government policies or development work. “A journalist’s job is to report the news as it happens, even if it is unpalatable to government officials,” the report reads. “The tendency to see all critical reporting and opinions as ‘anti-national’ must stop. A conflict zone has many players and many aspects of events that unfold. A journalist cannot and should not ignore the government version; at the same time, he is not the spokesperson of the government.”
PSA Remains a Kashmir-Specific Law
Critics and rights advocates say that Fahad Shah’s PSA dossier reveals the prevalence of institutional malice against journalists in Kashmir. “The Supreme court has referred to administrative detention laws, which are laws under which people are kept in jail without a crime, and the court has called it a lawless law,” said Aakar Patel, former chair of Amnesty International India and author. “It gives the state the authority to jail the people it does not like without the commission of a crime.”
Patel said, “On the one hand, the Modi government says it abrogated Article 370 to make laws uniform across India, yet they haven't repealed the PSA, which is a Kashmir-specific law. The PSA doesn’t exist in any other part of the country. The victimisation of Kashmiri journalists, especially Fahad, should stop immediately.”
Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective said that the arrest of journalists in Kashmir is having a “chilling effect” on news production from the region. “Very severe laws like the Public Safety Act require some kind of substantial evidence, especially when you are denying civil liberties to an individual. I am unsure what to make of something like ‘he was a radical from childhood’. What does it even mean?” she asks. “In Kashmir, so many young people are exposed to very stark realities of the conflict on a daily basis. Instead of using a draconian law like the PSA, we need to ask what other avenues the government explored to address what they call the problem of ‘incitement and fake news’.”
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)