‘Won’t Disown My Work’: Meet the Photojournalist Charged With UAPA

Photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under UAPA for an alleged “anti-national” post on social media.

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(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark World Press Freedom Day. It was first published on 23 April 2020)

Video Editors: Vivek Gupta/Puneet Bhatia

“A day after I was slapped UAPA charges, I went to the police station and met the investigating officer. I told him that this is my work and I will not disown it.”

Masrat Zahra, a young freelance photojournalist in Kashmir, has been covering the conflict in the valley for the last four years. On 18 April, she was charged under a draconian terror law - Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) for an alleged “anti-national social media post.”

What Was the ‘Anti-National Post’ About?

Superintendent of Police (SP) Cyber Cell Kashmir, Tahir Ashraf told Deccan Herald. “Her posts are a threat to law and order and spread misinformation,” he said.

Ashraf also put up one of the “glimpses” of what is allegedly “incriminating material which attracts the provisions of UAPA and the IPC.”

The caption of the photograph reads "Kashmir Shiite Muslims seen carrying a picture of Hizbul Mujahideen commander shaheed Burhan Wani."

‘I Have No Political Agenda, I Am a Journalist’

Condemning the charges, Masrat told The Quint, “I don't have any political agenda. I am not a social activist. I am just a journalist. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Working as a journalist in Kashmir is not an easy job, Masrat says:

“In Kashmir, government is coming up with news, they are intimidating journalists, registering FIRs against them. Not just me, the J&K police recently booked Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani too.”

While Peerzada has been booked in connection with a report filed in The Hindu, a case was registered against Gowhar Geelani based on allegations that he is indulging in unlawful activities through social media posts.

Commenting on the spate of FIRs, Masrat added, “We are all carrying out our professional duties. We are all journalists who are telling the truth - the real face of Kashmir. We are not doing anything wrong. We are just professional journalists.”

‘My Family Gave me the Courage to Fight’

From taking up a dangerous profession like that of a photojournalist in Kashmir to fighting FIRs, Masrat says her family has been beside her through thick and thin. She said, “When I heard about the UAPA act against me, I was clueless and blank. I did not have any reaction because I was thinking about my family, how will my family react.”

So, how did her family react? Masrat said. “When my family found out about the charges from social media, they came and spoke to me. They told me that I have not done anything wrong. They gave me the courage to fight.”

The Quint had spoken to Masrat for a documentary on female journalists working in a conflict zone like Kashmir in May 2018. Masrat, back then, had told us that while her father and brother completely support her decision to become a journalist, her mother stays worried about her safety.

Despite Trysts With Danger, Masrat Vows to Continue Fearless Journalism

For Masrat, UAPA is not the first tryst with controversy as a photojournalist.

On 18 May, 2018, she had uploaded her photo on her Facebook account. She was covering an operation by armed security personnel in Kachdoora of Shopian district, when her friend took her photograph. A few hours later that photo went viral, and was followed by threats, abuses and intimidation.

Her photo was shared widely portraying her as a mukhbir: An informer and spy.

Masrat had told The Quint back then that this incident had left her disturbed.

“Because in Kashmir, people are not used to seeing a female photojournalist. They haven't seen a woman at an encounter site with armed men and security forces. So they labelled me as an informer. That disturbed me a lot. They passed comments on me. They said things about my family. They said I was not supposed to go to the field. They said it was not my job.”

But that never deterred Masrat. Even now, she vows to continue doing fearless journalism, come what may. Here is a gallery of some of Masrat’s work as a photojournalist.

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