SRINAGAR – On Saturday, Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist, received a call from the Jammu and Kashmir police asking her to report to the Cyber Police Station in Srinagar. Alarmed by the sudden call, Zahra immediately alerted the Kashmir Press Club (KPC).
“They told me not to worry as they have spoken to the police and the matter will be resolved,” she said in an interview with HuffPost India. “The police didn’t tell me that an FIR has been lodged against me.”
On Monday, the 26-year-old learnt from the Twitter messages of fellow journalists that the police had booked her under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law that carries a jail term of up to seven years. The FIR against her reads, “Cyber police received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquillity.”
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Zahra said, “I was just uploading my professional work and nothing else... I am clueless, I don’t know what to say, how to react.”
“I am clueless, I don’t know what to say, how to react.”
In Kashmir, we often hear of male journalists getting summoned, harassed and booked by the police, but not female journalists. What happened?
On Saturday evening, I was reading in my room. At four in the afternoon, I got a call from an unknown number. I answered the call and it was a police officer asking me to come to the Cyber Police Station as there is a case against me. I was shocked. What had happened? I am not working these days because of the (coronavirus) pandemic. I haven’t reported anything. Why would the police file a case against me? However, they didn’t tell me that an FIR has been lodged against me.
Sensing trouble, I called the members of the Kashmir Press Club from my father’s phone and they told me that they will take care of it. At eight in the evening, I called Director Information, Sehrish Asgar, and she told me not to worry and that she will intervene. I was relieved. But on Monday, while going through Twitter, I saw that a female journalist had been booked under UAPA and I was shocked to know that it was me. I have always felt bad for journalists who are picked up by the police or get arrested, but I never thought that one day I will be booked for performing my professional duties.
What was your reaction when you read about your arrest on Twitter?
The moment I read that a female photojournalist had been booked under the UAPA, I knew it was me. I went into my room, got the keys of the scooty and left the house. I wanted to talk to fellow journalists, my friends in the fraternity. I straight away went to the Press Enclave at Lal Chowk and started telling my friends about the incident. I wanted to talk, talk and talk and relieve myself.
In an earlier interview with News18, you have said that your family doesn’t support your journalism. Are they aware that you have been booked under UAPA?
I have had a tough time convincing my family that I want to pursue journalism. They still don’t like my profession. And if they will get to know that I have been booked under the stringent UAPA, I don’t know how they will react. My father is a driver at the Power Development Department and my mother is a homemaker. They don’t know what the UAPA is. I am scared for them. When I left home today, I hugged my mother because I wasn’t sure whether I would come back home or not. She knows there is an FIR against me, but she doesn’t know about UAPA. I don’t know how they will react.
Tell us about your posts.
Since I was stuck at home, I have been putting photos of my work over the past few years on Facebook and Twitter. For example, the photo of a newspaper cutting and money soaked in blood of a man suspected of being a militant who was killed in an encounter. These were all professional photos. I wasn’t uploading anything fake or baseless. It was all my work. I don’t know why they found my work objectionable.
The police don’t identify you as a journalist, but as a ‘Facebook user.’ Does this worry you?
Of course, it does. I have given four years to this profession and now they are telling me that I am an outsider.
#IStandWithMasrat Zahra is trending today. Social media is flooded with solidarity posts for you. Does this give you strength?
I am amazed to see how people are responding. I have the support of my fraternity and this is what gives me courage at this point of time. Despite the (coronavirus) lockdown, I have people standing next to me. I have received hundreds of calls. I am sure that the journalist fraternity will not leave me alone when I need them most.
Are you frightened?
I am. I don’t know what is going to happen. They can arrest me, do anything. I am clueless, I don’t know what to say, how to react.