SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― When the Jammu and Kashmir Police summoned Peerzada Ashiq, The Hindu’s correspondent in Kashmir, on Sunday, he let them know that his house was in a residential area that had been categorized as a red zone by the administration because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They insisted on my physical presence,” he told HuffPost India in an interview. “There was the psychological pressure to drive amid the Covid-19 lockdown to the Cyber Police Station.”
The next day, the Jammu and Kashmir police issued a statement stating that Ashiq’s report headlined Kin allowed to exhume bodies of militants in Baramulla, published in The Hindu on 19 April, was “fake news,” factually incorrect, and published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities. An FIR, the police said, had been registered in this regard.
An FIR had been registered under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code ― statements conducing to public mischief - but Ashiq said that it was an “open FIR” that neither mentioned him nor The Hindu.
“There was the psychological pressure to drive amid the Covid-19 lockdown to the Cyber Police Station.”
Ashiq is among the three journalists who have been called in for questioning by the Jammu and Kashmir police since Saturday.
Masrat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist based in Srinagar, was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law that carries a jail term of up to seven years. Zahra is the second journalist in Kashmir who has been booked under UAPA. In 2018, another Srinagar-based journalist Asif Sultan was also booked under the same Act and remains in detention.
Gowhar Geelani, a freelance journalist and author who lives in Srinagar, was slapped with an FIR for “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platform which are prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India,” but the police statement on Geelani does not say under which law he has been booked.
While condemning the FIRs against Zahra and Ashiq in a statement on 21 April, the Editors Guild of India said, “The journalists should be put to no harm or further harassment. If the government has any grievance against their reporting, there are other ways of dealing with such issues in the normal course. Mere social media posts of factual pictures can’t attract the toughest anti-terror laws passed for hardened terrorists. And in the case of The Hindu reporter, the correct course was to escalate the complaint to the newspaper’s editor.”
In a conversation with the HuffPost India, Ashiq said that when the police questioned him about not seeking an official version of the events that he had reported on for the 19 April report, he showed them the screenshots of messages that he had sent to the District Commissioner of Shopian.
“Then, I was let go by the Cyber Police,” he said. “But again, I got a phone call. This time it was from a police station in Anantnag in south Kashmir. I was told there is a formal case registered. I drove straight to the Anantnag Police station where I was asked the same questions.”
“I drove straight to Anantnag Police station where I was asked the same questions.”
Has this taken a psychological toll on you?
On 19 April, I had listed stories, lined up interviews, and had my own assignment to do. The first thing is that it took a toll on my work. Then, there was the psychological pressure to drive amid the Covid-19 lockdown to the Cyber Police Station.
How terrifying was it to drive to the Cyber Police station and then to Anantnag amid Covid lockdown to face police questioning?
To be frank, it was not frightening. Otherwise, I would not have been able to drive to Cyber Police Station here and then to Anantnag. I have been summoned before as well (August 2019). Then, I was asked to reveal my sources. This was not the first time.
Police summoning journalists is a huge concern.
Definitely, it is a huge concern. If it continues to happen, journalists won’t be able to function and report. The whole idea to summon journalists seems to enforce that official versions are carried, don’t publish the people’s stories in newspapers, don’t question the government and they can label any news as fake news. In journalism, we do a lot of stories where we attribute the information to sources. Then, they might ask us to reveal our sources. There could be stories where one may not require an official version but they are forcing the official version to go out.
“If it continues to happen, journalists won’t be able to function and report.”
You could be called for questioning again any time in the future. Does that worry you?
It is not terrifying but very concerning because it hampers my work. A journalist always tries to work in a free environment.
What are the challenges and pressures under which a journalist are working in Kashmir?
If every report is responded to with an FIR and if that is the norm, then it will become very difficult to be a reporter. It has already started. In the last 24 hours, there are three cases lodged against journalists that means they can do it in future also. It is a worrying trend. Probably there is an attempt to create a fear psychosis among the fraternity that does not allow them to function in a free and fair manner.
“If every report is responded to with an FIR and if that is the norm, then it will become very difficult to be a reporter.”
If there was an error, how should the authorities respond.
There are different forums to question a report. There is no need to file an FIR. It bypasses other institutions. If there was concern about public order due to any inaccurate information, they could have clarified and we would have incorporated the same version in the same story.
How do you view the situation?
It is not just the reportage but the functioning of journalists that is under attack in Kashmir. There is a need to ensure that the government provides a fair environment where a journalist can think, express and write freely without feeling fear or feeling that one is constantly under surveillance.
“It is not the reportage but the functioning of journalists that is under attack in Kashmir.”