National Press Day: Kashmiri journalists face sedition and terrorism charges

On the occasion of India’s National Press Day, which commemorates the importance of a free and vibrant press in a democratic society, the spotlight turns to the concerning state of media freedom in the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir. As the nation celebrates the role of the press in fostering public awareness and holding those in power accountable, a stark contrast emerges in the treatment of journalists operating in the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.

In recent developments, the arrest of Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) under “terrorism” charges underscores the ongoing crackdown on media freedom in the region. Mehraj’s arrest is part of a disturbing trend where journalists face various forms of censorship, harassment, and legal persecution for their reporting.

This disturbing pattern extends beyond Mehraj’s case. Fahad Shah, the editor of the local news portal The Kashmir Walla, was arrested in February 2022 under stringent “anti-terror” laws and sedition. The charges include “glorifying terrorism” and “spreading fake news,” reflecting a broader assault on press freedom in the Himalayan region. Shah’s arrest follows the detention of Sajad Dar, a Kashmir Walla contributor, for social media posts.

Aasif Sultan, another journalist from Kashmir, has now spent over 1,500 days in prison under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a law that makes obtaining bail nearly impossible.

Sultan, accused of “harbouring known militants” and facing charges of murder and attempt to murder, vehemently denies these allegations. His family and the editor of Kashmir Narrator, the magazine Sultan worked for, insist that he was arrested for his journalistic work, particularly his July 2018 story titled “The Rise of Burhan.”

In the 4,000-word exposé on the killing of Kashmiri rebel commander Burhan Wani in 2016, Sultan delved into the implications of Wani’s legacy, asserting that the 22-year-old rebel was “more dangerous” for India “in his grave than in his living room.”

The alarming situation extends to the arrest of freelance journalist Sajad Gul from Bandipora in north Kashmir in January 2022. Gul, a trainee reporter with The Kashmir Walla and a student, faces charges under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and is currently detained in Central Jail Agra.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least 35 Kashmiri journalists have faced “police interrogation, raids, threats, physical assault or criminal cases” in connection to their work after the revocation  of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.
India’s ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index slipped further to 161 out of 180 countries from 142 in 2021 and 150 in 2023 with the fall blamed on the punitive action against journalists in Kashmir.

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