“Gowhar bhai, in such a scenario, arm[ed] struggle becomes the only possible solution,” a user commented on Gowhar Geelani’s Facebook status on Monday.

Mr. Geelani had turned to social media like many others to oppose the first information report (FIR) that the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) cyber police had filed under an anti-terror law, accusing Masarat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist, of “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility.” A day later, the police also launched a “fake news” investigation against a report in The Hindu newspaper by its Kashmir correspondent, Peerzada Ashiq.

To the comment on his status, Mr. Geelani responded, “Sahab, the solution is reading, more reading, more learning, more writing and expressing oneself in non-violent and civil ways.”

A journalist and commentator in Kashmir whose career has spanned fifteen years, “Gowhar has never preached violence. He has always talked about non-violent resolutions and peaceful resistance,” says Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times newspaper.

If we are detained, it will definitely have a chilling effect on our colleagues.

But on Tuesday, the cyber police filed another FIR, this time against Mr. Geelani for “posts and writings on social media platform[s]… glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public which may lead to commission of offences against public tranquility.” He was also charged under the same anti-terror law — Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — as Ms. Zahra.

“Right now they seem to have taken cover of the COVID-19 lockdown to go after journalists,” says Ms. Bhasin. “There seems to be a method to it.”

Aside from the FIRs, over the past few months, a number of journalists have also been called to the cyber police station to explain their reporting. The station is based at the Cargo building in Srinagar, which had served as an infamous police interrogation centre in the nineties, and journalists have been wary of getting summoned.

Ms. Zahra was summoned to the station last Saturday. “I told them my father wasn’t home and I could only come the next day,” she says. After getting off the call with the police, she contacted the Kashmir Press Club members and the government’s director of information and public relations in Kashmir, who then reached out to the police authorities on her behalf.

“When my officers contacted her for questioning, she blew it out of proportion. She took the matter to a different level, and tried to get pressure on the police,” says Superintendent of Police, Tahir Ashraf, who heads the cyber police station. “She got the FIR registered against her.”

Snowballing journalism

This is not the first time police have filed cases against journalists in Kashmir. Aasif Sultan, a former editor of Kashmir Narrator newspaper who was also charged under the UAPA, has remained in jail since August 2018. Qazi Shibli, who was an editor at The Kashmiriyat news website, was arrested in July last year and booked under Public Safety Act (PSA). He was released only this Thursday after nine months of imprisonment in a jail in Uttar Pradesh. Kamran Yousuf, a freelance photojournalist, spent nearly seven months in jail before he was granted bail in March 2018.

In Kashmir, local newspapers depend on the government for the lion’s share of their advertising revenue. In February last year, the J-K administration, controlled by the central government, had suspended advertising in Greater Kashmir, the most-circulated newspaper in the region. Advertising was also suspended for a few other newspapers too. 

In July, the Greater Kashmir terminated its executive editor Hilal Mir, managing editor Riyaz Wani, and senior editor Parvaiz Bukhari. “The HR department told us that,  because of the financial situation, the paper could not continue with us on a regular basis but could pay us an honorarium of 20,000 rupees [monthly],” says Mr. Mir. “It made no sense because the amount that they offered as honorarium was anyway all the salary that we had been drawing, as we had a majority per cent of the pay cut. It was implicit that this was not about money.”

A few weeks later, the suspension of government advertisements in the paper was lifted. In 2016, when Mr. Mir was the editor of Kashmir Reader newspaper, the state government led by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had banned the paper for three months during the uprising that followed the killing of a militant commander, Burhan Wani.

“Chilling effect”

Though journalists in Kashmir have worked in difficult conditions for decades, the new string of FIRs are being seen as a message from the central government of prime minister Narendra Modi, which now controls the J-K police since the abrogation of Article 370 in August.

“Journalists are definitely concerned with how FIRs are being used against them.“ says Ishfaq Tantry, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club. The group has asked for an urgent meeting with lieutenant governor G. C. Murmu, the topmost official in J-K, appointed by the central government.

It’s being done to create fear [among journalists], and in the Valley there’s already a lot of fear.

Ms. Zahra also believes that this has a negative impact. “If we are detained, it will definitely have a chilling effect on our colleagues,” she says.

In a statement, the police said that one of the journalists met Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police in Kashmir, who assured that an impartial investigation will take place. “J&K Police has always maintained highest regard for freedom of the press,” Mr. Kumar said in the statement.

Unlike the lockdowns in recent years, when mobile internet would be shut off, the present one to contain the spread of COVID-19 is the first time that Kashmir’s eight million residents are indoors with internet, although at a restricted speed. Solidarity with Ms. Zahra and Mr. Geelani has swelled on social media, with support pouring in from Kashmir and around the world.

But much of the local press has already eliminated negative coverage of the government, says Ms. Bhasin: “It’s being done to create fear [among journalists], and in the Valley there’s already a lot of fear.”

“Words are all we have,” says Mr. Geelani. “So I’ll continue to write.”

Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla

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