WSS Condemns the Hounding of Photo Journalist in Kashmir
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) condemns the hounding of photo journalist, Masrat Zahra, by the Cyber Police in Srinagar, Kashmir. They have filed cases against her under section 505 the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 13 of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for posting her professional work online. WSS stands firmly in support of this fearless journalist and others like her who have recently been harassed in the line of duty for reporting the truth.
Masrat Zahra is a well-known photo journalist based in Kashmir. Her photographs have been published in national and international news organisations and have been exhibited on national and international platforms. Her oeuvre showcases the chilling realities of life in Kashmir through a fearless yet grounded lens. Through her photography, she has courageously highlighted the struggles of the people of the region, who have, over the decades, suffered – and continue to suffer – physical, mental, emotional, psychological and socio-economic consequences brought on by relentless military occupation.
The depiction of ground realities that Zahra’s camera captures clearly do not go well with the state authorities. A press release from the Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, Srinagar dated April 18, 2020, which portrays her as “one Facebook user … uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offences against public tranquillity” strikes at her dignity, autonomy and integrity as a working professional in the press. The release goes on to remark that her work “can provoke the public to disturb law and order”. As a photojournalist, Zahra’s work captures the everyday reality of Kashmir, and has been internationally published. Punitive action against her work on the grounds that it has the potential of enticing violence is therefore unjustified, and it is plainly an act of suppressing uncomfortable truths and information that might be used to hold the state accountable.
Zahra was booked under section 505 of the IPC and her journalistic work is described as “material circulated with the intent to incite or promote hatred or enmity between classes and any communities”. She was further charged under Section 13 of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act UA(P)A, which empowers the police to detain a person for up to six months without furnishing a reason. It distorts any court trial in favour of the State from the beginning of the process, and makes her liable for much more severe punishment. We view this act as being in continuation with other acts of the state to use excessive modes of punishment to silence journalists like Zahra, who are working in Kashmir’s extraordinarily difficult conditions and with limited internet, by restricting their rights to freedom of expression as well as the free and fair discharge of their profession as members of the press.
We are relieved to note Masrat’s tweet at 5.47pm on April 21, 2020, “I met the concerned police officials of the case and answered their questions regarding the investigation. I have not been arrested and the investigation is going.” However, hers is just one instance of harassment and intimidation of the Kashmiri press by the Indian state and its boots on the ground. Several journalists in Kashmir face harassment and intimidation by the government at a time when it is implementing the longest internet blockade seen in the world.
On April 11, 2020, Mushtaq Ganaie of Kashmir Observer was travelling home from work when he was arrested, his phone and vehicle confiscated by the police for being out during the COVID lockdown. He recounts how he was beaten up in police custody for two days, before being released on bail upon intervention. On 15 April, 2020, freelance journalist Gowhar Ali Wani was assaulted by J&K Police at his house in Handwara, while his father was arrested and detained at the local police station. In a press interview Wani shared that the Station House Officer, Vilgaam had previous accosted Wani’s father and threatened to arrest and torture his son “if he continues to film and [click] photograph [of] incidents from there.” Within 48 hours of the flimsy charges filed against Masrat Zahra, two other Kashmiri journalists, Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani, were charged in separate FIRs. The former’s alleged “crime” was that he did not publish the state’s version of events at a recent extrajudicial ‘encounter’ killing in Shopian. Peerzada has also recently reported on the diversion of COVID testing kits meant for Kashmir elsewhere, a report which the state’s PR machinery has dismissed without sufficient clarifications. It may be recalled that Geelani’s name figured in Kashmir’s #MeToo testimonies. In this latest instance, he has been vaguely charged by the police for his posts on social media being “prejudicial to national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.” Yet another Kashmiri journalist, Asif Sultan, was charged under the UA(P)A in 2018 for allegedly “having links” with guerilla fighters, even though he had been merely reporting on them in his professional capacity. He remains in detention, without any evidence being provided to support the police’s claim.
Further, the state’s action against a woman journalist is one among many on the spectrum of state violence and harassment faced by women in Kashmir. Gender-based violence against women under the military occupation has already rendered their access to public spaces precarious and fraught with policing, harassment, restrictions and intimidation. In discharging their professional duty, Zahra and other women journalists like her continue to navigate the terrain of state and patriarchy as they bring forth the narratives of the women and the people of Kashmir. Compounded with the impunity granted to the Indian state and army, the charges against Masrat Zahra reiterate the state’s attempt to control the narratives from Kashmir. By curbing the truth and striking a blow to the press, the government seeks to silence any resistance and accountability for its actions. Such an act reiterates the state’s control of the narrative on Kashmir, restricting narratives of the daily reality of Kashmir from coming to the fore. We recognise the harassment and booking of journalists from Kashmir as a way of furthering an occupation of Kashmir by India.
WSS unequivocally condemns the intimidation and targeting of Masrat Zahra, and the obstruction of her work by the J&K Police. At a time when Kashmir is under a COVID-19 related lockdown, on top of the siege imposed by the state since August 5, 2019, she was forced to go to the Cyber Police Station in Srinagar to record her statement. Further, in contravention of norms, the FIR containing the exact charges against her, filed on 18 April, was not made public until 2 days later; nor was she notified of it directly by the police. The balance of justice has most often tilted against Kashmiris in Indian courts and such tactics by the state are only an effort to punish journalists for doing their jobs. We condemn the use of fear and state pressure as tactics to try and silence the voices of journalists like Masrat Zahra, who continue to bravely capture truth and people’s everyday reality in Kashmir.
Further, we see a similar pattern in the detentions of Kashmiris living and working in India. We also stand against the recent arrests of students and activists in Delhi, some of whom have been booked under the draconian UAPA. These acts of intimidation and violence are part of the larger right-wing narrative of demonising and subjugating Muslims in the country, both in the context of the Delhi carnage in February 2020, as well as the anti CAA-NRC-NPR protests across the country. We strongly condemn this attempt by state and non-state actors to politicise and communalise the constitutionally guaranteed right to dissent.
WSS demands that:
The cases filed against Masrat Zahra be immediately withdrawn, and she be allowed to carry out her work freely.
The J&K police and Indian state machinery in Kashmir immediately cease the use of heavy-handed tactics and intimidation against Kashmiri journalists.
The cases filed against all other journalists in Kashmir for discharging their professional duty, which is integral to the freedom of the press and the right to free expression, be withdrawn.
The students, activists and Muslim citizens who have been taken into custody, be immediately released.
The arbitrary and draconian UAPA be repealed in its entirety.
April 24, 2020
Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS)
Conveners Nisha , Ajita & Aloka