Draconian law against PM-critic journalist
A Kashmiri photojournalist has been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for alleged anti-national posts, which apparently include one seen to be critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent call for a candlelight vigil against the Covid-19 pandemic.
A statement from Srinagar’s cyber police station said an FIR under Section 13 of the Act and under the penal code’s Section 505 had been registered on April 18 against a “Facebook user”. It mentioned the photojournalist’s name, Masrat Zahra, but not her professional background.
The Act, amended last year, allows authorities to declare individuals as terrorists and seize their properties. If found guilty, a person can be jailed for up to seven years.
Section 505 of the penal code deals with provocation to commit offence against any class or community.
Zahra, 26, is a well-known photojournalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Caravan magazine and the Turkish news channel TRT.
The cyber action triggered outrage, with media and other groups expressing their solidarity with Zahra. The episode unfolded days after a local journalist, Mushtaq Ahmad, was detained and thrashed for allegedly violating the lockdown.
On Sunday, Peerzada Ashiq, a correspondent for The Hindu, was summoned by cyber police to explain the content of a story.
The statement on the Kashmiri photojournalist claims the police had “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”.
“The Facebook user is also believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order. The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country,” the police statement says.
There is no mention of the posts that has earned her the FIR but Zahra had recently uploaded a picture — her already published work — of a woman who reportedly suffers panic attacks even two decades after her husband was killed by the army.
In another post, she apparently criticises Modi for his call for a candlelight vigil on April 5 to bolster unity in the fight against the coronavirus.
“I swear we are fighting two pandemics Covid 19 and Modi’s stupidity,” her Facebook post on April 4 had read. It appeared a day after Modi’s call.
Modi’s call had been widely criticised by social media users in the Valley.
Zahra said she was summoned by police on Saturday after which she had approached a local journalists’ body. “I didn’t go there (the cyber police station). I talked to KPC (Kashmir Press Club). They spoke to IG (inspector-general of police Vijay Kumar) and the director, information. She (director, information, Syed Sehresh) spoke to me and said we have sorted it out and you (Zahra) don’t need to go there now,” Zahra told The Telegraph on Monday. “But now I learn they have lodged an FIR against me.”
Zahra said the pictures she had uploaded recently had already appeared in different publications. “I always upload my archival work on my social media accounts…. They (the police) have not mentioned that I am a journalist but call me just a Facebook user,” she said.
The KPC, in a statement, condemned the police FIR against Zahra. “It is very unfortunate that when the world is in the grip of a pandemic and when we need to stand together to combat the Covid-19, police have started filing cases against journalists and harassing them,” the statement said.
“This is unacceptable for journalists of Kashmir who are well within their rights to seek freedom of expression and speech as guaranteed under the Constitution like other parts of the country.”
The Network of Women in Media India, of which Zahra is a member, said it was shocked by the FIR and asked police to drop it.
“The NWMI believes that the charges are preposterous in the extreme and amount to rank intimidation of a journalist, and one who has won acclaim for her work, which documents the lived experiences of the people of Kashmir,” it said in a statement.
On Monday, the police said they had also booked Peerzada Ashiq for the alleged “fake news item”.
The police claim the story — related to an encounter in Shopian — was published without confirmation from district officials.
Ashiq said he had evidence to prove that he had got the facts right.
The KPC also condemned the action against Ashiq. The spokesman said the police summoned The Hindu correspondent to “explain the alleged factual inaccuracies in a story that appeared yesterday. He was asked to present himself before a police officer in Anantnag and had to return home at midnight”.
“His family was terrified and concerned about his safety,” the spokesman said.
The KPC spokesman said: “Earlier, a reporter of the Kashmir Observer newspaper, Mushtaq Ahmad, was thrashed and arrested by the police in Bandipora when he was out during the lockdown period related to his professional work. He was released only after securing a bail from the court.”
In 2018, police had arrested journalist Aasif Sultan under the UAPA for an article on slain militant leader Burhan Wani. He has been in jail since then.