Kashmir Walla editor-in-chief Fahad Shah. Photo: Fahad Shah/Facebook

By Jehangir Ali / The Wire

Srinagar: A day before his bail application was scheduled to come up for hearing, the J&K Police on Monday invoked the Public Safety Act against the Srinagar-based journalist and editor Fahad Shah who is in jail since February 4.

Umair Ronga, Shah’s legal counsel, said the J&K Police had “sensed” that the court may grant the bail to the journalist “as the allegations levelled against the accused does not prima facie connect him with the commission on any offence”.

“The authorities have taken recourse to the Public Safety Act to prolong his detention and prevent him from doing his job. This is a violation of his fundamental rights and we are going to approach the Supreme Court for justice,” he told The Wire.

Shah is founder of The Kashmir Walla, a digital magazine and news portal based in Srinagar. Sajad Gul, who is pursuing masters in journalism and was working at The Kashmir Walla as a reporter, was also booked under the PSA in January this year and is presently lodged in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail.

Amnesty International has termed PSA, under which a person can be detained by police without charges for two years, as “a lawless law” and the rights advocacy group has called upon the Indian authorities to revoke the law.

The J&K police had earlier invoked the stringent anti-terror legislation – the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – for the second time in over a month against Shah, who was arrested and granted bail twice before his rearrest a third time earlier this month.

The cycle of arrests and charges against Shah under the ‘draconian’ anti-terror law – which has been increasingly invoked to silence activists and critics of the government – has triggered an uproar, with global media advocacy groups and prominent activists reiterating calls for his immediate release.

Ronga said that his client was granted bail on March 5 by a court in south Kashmir in connection with a case, the second against Kashmir Walla, which was filed last year at Imam Saheb Police Station of Shopian district (FIR 06/2021) under Sections 153 (provocation to cause riot) and 505 (public mischief) of Indian Penal Code.

Hours after Shah got bail, the Srinagar district police sought and was granted his custody in connection with the first case against Kashmir Walla which was filed by J&K Police in May 2020 (FIR No 70/2020). In this case, Fahad was booked under Sections 109 (abetment), 147 (rioting), 307 (attempt to murder), 501 (printing defamatory matter) and 505 (public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.

“In its report on Friday, police told the court that during the investigation, three IPC sections (109, 147, and 307) have been dropped while Section 13 of UAPA (punishment for unlawful activities) has been added to the case,” Ronga told The Wire.

“Fahad is no longer required in custody as it seems the investigation has been completed. There has been no change in circumstances of the case over the last two years. The detention of Fahad in the case is unwarranted,” he added.

The Srinagar police had booked Shah over Kashmir Walla’s coverage of an encounter in the summer capital Srinagar’s Nawa Kadal locality on May 19, 2020, during which over dozen houses were razed to the ground. Locals had alleged that security forces looted cash and jewellery before setting the houses on fire, a charge denied by officials. The allegations and the official denial were widely reported by local and national media, including Kashmir Walla.

Shah’s colleagues told The Wire that he has been summoned three times in the case over the last two years. “He has cooperated with the investigators all along and never ran away from facing the law,” said a colleague of Shah’s, requesting anonymity.

The second case, in which Shah got bail on March 5, was filed in Shopian on January 30, 2021 after Kashmir Walla, the Srinagar-based news portal, reported that the Army was “pressuring” the management of a private school in Shopian, a hotbed of militant activities, to organise the Republic Day celebrations. The Army denied the charge and complained to the police which filed the FIR.

Shah, who is lodged in a police station in Srinagar, was arrested on February 4 under the anti-terror and sedition charges over Kashmir Walla’s reportage of a controversial encounter in which a teenage boy got killed along with three suspected militants in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

While the J&K police maintained that the boy was a militant, Kashmir Walla had reported the claims of the boy’s family that their son was innocent which led to the third FIR, in which he was granted bail by the court last month. In this FIR, the J&K police had accused Shah of “glorifying militancy”, “causing dent to the image of law enforcing agencies” and “spreading disaffection against the country”.

After Shah’s rearrest for the third time in about a month, the US media advocacy group, Committee to Protect Journalists, urged the Indian authorities to “cease criminalising journalism in the name of national security” while many others termed it as an attack on the country’s democratic credentials.

Geeta Seshu, who founded Free Speech Collective, a rights advocacy conglomerate of lawyers, civil society activists and journalists, said the repeated arrest of Fahad is an “attempt to keep him silent and behind bars so he doesn’t perform his journalistic duties”.

“Even if we are to believe the police charges, why have they taken so long to act and arrest him now if the cases were filed last year. What were they doing in the last two years? It is clear from their behaviour that they don’t want him to function as a journalist,” Geeta, a former journalist, told The Wire.

Ashok Swain, a Sweden-based prominent academic, said the arrest of Fahad illustrates that the ruling dispensation “is doing whatever it can to keep Kashmir out of the international agenda. In that context, it wants to curb any independent reporting from Kashmir.”

“The repeated arrest and harassment of journalists in Kashmir and their family members is aimed at creating a climate of fear, so that the local independent journalism dies out. They hope it will help them report Kashmir only through highly biased and nationalistic prism, and fool the world that ‘all is well’ in Kashmir,” Ashok, a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University, told The Wire.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) “strongly condemned” the “detention and illegal harassment” of Fahad while asking the authorities to “cease criminalising journalism in the name of national security,” Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York, said in a statement.

“The rapidly growing number of journalist detentions reflects India’s utter intolerance for press freedom and peaceful criticism of the state,” said. “Authorities must immediately release … Fahad Shah, drop their investigations into their journalistic work, and take steps to reverse the escalating criminalisation of journalism,” the statement added.

In an editorial after Fahad’s arrest, Indian Express accused the J&K administration, which is run by New Delhi, of “intimidating journalists by summoning them, questioning them about their reports, holding the threat of UAPA, PSA and sedition over their heads.” “In a situation of diminished official accountability, the courts must step in. They must send out a strong message that the attack on journalists and journalism is an attack on democracy,” it said on March 10.

“Fahad’s family and the Kashmir Walla team was taken aback by the latest developments in the case,” his news portal wrote after J&K Police invoked the anti-terror law against Fahad for second time, “however, we continue to repose faith in judiciary and the supremacy of law. As the team stands by Fahad and his family, we reiterate our appeal to Manoj Sinha-led Jammu and Kashmir administration for the immediate release of Fahad. We really hope he joins us back in the newsroom soon.”

Many activists and journalists have also come out in support of Fahad and demanded his release.

“Dead journalists are more valuable, is it ? Because when they are alive, we do not seem to care. Both Siddique Kappan, Fahad Shah have been incarcerated for doing their job and our collective condemnation is not loud enough. This injustice will NOT stop at them,” senior journalist Rana Ayyub tweeted.

This article first appeared on thewire.in