The J&K Police have booked a 26-year-old woman photographer under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly uploading “anti-national posts” on her social media accounts. In a separate case, the police have filed an “open FIR” related to “a news story published in a national newspaper”, alleging it was “fake news” — in a statement issued later, it named Peerzada Ashiq, The Hindu’s Kashmir correspondent.
In the case against the photographer, police claimed that the Cyber Police Station in Srinagar received information on April 18 “through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is frequently uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention”.
“The post by the users can J&K provoke the public to disturb the law and order besides glorifying the anti-national activities, etc. In this regard FIR No. 10/2020 under the relevant provision of law was registered at Cyber Police Station and investigation taken up,” it said in a statement.
Srinagar-based Zahra’s work has been published in various news organisations in India and abroad. When contacted by The Indian Express, she said that she mostly posted links to her work on her social media accounts. “I am shocked to see these allegations. I am a professional photojournalist. I have no political or social agenda. This is an attempt to muzzle journalists in Kashmir,” she said.
Zahra said the police called her Saturday evening, asking her to report at the Cyber Police Station. According to her, she expressed her inability to reach immediately and informed the Kashmir Press Club, after which she came to know that the “matter has been sorted and I don’t need to go”.
Zahra said she came to know from colleagues Monday that she had been booked under UAPA. SP Cyber Cell Tahir Ashraf Bhatti told The Indian Express: “The case against (Zahra) was lodged for posting content on social media depicting fake news and also glorifying terrorism and terrorists.” Police sources claimed Zahra’s social media posts “demean security forces”.
Zahra is the second journalist in Kashmir to be booked under UAPA. Earlier, Srinagar-based journalist Asif Sultan was booked under the act for allegedly providing “logistical support” to a militant organisation. Sultan remains in detention.
In the other case, the police claimed that it received information on April 19 “regarding a fake news item being published in the The Hindu newspaper by the journalist namely Pir Zada Ashiq, regarding an encounter at Shopian and subsequent developments”.
On Sunday, a report by Peerzada Ashiq said that the “Jammu and Kashmir administration on Saturday allowed the families of two slain militants in Shopian to exhume their bodies from a graveyard in Baramulla” after “the police denied them permission”.
The report also said that “Yasin Choudhary, Deputy Commissioner, Shopian, was not available for his comment”.
In its statement, the police claimed: “The details reflected in the news item were found factually incorrect and the said news could cause fear or alarm in the minds of public. The said news was published without seeking confirmation from the District authorities.”
Police said that the correspondent was called to Anantnag for questioning. “The investigation in both the cases is in progress,” it said.
When contacted, Ashiq said: “I was questioned regarding a news item based on the interview of the family in Shopian. I told Cyber Police that I have a recording of the interview. I also shared screenshots of the messages I had sent on SMS, WhatsApp and Twitter to the DC Shopian to get the official version for the story. It is shocking to now term it as fake news.”
In a statement, the Kashmir Press Club sought the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and J-K Lt Governor G C Murmu to withdraw the cases.
“The J-K government, especially the police, needs to understand there is a vast difference between journalism and cyber crime. While the government has every right to rebut a story of a journalist and allow him to respond, cases against the journalists or their stories and work are unwarranted, outrightly illegal and draconian,” it said.
Political parties, PDP and People’s Conference, described the police action as “a systematic pattern of assault on freedom of expression” and “brazen attempt to silence” the media in Kashmir.