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Unending media-muzzling in Kashmir


Kashmiri jouornalists Masrat Zahra, 

The central government and the BJP leadership are still making the refrain that progress is being made in the effort to restore democracy in Jammu-Kashmir and that they will  pave the way to reinstating the statehood of Kashmir and to normal life and overall progress,  but the concerted pursuit to silence media activity under the shadow of terrorism proves that the valley has no prospect of liberation from the rule of military rule.  On 21 April alone,  the government hounded three prominent mediapersons of Kashmir.

A charge under UAPA has been slapped on freelance journalist and press photographer Masrat Zahra on allegation that she posted provocative pictures in Facebook that would incite rebellion.  What put the 26-year old Masrat under accusation is posting a news photo in Facebook last year of a Kashmiri woman who is a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) patient and gets frequent panic attacks even two decades after her husband was gunned down in a fake encounter. Masrat has been supplying pictures to several international media including Washington Post and Al-Jazeera over the last four years, and is also a well-known figure among Kashmir's new generation photographers.   She pleads that there was no violation of law or conspiracy in her work other than what she has been doing as part of her profession.

However,  the police cyber cell summoned her and made an FIR under Sec 13 of UAPA and Sec 505  of Indian Penal Code saying that they received a complaint that a 'Facebook user' had posted a provocative picture.  It was on the same day that the police summoned senior journalist of the Srinagar bureau of 'The Hindu' daily Peerzada Ashiq.   What led to Ashiq's case was the news item in Sunday's Hindu that the body of the man who was buried as one of unidentified terrorists was identified by the relatives who obtained permission from authorities to exhume it and perform funeral.   The police contention is that is that the news was fake and the reporter did not call up authorities to check its veracity.

These and many other similar incidents and experiences that have become daily events of strife-torn Kashmir,  had been published several times before and on the basis of controversies that accompanied some of them,   enquiries and actions also had followed.   But things have come to such a pass that in the centrally-administered Jammu-Kashmir, news without the approval of authorities become unlawful and sometimes even anti-national.   And within hours of uploading a post expressing shock and protest at the arrest of Masrat,  came the action against author Gowhar Geelani,  who is also a reputed international mediaperson.  The case registered in Kashmir Zone Cyber police station against him,  is based on the complaint that he makes unlawful posts in a manner that questions the sovereignty and integrity of the country and glorifies terrorism.

As stated in the statement released by Editors' Guild of India protesting the action against Masrat and Ashiq,  if draconian laws are invoked against citizens in response to news and social media posts,   that constitutes nothing but misuse of power.   If a news report is wrong,  there are written laws and accepted methods to be used against them.  But without being prepared for that,   filing a case,  putting the label of sedition against 'fake news' and slapping UAPA against publishing news photos in Facebook as part of journalistic profession,  are all part of the drive to intimidate free and impartial media activity.  As for Gowhar Geelani,  he is also a writer of the new age who had taken a stance against the extremism in Kashmir and had made a loud call that the youth should evolve new styles of operation in tune with changing times.   But none of this position seems to have guided the indiscriminate moves by the ruling establishment,  as proven by the decision to invoke arbitrary provisions on mediapersons.   

The Supreme Court had a heard a case that came before it in January against the total blocking of internet, following the abrogation of special rights of Jammu-Kashmir and making it a union territory.   During the hearing,  the apex court had made it clear that access to internet and expressions through it fall within the jurisdiction of fundamental rights protected by Article 19 of the Constitution.  But the media-muzzling moves of Jammu-Kashmir police look as though none of this is binding on them.

Although Kashmir's special powers have been abrogated and the state has been made equal to other parts of the country,  in the matter of fundamental rights and media activity,   the journalists of the Valley face total discrimination and denial of rights.  Every move by authorities only goes to prove that despite the marginal and restricted concessions allowed recently in the internet block imposed on 5th of last August,  when it comes to granting Kashmir its rights, the regime is not only still grudging,  but even continuing to deny their rights. 

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