Srinagar: On January 5, 26-year-old Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter with a local magazine Kashmiri portal The Kashmir Walla and student, was in Srinagar when the army reached his house in the Hajin area of Bandipora district, asking for him. The jawans took Gul’s contact number from his family and left.
Later in the evening, when Gul reached home and was about to go to sleep, he received a call from an unknown number. It was an army officer, asking Gul to come out.
“He told us that the army is asking him to come outside and he will be back soon. He was not afraid and told me that he will talk to them,” recalls his brother, who does not want to be named.
For about half an hour, the family waited for his return, calling his number continuously. There was no response.
“After multiple calls, someone answered the phone and informed us that he is with them. We couldn’t recognise his voice but we heard Sajad speaking from a distance, telling us to inform the media about his arrest,” Gul’s brother told The Wire. “Around 2 pm we contacted the SHO (Station House officer) Hajin about Sajad, and he told us that he is in police custody and they will release him in the morning.”
On Friday, The Kashmir Walla reported that Gul was arrested and booked under criminal conspiracy and other charges, days after he posted a video of a family shouting anti-India slogans after their kin was killed in a gunfight in Srinagar.
Jammu and Kashmir Police in a statement said that they have arrested Gul for allegedly provoking people to “resort to violence and disturb public peace”.
They said that Gul “uploaded the objectionable videos with anti-national slogans raised by some women folk on the day when most wanted terrorist Saleem Parray was eliminated in Shalimar Srinagar”.
“…the said person under the garb of journalist [sic] is habitual of spreading disinformation/false narratives through different social media platforms in order to create ill will against the government by provoking general masses to resort to violence and disturb public peace and tranquility,” the statement read.
He has been charged under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505B (fear or alarm to the public) of the Indian Penal Code.
Arrested for reporting
Gul’s family members, since his arrest, have been going to the police station to ask about his release, but returning home disappointed.
The video posted by Gul had shown a protest against the killing of alleged Lashkar-e-Tayyabba commander Salim Parray, who was killed in a gunfight with security forces on Monday in the Harwan area of Srinagar. After his killing, minor protests had taken place in Hajin, where Parray was from.
“We pleaded with them (the police), saying that if he has made any mistake, please forgive him and we are assuring you that he won’t repeat it again,” a family member of Gul’s told The Wire. “But we don’t see any chance of his release as they (police) have filed serious charges against him and we have no idea how to get him out.”
“We have been telling him to stop doing journalism after being harassed many times in the past, but being a journalism student he never listens to us. He does not want to stop his work,” he explained.
The editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, told The Wire that for the last one year, Gul has been contributing to the magazine and in February last year, he did a story on a demolition drive. Soon after that story, the police filed an FIR against him.
“Three weeks ago he joined our magazine and is currently working with us. We will fight his case and we have involved our lawyers in the matter. On Monday, we will file his bail application,” Shah said.
He said that Gul has been continuously harassed by the administration and the police for one reason or another, whether it is a story about general administrative issues or about militancy and conflict.
“He is either threatened or summoned, and now he has been arrested. Before this arrest, he used to tell me that someday they (the police) will do something grave,” Shah said.
On the videos Gul had shared, Shah said he was simply reporting on the events. “Whatever the family or the people say, that doesn’t mean Sajad is saying it. You cannot jail the messenger. You cannot punish the reporter for delivering the message. It is our job as journalists to report what is happening. Whatever people tell us. If we stop doing that, then we are no longer journalists,” he explained.
Shah believes that journalism in Kashmir has been criminalised and reporters reporting facts are seen as criminals. He questions the role of the authorities for not taking the action against the people who he believes incite the real violence.
“People who incite violence in the rallies, events, in the public are being celebrated. And journalists who report facts are in jails.”
Journalists face harassment at a mass level
In Kashmir, since August 2019 after the New Delhi scrapped the erstwhile state’s limited autonomy guaranteed under Article 370 of the Constitution, journalists have repeatedly faced more threats and harassment by the police.
Many journalists have been arrested, beaten, harassed and sometimes investigated under anti-terrorism laws.
The Kashmir Press Club, an elected body of journalists in the region, has repeatedly urged the government to allow them to report freely, saying security agencies have been using physical attacks, threats and summons to muzzle the press.
In January 2020, New Delhi issued a media policy that gives the government more power to censure newspapers in the Valley. To avoid reprisals from the government, the local press in the Valley has largely stopped carrying news reports that they feel would upset the authorities.
“Journalists are facing harassment at a mass level. It is majorly happening in the outer districts, rural areas where the situation is much worse,” Shah explained.
Many journalists, activists and local politicians, including former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, condemned Gul’s arrest.
Mufti said on Twitter that radicalised groups who are openly calling for genocide of Muslims were roaming free while Kashmiri journalists who were reporting on “state-sponsored” human rights violations were being jailed.
“Laws too have been communalised,” she alleged.
Demand for release
Soon after Gul’s arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists asked the authorities to immediately release the journalist. The media watchdog on Saturday said it was “deeply disturbed” by his arrest and asked the Indian authorities to “drop their investigation related to his journalistic work”.
In June last year, the United Nations had expressed concern about the “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation” of journalists in the region. The UN statement, besides citing examples of other journalists in the region, had also mentioned Gul’s case.
“He is a student and a journalist. The job of a journalist is to bring out different aspects of the truth and pictures around us. And many are uncomfortable with this – particularly those who are more powerful. But that doesn’t mean it is a crime. Sajad’s arrest is wrong and illegal. He should be treated as a professional and should be set free immediately,” said Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times.
Bhasin said that a majority of the Indian media and media fraternity is not vocal about the intimidations and threats journalists in Kashmir face. She said that the Indian media had always had a different lens for Kashmiri journalists. At present, she added, they are not even speaking for themselves and have turned into public relations agencies for the government.
“They have viewed Kashmir from a very ultra-nationalistic perspective and always try to hide certain truths. They are not hiding or not speaking about what is happening in Kashmir or with the journalists’ fraternity here. In fact, a section of the media have come to instrumentalise and demonise the people and journalists who are victimised,” she said.
Bhasin said the although in the last year and a half, there were occasional statements by the Editors Guild of India and the Delhi Press Club, with the changing executive bodies, the voices are not very forceful. “Even those kinds of statements, if they keep coming, are important.”
Not booked for the first time
Gul has not been booked for the first time by the police. In February, he was charged with “rioting, trespassing, and assault” for a story he did for The Kashmir Walla.
Back then, The Wire spoke to Gul and he said that on February 9, he reported on a demolition drive carried out by the tehsildar of Hajin, from an area where the locals had alleged that the officer in question was “harassing and threatening” them, and had also used abusive language against them while conducting the drive.
After the report was published, Gul received a call from the tehsildar, threatening him with legal action. Later, Gul was booked under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 447 (punishment for criminal trespassing) and 353 (assaulting public servant) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by the police after the tehsildar’s complaint at the Hajin police station.
The reporter then wrote to the Kashmir Press Club, stating that he stood by the story. In the letter, Gul also said that the tehsildar, through the police, was trying to implicate him under trumped-up charges of stone-pelting.
The Kashmir Press Club had expressed concern on the case registered against the journalist.
Later in October, Gul was summoned by the same police station for questioning in connection with a news report and a video he posted on Twitter.
Gul reported a story and video for a local magazine, Mountain Ink, about a 25-year-old man, Imtiyaz Ahmed Kakroo, who was killed in a gunfight. His family was claiming that he was “innocent” and was killed in a “fake encounter” with the police.
In a recent interview with Article 14, Gul had said that soon after the story, the police had arrived at his home and asked his family to urge him to stop reporting and publishing “such stories”. This was despite the fact that there was no case registered against him or for the publication of the report.
Gul, who was not at home at that time, said that he was shocked to hear that the police were there. “I thought they might pick up my brother if I don’t present myself to them,” said Gul. The police officer had then threatened to detain his brother if he did not show up, the journalist said.
After Gul arrived at the police station, the officers threatened him with “dire consequences” and deleted his tweets.
“The officer threatened me with jail if I do not stay within my limits, or if I mention to anyone about my visit to the police station and what happened there,” Gul told Article 14.
Senior Superintendent of Police of Bandipora district told The Wire that Gul had posted tweets that could have created law and order problems in the region. “We gave him so many chances but he did not change his attitude. We told him that you can follow your journalism, do your journalism and write whatever you want to write but if you’re writing anything, you need to write our version as well,” the officer said.
He said that Gul cannot go to places where there is a protest and then tweet the video which can lead to mass protests. “If anyone would have died there, who was responsible for that – Sajad Gul,” he claimed.
“We won’t allow anybody to disrupt normal peace and tranquility. We have three FIRs against him and we have proper evidence. Mostly he was involved in eroding the emotions of people against the government and always trying to disrupt the peace,” he told The Wire on the phone.
Not sure of continuing journalism
Gul is currently enrolled in a master’s programme in journalism at the Central University of Kashmir and the news of his arrest has created a sense of fear among his classmates.
The Wire spoke to five of his fellow students, and all of them said that with such reports, their families have been asking them to switch to other courses and forget about journalism.
“After multiple requests, I had convinced my father that I would go for journalism, but now he has changed his mind after he heard news reports about journalists in Kashmir being beaten up or arrested by the police. He asked me not to think of practicing it once I finish the course,” said a student, requesting anonymity.
The students said that they had opted for journalism thinking it is an independent profession and a journalist has constitutional rights to work freely and speak up for the truth. “But in Kashmir, we see journalists are being treated like criminals and it is scary for me,” said a student. “It is better to remain silent than make your parents do rounds of the police stations and courts.”
Kaisar Andrabi is an independent journalist from Kashmir and tweets at @KAndrabi.