Here’s how a 27-year-old case is interfering with press freedom in Kashmir

Kashmir-based publisher of local Urdu daily Afaaq, Ghulam Jeelani Qadri, was arrested from his Srinagar residence in a midnight raid on Monday, over his alleged involvement in a 27-year-old terror case. Many from the journalistic community are contending that the arrest is an attack by a police state on press freedom in the Kashmir valley.

The charges against the 62-year-old are vague and are said to have some relations with his editorship of the now-defunct news agency J&K News. Back in 1992, the agency allegedly distributed press releases issued by militants, and this was when a ban was imposed on the circulation of newspapers in Kashmir.

He is among the eight journalists named in the chargesheet for publishing a statement of Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin in 1990. Only five of them are still alive today, including two,who have gone on to become state legislators and been feted with many awards. No arrests were ever made despite warrants being issued against all accused.

Hizbul Mujahideen is a pro-Pakistani militant outfit that seeks to integrate Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan as an Islamic state.

What happened at court

Qadri was arrested between 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM after he reached home from work. “It was nearly midnight when police came to arrest Qadri sahib. No reasons were given before taking him away,” said his family.

He was released on bail after a brief court appearance on Tuesday. Speaking to NewsClick, he revealed, “[…]as I reached the police station, I was asked whether I am aware of the reason behind the arrested. I replied that I did not know.”

Qadri was summoned by and produced before a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (TADA) court which granted him the bail and slammed the Jammu and Kashmir police for the peculiar arrest.

The chief judicial magistrate (CJM) is reported to have raised questions over the detainment, 26 years after the warrant.

“Why was not the warrants against Ghulam Jeelani Qadri executed all these years?” the CJM asked the police. Qadri and a lot of Kashmiri journalists have questioned the real motive behind invoking a warrant that was issued about 26 years ago.

His lawyers told the CJM that the aim of this arrest was to harass and intimidate others like him who were committed to truthful reportage from the Valley.

Qadri has been labelled a “proclaimed offender” and “absconder” by the law enforcement authorities. His brother Morifat, however, assured the court that he and Qadri had been regularly attending office and were just a phone call away.

“He would have presented himself before the police in case of any summons,” Morifat Qadri said. “The way the arrest was made shows that the aim was to harass him and his family without any rhyme or reason.” Many have also questioned the nocturnal nature of the raid and arrest; local daily Excelsior reported a police officer as saying, “police was busy during the day” which is why the arrest was made in the middle of the night.

The CJM also questioned the police on the “steps taken to produce the editor before the court, before declaring him an absconder.”

“TADA court had issued a warrant against him but he didn’t cooperate,” Haseeb Mughal, the senior superintendent of police, Srinagar, told Greater Kashmir on Tuesday. Yet, he has been given passport clearance by the same police station twice since 1993.

Critics have sought an explanation for this.

How media fraternity responded

The move has drawn sharp criticism from Kashmir’s media fraternity, including local journalists, the editors’ guild, and journalist associations, who are certain that Qadri’s arrest is yet another ploy to muzzle local press.

The Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) termed the arrest shocking and issued a statement condemning the move.

“Qadri, like every member of the media in Kashmir, is a law-abiding citizen and could have personally appeared before the police station or the court had he been informed,” KEG said, adding, “He has been a newspaper editor for last more than two decades, has contributed to the institution of media and has been in public life for three decades. How can a person be a proclaimed offender if he is available in his office in the heart of Srinagar for more than 15 hours daily?”

The Kashmir Journalists Association (KJA) and the Kashmir Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) also termed his arrest in the decades-old case an attack on press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.

Publishing statements by militants is not a new thing. Since the 1990s, after the emergence of militancy in the valleys, groups have been giving statements to agencies to publish.

Why this matters

Qadri’s arrest comes three decades after the case was registered, and at a time when press freedom in the Valley is under a severe and sustained attack. The targeting, intimidation, maltreatment, and arbitrary arrests of journalists across the country, but especially in Kashmir, has become a habitual political act, aimed at suppressing the media coverage in the conflict-torn region.

Of critical importance is the fact that he was arrested under the anti-terror law, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Enacted in 1985, TADA lapsed in 1995 due to increasing “unpopularity after widespread allegations of abuse”.

Kashmiri journalist, Asif Sultan has been languishing in jail since 2018, after being accused by the local police of harbouring militants, because he published an article in a magazine based on interviews with those associated with Hizbul Mujahideen. In 2017, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf and journalist Nisar Ul Haq were beaten up, harassed, and intimated by the J&K police for covering an encounter. Yousuf’s camera was confiscated and he was framed as a stone-pelter by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), leading to mass outrage. The act has evidently been misguidedly used to attack journalism in the region.

Even so, Rising Kashmir editor-in-chief Shujaat Bukhari was executed in the busy Press Enclave of Lal Chowk last June, but the case remains unsolved to this day. Police custody in Kashmir also tells dangerous tales of abuse of power; detained suspects have been known to die during interrogation even before conviction.

The fresh arrest of a senior journalist is, therefore, presumed to aim at intimidating the journalist fraternity. Moreover, Ghulam Jeelani has also been a member of the Kashmir Press Accreditation Committee and Press Advisory Committee since 1993.

“There is a pattern to this continued harassment of Kashmiri journalists. It won’t stop here,” Morifat told The Wire. Qadri himself said, “My arrest was a strong message to the media fraternity to keep quiet and not to fall out of the line.” 

The next hearing of the case is scheduled on July 31.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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