Twenty-six-year old Masrat Zahra took to twitter and decided to let her friends and family, and perhaps hundreds of others following her case know that she was doing fine and following procedures. She had been called in, perhaps for the second time, yesterday to the Cyber Cell for questioning. To everyone’s relief she confirmed that she had not been arrested “I met the concerned police officials of the case and answered their questions regarding the investigation, I have not been arrested and the investigation is going. Thanks all for the support.”
I met the concerned police officials of the case and answered their questions regarding the investigation, I have not been arrested and the investigation is going. Thanks all for the support.
— Masrat Zahra (@Masratzahra) April 21, 2020
Her social media update on being safe is a tad ironic when one recalls that Zahra had been booked for allegedly “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility.” The Cyber Police, Srinagar, has charged Zahra under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
According to the press release, issued by the Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone, Srinagar, the FIR was filed against a ‘Facebook user’ on April 18, under Section 13 of the UAPA and Section 505 of the IPC. Investigations are on, the press release stated and alleged: ‘The Facebook user, identified by the name Masrat Zahra, is uploading photographs that can provoke the public to disturb law and order and glorify anti-national activities.’
Tahir Ashraf, SP, Incharge Cyber Police Kashmir himself posted: “Cyber Police Station Kashmir registered FIR against a social media user for posting incriminating material which attracts the provisions of UA(P)A and IPC. Investigation has been set into motion. One of the glimpses”
Cyber Police Station Kashmir registered FIR against a social media user for posting incriminating material which attracts the provisions of UA(P)A and IPC. Investigation has been set into motion. One of the glimpses ?? pic.twitter.com/FMQ4BfBZ4w
— Tahir Ashraf (@Tahir_A) April 20, 2020
Author and journalist Gowhar Geelani, too was booked for using social media platforms for allegedly “indulging in unlawful activities.” reports the KashmirWallah. According to the report the police claimed that Geelani’s posts and writings were “prejudicial to national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”
In a statement, the police said: “The unlawful activities include glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public that may lead to commission of offences against public tranquility and the security of State.”
In the last two days, the same law has been used to book Muslim activists, students and journalists. They are journalists Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Ashiq, Gowhar Geelani; Jamia Millia Islamia students Meeran Haider, and Safoora Zargar, and well known student leader Dr Umar Khalid, from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
The journalists, who hail from and work in Jammu & Kashmir have found words of solidarity being voiced by many in the fraternity. The Editors Guild of India has issued a statement expressing “shock and concern the high-handed manner in which the law enforcement agencies in Jammu & Kashmir have used the prevailing laws to deal with two Srinagar-based journalists, Masrat Zahra, a young freelance photographer, and Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter working for The Hindu.”
Using such a law was a “gross misuse of power” said the Guild, adding that the purpose was to “strike terror” into journalists working in Kashmir, and also indirectly intimidate the journalists working in the rest of the country as well.
“The journalists should be put to no harm or further harassment. If the government has any grievance against their reporting, there are other ways of dealing with such issues in the normal course. Mere social media posts of factual pictures can’t attract the toughest anti-terror laws passed for hardened terrorists” stated the Guild.
They said if the authorities had any objection to The Hindu reporter Peerzada Ashi’s report the matter should have been raised with the newspaper’s editor. The Guild has demanded that the “Union Territory administration of Jammu & Kashmir withdraw the charges forthwith”.
The Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) too expressed its shock at how the law-enforcement authorities in Jammu & Kashmir, “invoked laws to clamp down on freedom of speech and expression that violate fundamental rights laid down in the Constitution.”
The IWPC said that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) used against freelance photographer Masarat Zahra, a fellow woman journalist, is an Act meant to deal with hardened terrorists. While FIRs have been lodged against Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter with The Hindu newspaper based in Srinagar and Gowhar Geelani, a freelance journalist.
The IWPC noted that the intentions of the authorities in J&K was to “strike fear in the hearts of journalists who are simply doing their job. This is a clear message that the Union Territory will not tolerate dissent.”
The women’s press corps reiterate that, “Masarat Zahra had only posted some pictures on social media. Peerzada Ashiq had just filed a report, while Gowhar Geelani’s commentary attracted the displeasure of the government. They too hoped that “these structures are withdrawn at the earliest.”
Earlier the Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) has issued a strong statement expressing shock at the charges made against its Kashmir-based member, award-winning photojournalist, Masrat Zahra saying. A member of the Kashmir chapter of NWMI had written an impassioned letter seeking support for Masrat, and for all journalists, especially women writers and photographers working in Kashmir saying, “Journalism, after all, is not a crime. We are less than 15 female journalists actively working in Kashmir though there may be many others. We cover stories in shoulder to shoulder with men under very difficult and critical circumstances. We don’t even comprise one percent in the field which is dominated by men. Please do not fail us.”
Masarat Zahra has been freelancing for organisations like Getty Images, The Sun, The Washington Post, Al-Arabiya (UK) , Rising Kashmir and The Quint. She has shared many of her previously published photographs on Facebook.
The NWMI has said that it believes that the “charges are preposterous in the extreme and amount to rank intimidation of a journalist, and one who has won acclaim for her work, which documents the lived experiences of the people of Kashmir. Her special sensitivity towards the plight of women living under conflict in one of the most highly militarised zones in the world has been featured in both national and international publications of repute.”
The NWMI has demanded that the FIR lodged against Masrat Zahra be dropped, and that the police and security forces in Kashmir, and across the country stop the intimidation and harassment of journalists.
The Delhi Union of Journalists is appalled at the arbitrary FIR against Kashmir’s only woman photojournalist Masarat Zahra, under the draconian UAPA which permits indefinite detention. The police have also filed an FIR and interrogated senior journalist Ashiq Peerzada of The Hindu for a story he recently published. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for an end to harassment of Zahra and Peerzada.
In fact, in what will now sound ironical as she faces ‘sedition’ charges, Masrat Zahra was once trolled and vilified online and called “army informer”. This, according to the NWMI was in connection with her photograph entitled ‘Gun vs Camera’, posted on 15 May, 2018, which shows her at work, covering an encounter between the Indian Army and a group of militants in Kachdoora, Shopian. At that time also the network had issued a statement and said, “such vicious and irresponsible labelling of a journalist in an already polarised political climate is dangerous and must be unequivocally condemned”. A member of the NWMI’s Kashmir chapter had earlier shared a detailed note seeking solidarity from the media fraternity.
This is the second time in the recent past that the UAPA has been deployed against journalists in Kashmir. Journalist Aasif Sultan, who was arrested in August 2018 under the UAPA for an article on the slain militant leader Burhan Wani, published in the ‘Kashmir Narrator’, is still in jail.
Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India also issued a statement and called the police action against journalists the “the authorities’ attempt to curb the right to freedom of expression.” He added that such “harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal.”
According to Amnesty international the situation in Kashmir, is “compounded through the general lockdown, prolonged restrictions on internet speed and arbitrary detentions often without any kind of documentation, access to lawyers and recourse to justice. This severely undermines the human rights guarantees of the people of Kashmir and denies the people in India and around the world’s right to know.”
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