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I’m speechless, says J&K journalist Masrat Zahra after being booked for ‘anti-national’ posts

Photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under amended UAPA law in which an individual can be designated a terrorist and sentenced to jail for upto 7 years.

Masrat Zahra is a Kashmiri photojournalist | Facebook
Masrat Zahra is a Kashmiri photojournalist | Facebook

New Delhi: A Srinagar-based independent photojournalist has been booked by the Jammu and Kashmir Police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for allegedly glorifying “anti-national activities” on social media.

In a statement issued Monday by the Cyber Police Station (Kashmir Zone), the police accused Masrat Zahra of uploading “anti-national” posts with the criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offences against public tranquility.

“Cyber Police Station received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts … Facebook user is also believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order. The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify anti-national activities and dent image of
law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country,” said the police in the statement.

Although the police didn’t specify which posts of Zahra’s were unlawful, police officials cited a picture post she tweeted from her 2019 article in The New Humanitarian.

Under the amended UAPA law, individuals can be designated as terrorists and can be sentenced to jail for up to seven years.

Speaking to ThePrint, Masrat described the police action as an attempt to suppress her from bringing out stories of repression in Kashmir.

“I am among the very few female photojournalists in Kashmir and have been working really hard to learn and to create my space for the past four years. They (police) want to silence me. They want to suppress me as I bring out the repressed voices and stories of Kashmir,” she said.

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Charges against Zahra

Zahra was booked under section 13 of the UAPA and section 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on 18 April.

While section 13 of UAPA pertains to unlawful activities, section 505 of the IPC refers to offences against any class or community that causes, fear or alarm to the public. Punishment includes imprisonment for three years and/or a fine.

The section is also used to book individuals who allegedly make, publish or circulate any statement, rumour or report with the intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any offi­cer, soldier in the Army to mutiny.

Zahra had recently shared photographs she had taken for a story back in December 2019. In it, she talks about Arifa Jan, whose husband was allegedly killed by the Indian Army in 2000.

“Arifa Jan suffers frequent panic attacks nearly 2 decades after her husband was gunned down by Indian army in 2000, she can still hear the gunshots and sees her husband’s blood-soaked body when she thinks of him,” she posted last week.

Zahra also quoted Arifa to say that the man was shot 18 times.

Also read: This is how Kashmiris used Facebook, Twitter despite Modi govt ban on social media

‘Got to know through a friend’

Zahra told ThePrint that she had initially been summoned to the J&K’s Special Operation Group (SOG) headquarters, Cargo, in Srinagar on Saturday. However, she wasn’t informed why.

After the intervention of journalist colleagues, civil administration officials and senior police officers, she was informed that she was not required to go. However, the same evening, the FIR was filed.

Masrat found out about the charges Monday after a friend called her.

“In the morning a friend of mine called me and told me some journalists had tweeted that I had been booked by police. I saw the posts and then read more about the sections of UAPA I was booked under. I was speechless for a moment but my main concern at that time was not to panic my family,” Zahra said.

Zahra, like most everyone, has been staying home indoors in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s not like other shutdowns in Kashmir where one can go out to work because you can potentially be a risk to your own family if infected. So I had been home and not shared any of my work as I had essentially not been working. Recently I shared photographs I had clicked for a story I had done in 2019. That is what seems to have irked the police,” she said.

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Work in Kashmir

Zahra has over the years contributed to several national and international news agencies such as The Washington Post, The Sun, Al Jazeera and The Caravan.

Her Twitter feed includes many posts on Kashmir, the militancy, updates on Covid-19 in the state, and the occasional scenic photograph of Kashmir.

Her feed today included retweets of several colleagues and Kashmiris criticising the police action against her.

Reacting to the FIR, the Kashmir Press Club described the move as harassment.

“She (Masrat) was summoned to Cyber Police Station, Aircargo in Srinagar on April 18, 2020. However after Kashmir Press Club and Directorate of Information intervened at the highest level, the police dropped the summon. But now it emerges the police have filed a case against her with stringent charges and stringent acts and as per the conversation with Masrat, she has been asked to come to the Police Station concerned on Tuesday, April 21, 2020,” said the KPC.

The statement also mentioned another journalist, Peerzada Ashiq, who reports for The Hindu, who was questioned for alleged inaccuracies while reporting.

The New Delhi-based Network of Women in Media demanded the FIR against Masrat be dropped, and described the charges as preposterous in the extreme, amounting to intimation.

The J&K Peoples Democratic Party said these incidents were a “systematic pattern of assault on freedom of expression”, while former minister Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference condemned the FIR.

“Is this the new state of affairs? Things weren’t too good in the old state of affairs either but attempts to silence the media were not as brazenly and shamelessly implemented … We express our solidarity with Masrat Zahra,” said party spokesperson Adnan Ashraf.

Journalists in the region have often accused the administration of not allowing press freedoms and harassing them by having them questioned or booked by police. Earlier this year in February, the Kashmir Press Club came out with a statement documenting the harassment against nearly dozen journalists in the Valley, including those working for regional and national news publications.

International bodies such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders have also time and again raised concerns over the situation of press freedoms in the region.

(With inputs from Revathi Krishnan, New Delhi)

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