Srinagar: Parents of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who has been in jail for almost a year now in Srinagar, Saturday learnt their son had won a prestigious award – two days after the announcement. They, however, were clueless about the name of the award or who has given it — thanks to the communication restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Someone told me that my son had been given an award this week. I don’t know who has given it or what does it mean for his case, but whoever has taken this step, I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart,” said his father Mohammad Sultan, a retired government official.
When told about the details of the award, Sultan said, “It is an honour for me and my son Aasif. I am obliged to the people who have recognised my son’s struggle and dedication towards his profession.”
Aasif, 31, was awarded the Press Freedom Award by American National Press Club Thursday, but most people, including journalists, who have stood by him, aren’t aware of the development.
The National Press Club announced it was giving its annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award this year “to a journalist in Kashmir jailed for nearly a year for his reporting and to a U.S. reporter who has doggedly produced important accountability journalism despite harassment from powerful people.”
“Sultan was imprisoned last August and is accused of aiding insurgents even though he merely reported on them…Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir, a region in northern India that is partly controlled by India and partly by Pakistan,” the National Press Club said in a statement, also criticising the “communications blackout” imposed in Kashmir by the Modi government.
‘Held to intimidate journalist fraternity in Kashmir’
Aasif was arrested on the intervening night of 27 and 28 August last year on charges of providing support to militants, an allegation his family strongly refutes. The accusations are rubbished by his colleagues as well, who say the police action was meant to “intimidate not just Aasif, but the entire journalist fraternity in Kashmir.”
“Before his arrest, Aasif had done a story titled ‘The Rise of Burhan Wani’. We got a lot of calls from the police asking Aasif to meet them and we had told them they he will do so right after Eid. But they didn’t wait for him to go to them. They came for him in the middle of the night,” said Sultan.
Aasif was then working for a Kashmir-based magazine Kashmir Narrator.
“It’s been a year. I am waiting for the day when he walks in through our door,” said Aasif’s mother Hajra Sultan.
Aasif got married in 2016 and has a one-and-half-year old daughter.
According to his father, Aasif’s inclination towards journalism began early. Aasif had got through medical college, but decided to pursue journalism instead.
In fact, he also qualified for three different fields — masters in library sciences, Islamic Studies and journalism — at the University of Kashmir, but opted for journalism, his father said.
An acquaintance of Aasif, who did not wish to be identified, describes him as a thorough professional. “He was interested in religion and follows it faithfully. But foremost, he is a professional journalist, who is being punished for the work he has done.”
‘He was simply doing his job’
Aasif’s friends and colleagues say it was his stories and profile of slain Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani that caught the attention of the authorities.
“He was simply doing his job. Haven’t militants been interviewed previously? Aasif had just done a profile of Burhan Wani,” said a colleague who wished to remain anonymous.
The police claims Aasif was harbouring militants at his residence. They also claimed to have found a letter-head belonging to Hizbul Mujahideen at his home.
“All of this is a big lie. They had also arrested a female before Aasif and shown her as an accomplice. She got bail and in court she told the judge that she didn’t even know Aasif,” said Sultan.
He added that police have on many occasions said to him that Aasif had glorified Wani.
“Hundreds of people wrote about him from national and international press, but my son was being punished for discharging his duties,” said Sultan.
A senior police officer told ThePrint that evidence against Sultan was “strong”, but refused to disclose more since the case is in court.
Meanwhile, Aasif has already missed two court hearings twice this month — one on 6 August and another on 21 August — as the courts are not functioning because of the restive situation in the Valley. His next hearing is scheduled on 5 September.
This report has updated to reflect the correct age of Aasif Sultan. The error is regretted.