Indian authorities have provoked a backlash by arresting the editor of a leading Kashmir-based news site, a decision that has alarmed civil society advocates who say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is throttling press freedom.
Fahad Shah, editor-in-chief of the Kashmir Walla, was arrested and detained at the weekend for allegedly “glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news and instigating people”, the region’s inspector general of police Vijay Kumar told ANI, the Indian news agency.
Shah was placed in custody for 10 days on charges of sedition, according to the Kashmir Walla, in connection with its reporting of a shoot-out last month in the city of Pulwama, when Indian troops killed several militants, including a teenager. He could face years in prison if convicted.
The news outlet had reported testimony from family members who disputed authorities’ allegations that the teenager was an insurgent.
Shah’s detention followed the arrest of Sajad Gul, another journalist at the Kashmir Walla, last month for reporting on a protest against Indian authorities.
Press freedom advocates said the arrests were evidence of the alleged criminalisation of reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Himalayan territory that has for decades been home to a violent insurgency and heavy-handed Indian crackdowns. Kashmir is disputed between India and Pakistan, which is accused of fostering the insurgency.
“The arrest of Fahad Shah shows Jammu and Kashmir authorities’ utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely,” said Steven Butler, Asia programme co-ordinator at the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a leading pro-democracy leader, also condemned Shah’s arrest. “Standing up for the truth is deemed anti national. Showing the mirror to a deeply intolerant and authoritarian government is also anti national . . . How many Fahad’s will you arrest?” she wrote on Twitter.
Since the Modi government revoked a constitutional article guaranteeing political autonomy to Kashmir in 2019, the territory has faced successive lockdowns and internet shutdowns.
Indian authorities have used national security and anti-terror laws to quash perceived displays of dissent, including from journalists reporting on criticism of military action in Kashmir. Officials have defended such steps as necessary for preserving law-and-order in a highly volatile security situation.
Standing up for the truth is deemed anti national. Showing the mirror to a deeply intolerant & authoritarian government is also anti national. Fahad’s journalistic work speaks for itself & depicts the ground reality unpalatable to GOI. How many Fahad’s will you arrest? https://t.co/G22lN487zc
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) February 4, 2022
The crackdown on Kashmiri media reflects broader concerns about the strain on press freedom in India, where journalists have faced mounting pressure from authorities in response to critical reporting.
The government was accused last year of using Pegasus phone-hacking software developed by NSO, an Israeli technology company, to surveil journalists. The government has denied the allegations.
The Kashmir Walla was founded in 2011 to report on local issues, politics and culture in Jammu and Kashmir.
Amelia Newcomb, managing editor of the US-based Christian Science Monitor, for which Shah was a correspondent, urged Indian authorities to release him. The Christian Science Monitor said Shah had faced “protracted harassment by the police”.