By Special Correspondent
New Delhi: The United Nations (UN) expressed “serious concern” over the reports of arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists in Kashmir since the state special status was revoked in August 2019. The UN officials’ Irene Khan and Elina Steiner sent a letter to the government of India and sought a response from India on the measures taken to protect journalists.
The letter was sent to the Indian government way back on June 3 but made public on Thursday August 26. It was signed by Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, and Elina Steinerte, Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Citing alleged incidents of journalist’s harassment, they noted in the letter,
“We express serious concern at the reported acts of harassment and seemingly arbitrary detention and criminal proceedings and detentions levied or imposed against the aforementioned journalists, which is reportedly related to their journalistic activities on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”.
“While awaiting a reply, we urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence and in the event that the investigations support or suggest the allegations to be correct, to ensure the accountability of any person(s) responsible for the alleged violations,” it further says.
The UN officials took note of alleged incidents of harassment of The Kashmir Walla Editor-in-Chief Fahad Shah, independent journalists Auqib Javeed and Sajar Gul, and The Kashmiriyat editor Qazi Shibli. They also raises the issue of closure of the office of the Kashmir Times newspaper also raises the issue of closure of the office of the Kashmir Times newspaper in Srinagar.
Shah had reportedly been detained without a warrant by the police in Srinagar in 2017, the UN document said. “Shah was allegedly interrogated for eight hours by a group of officers who inquired about his journalistic work and his travels,” it added.
The document also mentioned that in May 2020, the Srinagar Police had summoned Shah for questioning about The Kashmir Wallah’s coverage of a gunfight in the Nawakadal neighbourhood of downtown Srinagar.
They sought a reply from the Indian government within two months about what measures it had taken to ensure that journalists were able to work in a safe environment.
Meanwhile, Javeed, in September 2020, had allegedly been threatened and slapped by the police for his report about some officials intimidating Twitter users.
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Shibli had been detained in Anantnag in 2019 for a story about the deployment of security forces in Kashmir, the UN document said. “After being questioned intermittently, he was kept in detention under the Public Safety Act for a period of 9 months and placed in solitary confinement,” it added.
The document also mentioned the sealing of the Srinagar office of Kashmir Times, a leading English daily of the Valley in 2020.
“We are deeply concerned by the alleged closure of the Kashmir Times offices, which also seems to be connected to its independent and reportedly outspoken reporting in the region,” the UN officials said.
Khan and Steinerte said they did not want to prejudge the authenticity of the information that was available to them.
The UN officials asked the Indian government what the basis of the charges against the journalists were. “Please provide information about the journalist’s access to legal representation during the periods they were detained,” they said.
It is also to be noted that this is not the first time that the UN has raised alleged excesses issue with the Indian government. Last year in July the office of United Nations High Commissioner had been the one to express “serious concerns” over criminal proceedings and investigations initiated against four well known journalists in the region.
David Kaye, the former UN Special Rapporteur decried the police action against journalists Naseer Ganai, Gowhar Geelani, Peerzada Ashiq and Masrat Zahra as censorship. The July communication too was made public after the Indian government did not give a response within the stipulated time.
The latest letter from the UN officials reflects the worsening press freedom scenario in India. India has been under radar of a number of international media associations and journalists’ bodies for its alleged attempts to stifle press freedom. In 2021, India was ranked 142 at World Press Freedom Index making it the one of the least free countries in the world for journalists.