Editor arrested in Kashmir as press crackdown escalates

A prominent journalist has been arrested under terrorism and sedition laws, as a crackdown on the press in Indian-administered Kashmir continues to escalate.

Fahad Shah, the founder and editor of the widely read local news website The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on Friday evening when he was summoned to a police station in the southern district of Pulwama.

Shah, 33, who has reported about Kashmir for several international publications including the Guardian, had built his blog into a formidable news website. Despite mounting pressure and threats, he and his team of reporters had continued to cover alleged human rights abuses carried out by the military in the region.

Kashmir’s police chief, Insp Gen Vijay Kumar, told reporters that Shah “has been arrested on the basis of one of the three FIRs [first information reports] lodged against him for frequently glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news, and instigating people, for the past three to four years”.

Police detained Shah under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), an anti-terrorism law which authorities are frequently accused of misusing, and under the archaic sedition law, in connection with his website’s report of a gunfight between the military and alleged militants in Pulwama. The report had included allegations by the family that the “militant” slain by the Indian military was an innocent civilian.

He has been placed in 10-day police custody, according to a statement issued by his website. Under the UAPA, police have the right to detain Shah for up to six months without charges and it is notoriously difficult to get bail under the law. “If convicted, he faces life imprisonment,” the Kashmir Walla statement said.

Shah’s lawyer, Umair Ronga, who filed a bail application on his behalf, called the arrest under terrorism laws “shocking” and “the end of the rule of law” in Kashmir.

“He is a decorated journalist and a firm believer of the majesty of the law. His arrest is unwarranted,” said Ronga on Twitter.

Shah’s arrest comes in the wake of an aggressive crackdown on independent journalists in Kashmir, which is disputed between India and Pakistan and home to a long-running violent militant insurgency.

Last month, Sajad Gul, a journalist who had contributed to The Kashmir Walla, was detained under the Public Safety Act, another anti-terror law, and still remains in jail. Other journalists have faced raids and interrogations for their reporting and social media posts or been placed on no-fly lists.

The Kashmir Press Club, which had been a home for independent journalists in the region for decades, was also unilaterally shut down last month after a “coup” by reportedly pro-government journalists, escorted by armed police. Speaking to the Guardian in the aftermath of the closure, before his arrest, Shah said that “journalism is being choked in the region.”

Shah’s arrest was said to mark a new low in press freedom in Kashmir, which has been subjected to a withering crackdown on civil rights in the last three years, after prime minister Narendra Modi’s government took away Kashmir’s autonomy and brought it fully under central government control.

The Editors Guild of India called for the “immediate release” of Shah and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a strongly worded statement.

“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, the CPJ’s Asia coordinator in Washington.