Fahad Shah, and the perils of reporting in Kashmir

ON SATURDAY EVENING LOCAL TIME, Fahad Shah, a thirty-three-year-old independent journalist and the editor in chief of the Kashmir Walla, was arrested by the police of Shopian, Kashmir. This arrest came just hours after Shah had been released on bail in the nation’s capital, Srinagar; he had previously been arrested on February 4, on charges of “frequently glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news, and instigating people” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a notoriously draconian anti-terrorism law. The Kashmir Walla reports that the Shopian charges are connected to reporting from January 2021, for which Shah faces charges of “provocation with intent to cause riot” and “statements conducive to public mischief” under the same law. He remains in police custody at the Imamsahib police station in Shopian.

“It is just devastating,” said a local colleague, who declined to be named. “We thought we were so close and got him home…and then it happened.”

The February 4 charges of posting “antinational” content concerned the Kashmir Walla’s evenhanded coverage of a gunfight between government forces and alleged militants. Shah published a report quoting the family of Inayat Ahmad Mir, seventeen, who was killed in the gunfight; Mir’s family denied the police’s claim that Mir had been a “hybrid terrorist,” or camouflaged militant. Despite the Kashmir Walla’s inclusion of a police statement contradicting the family’s claims, Shah was charged with sedition under the UAPA.

In a statement, Delhi’s People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a civil rights organization, criticized the “definitional vagueness” of the UAPA and demanded the law’s repeal. “If the police are able to discern ‘intention’ in social media posts and in journalistic pieces, then fundamental freedoms have no meaning outside of what the police feels and believes,” the statement read. It added that “presenting both sides of the story, as Shah does, [is] not tantamount to glorification of terrorism. It is a part of objective reportage.” The Editorial Guild of India argued that Shah’s arrest took place “on specious grounds,” and suggested that authorities’ real motive is to question and detain journalists as punishment for criticizing the establishment.

The region of Jammu and Kashmir has been in contention between Pakistan and India for decades. It enjoyed relative autonomy during the British colonial occupation, and retained a degree of self-rule after Partition in 1947. But in August 2019, the Modi government revoked the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, putting it effectively under the control of the Indian government. Shah’s arrest is the latest in a series of punitive efforts by police to target journalists in Kashmir with detention and harassment since then.

Shah, who has been the target of harassment on several previous occasions, was in poor health at the time of his February 4 arrest, and was held in a cell without heat or electricity for twenty-two days. A group of fifty-eight publications, press freedom groups, and human rights organizations is calling for the release of Shah and all other jailed journalists in Kashmir.

Shah’s coverage of anti-Muslim violence in Delhi for The Nation was awarded the 2021 Human Rights Press Award for Explanatory Feature Writing. He has been a brave and honest champion of independent journalism in a place where such work comes with enormous risks—a sentiment echoed by Don Guttenplan, editor in chief of The Nation. “Those of us who write from comfortable offices can only try to appreciate the courage it takes to do the work he and his colleagues do every day,” Guttenplan tells CJR. “But it is essential work, not just for Fahad, or the readers of the Kashmir Walla, but for all of us who claim the title of journalists and reporters, rather than mere stenographers to power.”

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