Based in Srinagar, J&K’s capital, Masrat Zahra is facing up to seven years in prison under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on a charge brought against her on 18 April of posting photos and other content on social media that “glorify anti-national activities.”
Zahra told RSF she received a summons from the Srinagar police on the evening of 18 April, to which she responded that “it would be difficult for me to go out during the lockdown because I had no co curfew pass.”
It was only from tweets posted by the police this morning (20 April) that Zahra learned that she is charged under the UAPA and that a complaint – known in India as a First Information Report (FIR) – had also been filed against her under Section 505 of the Penal Code, which punishes inciting “an offence against the state or against public tranquillity.”
Under the UAPA, the National Investigation Agency (India’s counter-terrorism police), are allowed to detain suspects for extended periods without any kind of formal charge.
“I’m completely at a loss,” Zahra told RSF. “It’s about pictures that I already published in the past. I am a professional photojournalist with no political agenda.” She risks being arrested and jailed when she reports to the National Investigation Agency tomorrow.
“In the absence of any substantiation by the police, we call on the Jammu and Kashmir authorities to immediately drop these outrageous charges against Masrat Zahra,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “These proceedings clearly amount to intimidation and, as such, directly violate article 19 (1a) of India’s 1950 constitution. This photojournalist must be allowed to continue her work without fear of further harassment attempts.”
Branded in the police tweet as an “anti-national Facebook user,” Zahra is widely recognized as being exceptionally skilled at capturing the everyday life of the Kashmiri people. Her photos are often used by the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the Indian news website The Caravan, the British tabloid The Sun, the French magazine So Foot and the Turkish broadcaster TRT.
When contacted by RSF, several Kashmiri journalists testified to her professionalism. “Filing an FIR under a stringent law could have been avoided, especially when all journalists agree that there is nothing ‘anti-national’ in the work she has shared online,” Srinagar-based freelancer Athar Parvaiz said.
“She is a young journalist who has been very passionate about her work,” Kashmir Press Club vice-president Moazum Mohammad said. “Filing a case against her under the UAPA is very unjust. It is a serious attack on press freedom.”
Kashmiri author and political commentator Gowhar Geelani added: “This speaks volumes about the gags against media to silence journalists, to control the narratives by use of force, and to contain the Kashmir story with lawlessness."
Other journalists, including Mushtaq Ahmad Ganaie and Umaisar Gull, have been recently harassed and intimidated during the Covid-19 pandemic in Kashmir.
It was confirmed to RSF, this evening (20 April), that the J&K police have now filed an FIR against The Hindu reporter, Peerzada Ashiq, regarding what is deemed “a fake news item” published in the newspaper.
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.