On 20 March, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj in a ‘NGO Terror funding Case’ of October 2020. The investigating agency is reportedly probing into “money transfer by NGOs through Hawala Channel for terrorist activities in Kashmir valley”. Irfan contributes to The Caravan magazine, Article 14 and Al Jazeera among other national and international media outlets. Irfan, who also runs the online Wande Magazine has been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). A Delhi court on Wednesday remanded Irfan to NIA custody for 10 days.
Irfan Mehraj is the fourth journalist from Kashmir currently in jail. His arrest comes days after authorities filed a chargesheet against Fahad Shah, the editor of the Kashmir Walla, who was arrested on terrorism charges last year and has been languishing in jail. The other two incarcerated journalists are Sajad Gul and Aasif Sultan.
The arrest of Irfan triggered condemnation and outrage from human rights activists and press bodies. The Press Club of India in a statement said it opposes the “imposing of UAPA on mediapersons”and added that Irfan’s arrest “ominously points towards a violation of freedom of speech and expression.” Editors Guild of India (EGI) expressed deep concern about the excessive use of UAPA against journalists and urged the state administration to respect democratic values. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, also called for his “immediate release”, a demand which was also made by Amnesty International. Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in a statement said, “this criminalisation of journalism and human rights activities in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as other parts of India, must stop.”
Statement by PUDR
PUDR strongly condemns the arrest of Irfan Mehraj, a Srinagar-based freelance journalist and researcher under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on 20 March 2023 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the so-called ‘NGO Terror funding Case’ of October 2020. Irfan’s arrest is deeply condemnable as it shows the unrelenting executive crackdown on the valley’s scribes in the name of terror activities. This attack on the professional rights of journalists is well-illustrated in the February 2022 arrest of Fahad Shah, Editor of Kashmir Wallah, in several FIRs under UAPA; the January 2022 arrest of Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter with Kashmir Wallah under sections of the Indian Penal Code for conspiracy and murder and the Public Safety Act (PSA), and the 2018 arrest of Aasif Sultan of Kashmir Reporter under the UAPA. Furthermore, apart from arrests, journalists such as Sanna Arshad Mattoo have been restricted from travelling abroad to receive the prestigious Pulitzer prize for her reportage on the second phase of COVID in India.
Within this trend, Ifran Mehraj’s arrest is even more disquieting. It coincided with the ten-day remand that a Delhi Court granted the NIA to investigate further the already jailed human rights activist Parvez Khurram of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). In the so-called NGO terror funding case, the NIA has charged Khurram with fundraising for terror activities under the garb of propagation of human rights. And since Mehraj was associated with JKCCS, his arrest is meant to establish the alleged involvement of activists and journalists in cases of terror funding. This bid to brand human rights activities and journalism as a variant of terror activities in the valley is disturbing as it shows intolerance towards independent fact-findings and reportage. It is a known fact because of continuous state pressure, reportage on the local situation and rights violations in the valley has been credibly carried out by freelance journalists and local independent platforms. The present spate of arrests is a concerted effort to silence these voices, despite international concern as expressed by the Universal Period Review, a peer evaluation body of the UN Human Rights Council in November 2022, over the widespread detention of activists and journalists under the UAPA.
The UAPA and the PSA in Kashmir are the two laws used most extensively to repress journalists. The PSA allows for the detention of up to two years, based on the “apprehension” of the commission of a crime. Under UAPA, bail is next to impossible. The targeting is blatant and shameless as the Police routinely re-arrest the accused after they are granted bail in one case. Such is what happened to Sajad Gul when he was charged under PSA in January 2022 immediately after getting bail on the IPC charges. Similarly, Aasif Sultan was implicated in a PSA case after being granted bail in the UAPA case. The data on acquittal in UAPA-related cases, like elsewhere in the country, shows the political intent behind its usage: undeterred and lengthy pre-trial detention. For instance, Kamran Yousuf was arrested by the NIA under UAPA in September 2017 under the charge of stone pelting and terror funding, among other crimes. The NIA Court in Delhi finally acquitted him in 2022 because of insufficient evidence. In January 2023, a Delhi Court gave bail to another independent photojournalist Manan Dar arrested by NIA under UAPA in October 2021, stating that the “accusation does not appear to be cogent and true”. The NIA had alleged that Manan Dar’s phone had images of security forces, deployment and pickets and that he was part of a hybrid cadre formed to spread terror through small-scale attacks. By then, the 26-year-old Dar had spent 14 months in jail already.
This criminalisation of journalism and human rights activities in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as other parts of India, must stop. Freedom of expression and the right to know are fundamental rights. A free press is essential for giving people a voice and making information available to them.
- The immediate and unconditional release of Irfan Mehraj.
- Release of Parvez Khurram and repeal of cases against him and Mehraj.
- Release of journalists and activists under UAPA and PSA.
- The immediate repeal of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act
- The immediate repeal of the Public Safety Act.
Joseph Mathai and Paramjeet Singh