Groundxero : 20 August, 2023
The Union Government has blocked the Kashmir based independent news outlet The Kashmir Walla’s website and its social media accounts without serving any notice. The twitter handle of the news website covering political, social and cultural news in the Kashmir Valley has been withheld in India and their Facebook page has become inaccessible. In a statement, the news outlet described the government’s action as an “opaque censorship” and termed it as “another deadly blow” to press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.
These developments came after Fahad Shah, the editor of the 12 year old Srinagar based news portal, was arrested in February 2022 and has been in jail since. A statement by The Kashmir Walla staff said, “On Saturday, August 19, 2023, we woke up to another deadly blow of finding access to our website and social media accounts blocked.” According to the statement, on being asked for the reason why the website was inaccessible, the server provider informed the staff on Saturday that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had blocked the website under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Later, the staff discovered that the news portal’s Facebook page with nearly half a million followers has been removed and its Twitter handle withheld “in response to a legal demand.” “We have not been served any notice nor is there any official order regarding these actions that is in the public domain so far”, the statement added. The statement said, “Since 2011, The Kashmir Walla has strived to remain an independent, credible, and courageous voice of the region in the face of unimaginable pressure from the authorities while we watched our being ripped apart, bit by bit.”
The statement also highlighted that Fahad Shah, the founder-editor, was arrested in February 2022 over the coverage of a gunfight. He went on to be arrested five times within four months. Three FIRS under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and one Public Safety Act have been registered against him. Shah was accused of “glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news and inciting general public for creating law and order situation”.
Statement: When we contacted The Kashmir Walla's server provider to ask why https://t.co/zniqt5p3zU was inaccessible, they informed us that our website has been blocked in India by the MEITY under the IT Act, 2000. pic.twitter.com/3FOwFEJwVU
— yashraj sharma (@yashjournals) August 20, 2023
The Public Safety Act allows the authorities to hold individuals in custody without trial for up to two years to prevent them from acting in any manner that is prejudicial to “the security of the state or the maintenance of the public order”. The Act can be used immediately after a person has been granted bail and even if they have been acquitted by a court. Shah was arrested in three cases and granted bail in two of them. The authorities booked Shah under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, sensing that the court may grant him bail in the third case too.
The statement read, “In April 2022, the State Investigation Agency (SIA) raided our office and Shah’s home in Srinagar for an investigation into an opinion piece published 11 years ago, in 2011. During the raid, most of our gadgets were seized, reporters were interrogated, and all documents were scrutinised. Since then, our interim editor has been summoned and questioned by the SIA multiple times. Shah remains imprisoned in this case in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail – 300 kms away from home.”
Besides Shah, Sajad Gul, who worked briefly with the news portal as a trainee reporter, was also arrested under the Public Safety Act in January 2022, and remains in a prison in Uttar Pradesh. The statement said that since 2011, The Kashmir Walla has strived to remain an independent, credible, and courageous voice of the region in the face of unimaginable pressure from the authorities while “we watched our being ripped apart, bit by bit.”
A report by a committee of the Press Council of India in 2022 has called for an end to the intimidation, arrests and detention of journalists under draconian laws in Kashmir. The committee also found a “long list of journalists who have been individually harassed” in order to “create a fear and intimidation to fall in with the government line”.
The statement by The Kashmir Walla staff concluded by stating, “The Kashmir Walla’s story is the tale of the rise and fall of press freedom in the region. Over the past 18 months, we have lost everything but you – our readers. The Kashmir Walla is beyond thankful that we were read avidly for 12 years by millions.
As to what the future holds, we are still processing the ongoing events.”