Over the last few years, some international media organizations wittingly or unwittingly have launched a misinformation campaign regarding limiting free speech and ‘harassing’ journalists in India, and especially in Kashmir in a way to position their sympathy with the media in valley. The latest in the list is a story carried by New York Times in its April 16 edition titled: “Kashmir Journalists Face Forbidding Pattern: Arrest, Bail, Re-arrest.” The story is based on mere imagination and fake perception as the ‘journalists’ whose names have been mentioned in the story are all facing multiple cases for their involvement in unlawful and terrorism related activities.

Asif Sultan, whose case the NYT story has mentioned, is facing serious charges of abetting terrorists and has been jailed for the crime since August 2018. Sultan, who was granted a bail by a local court in one case last week, was re-arrested by the police in another terror case. But the bail order of the Sultan clearly mentions that he can be released in case he is not wanted in any other cases.

What are the charges Sultan is facing?

According to J&K police investigations, he was in constant contact with Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists, and used to glorify terrorism in his news reports prior to his arrest in 2018. The investigations reveal that he was in contact with Abass Sheikh, the self-styled chief of The Resistance Front (TRF) terror outfit, who was killed by police last November. TRF is believed to be Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in disguise. Before becoming the chief of TRF, Sheikh was a senior commander of Hizbul till 2019. According to independent sources sheikh was instrumental in reviving terrorism in capital city Srinagar due to his motivational skills. After the killing of terrorist commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, Sheikh had shifted his base from south Kashmir to Srinagar.

According to police, it was Sultan, who harbored Sheikh and few other terrorists at his residence in congested Batamaloo area in Srinagar several times from 2016 to 2018. “Even the terrorists, who killed veteran journalist Shujat Bukhari on 14 June 2018 outside Srinagar’s press enclave had been provided logistic support by Sultan,” a senior police officer revealed. According to the police charge-sheet filed in a local court not only Sultan, who worked with now defunct and little known local news magazine ‘Kashmir Narrator’, would harbor militants, but in his stories would often give coverage to Hizbul terrorists, especially Burhan Wani, to attract youth towards terrorist organisations.

“He had taken shield of journalism to promote terror activities. During its three-year publication, the magazine had negligible advertisement and it was only through money being pumped in by terror outfits that the magazine was sustaining. After the crackdown on hawala money channels in Kashmir, the magazine wound up,” the officer added.

Charges against Fahad Shah

Another case which the NYT story has highlighted is that of Fahad Shah, the editor of a news portal called “The Kashmir Walla.” He is wanted in three separate cases for glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news and inciting general public for creating law and order problems. No law in the world states that if a person is granted a bail in one case, can’t be re-arrested, if he has committed another crime.

Shah, who hails from a lower-middle class family and whose father worked in J&K police, would always upload anti-national content including photographs, videos and posts with criminal intention to create fear among the public. The same can be verified from his social media accounts and the website of “The Kashmir Walla.” Shah’s story too is murky which the NYT reporter never tried to highlight and instead in a biased manner highlighted only those portions which suited it. The NYT reporter never mentioned the anti-national activities Shah, Sultan and others have taken under the cover of journalism.

Who is Sajjad Gul?

The third ‘victim journalist’ in the NYT story is Sajjad Gul, who worked as a ‘reporter’ with Shah’s news portal. Gul, who hails from north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, came into limelight after tehsildar of the area filed a complaint against him for interfering in his work. In the name of journalism Gul was trying to pressurize the Tehsildar to side with a particular party in a land dispute in the area in 2020. As Gul felt the heat, he played the victim card on social media by stating that he was being victimised for doing journalism which is far from the reality and can be checked from the police records. Before his arrest, he uploaded videos on social media highlighting anti-national slogans raised by a few people in a house of killed Lashker terrorist Saleem Parray on January 3, 2022. Parray, a dreaded terrorist, was involved in silting throats of several civilians in Hajin before he was killed by security forces.

Recent incidents where terrorists used press as shield

On March 30 security forces killed two Lashker-e-Toiba terrorists in congested Rainawari area of old city Srinagar. One of them, Rayees Bhat was masquerading as a journalist before his luck ran out. Similarly, Aadil Farooq Bhat, who worked with a local news gathering agency CNS, was arrested with two hand grenades in city center Lal Chowk in Srinagar on August 10, 2021. Aadil was arrested soon after a grenade attack in the vicinity that left 10 civilians injured. Prior to that in 2019, he was arrested for terror links and Public Safety Act (PSA) was slapped against him by the J&K Police. However, he managed to get a bail.

Unfortunately, publications like NYT never quote such cases when they write stories about press freedom in conflict hit Kashmir. Any state in the world takes action against anyone, regardless of his profession, who is involved in any activity that poses a threat to the country’s security and sovereignty. Moreover motivating the youth into anti-national activities by spilling in them the hatred and radicalization. People like Sultan, Shah and Gul are being projected by some media organizations as “champions of press freedom” while reality is that they masquerade as journalists. If the NYT and others will dig deeper and write without any bias, the reality of such ‘journalists’ will be exposed.

The freedom of expression is never absolute as it carries with it special responsibilities, and may be restricted on several grounds. Those who write on Kashmir and freedom of press must write about the killing of a dozen journalists, including Shujat Bukhari, by the terrorists in Kashmir since 1990. Dozens of journalists are being threatened from across the border day-in and day-out for reporting factual and ground situations. But alas it has no takers as truth is bitter!