Criminalising a woman journalist’s work, social media posts is outrageous, undemocratic and attempt to throttle media
Registration of an FIR against a Kashmiri woman journalist, Masarat Zahra, under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code for merely sharing on her social media account her published works is yet another instance of how the government is making all out attempts to harass, intimidate and victimise the press. The charges levelled against her are preposterous and signify a new low in the onslaught on the freedom of the press which has faced multiple challenges in the past three decades and has been virtually throttled post-August 5, 2019. In the last eight months, not only was the media decapacitated from operating by choking it financially and by taking away the vital tools of communication on which the media professionals depend.
Media persons were also physically intimidated. Many journalists including senior ones have been summoned on the slightest of pretext by the police and questioned about their reports and asked to disclose their sources of information which has created an absolute atmosphere of fear, leading to the shrivelling of free press. A silence on information has been managed through this extremely intimidating atmosphere in Jammu and Kashmir. While much of the media professionals have become silent, many of them continue to brave all the challenges and bring out stories about factual position on the ground. Masarat Zahra, a reputed photo-journalist, was one among them. The booking of a criminal case against her reveals the extent of intolerance to the idea of free speech and freedom of the press.
It also reveals that the government is brazen enough to go to any extent to gag, muffle and fully kill the media. Another senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq has also been booked but details about the case and charges are not known.
That the government is using the present lockdown meant for waging a battle against the Coronavirus to strengthen its surveillance mechanisms and target the media professionals is also extremely unfortunate. Kashmir is not an exception in the manner in which the lockdown has threatened the existence of media-persons across the country.
While many of them have lost jobs because their organisations are bearing losses due to the lock-down, some like senior journalist Siddhartha Vardarajan have been targeted by lodging concocted criminal cases against them. The charges that Masarat Zahra has been booked under are far more grave, even though they do not apply to either her body of journalistic work or her social media posts. These charges are similar to those under which another journalist Aaquib Sultan was booked two years ago for his report on the internal dynamics of militancy. It is the job of the journalists to inform the public and tell the truth, howsoever, bitter that may sound for those in the corridors of power. A robust democracy requires that the government allows the press to operate without suppressing it, much less intimidating it to toe the line of the powerful, so that the journalists can perform their job and the public’s right to information is not violation. Both are inalienable constitutional rights and must be respected. The government must immediately revoke this outrageous case and end all forms of intimidation on journalists across the country, particularly in Kashmir, where the levels of suppression are increasing phenomenally with more and more crude methods of gagging media persons being employed. The government must be seen as the protector of freedom of press instead of treating the free press with contempt because one of the greatest measures of democracy is the extent of freedom that the press enjoys.