Press freedom under curbs
Arrests cannot be used to silence voices or hide information
September 6, 2018
The arrest of a Kashmiri journalist on grounds that are neither clear nor sound enough legally once again raises questions about the threat to freedom of press, which is already under severe strain amidst intimidations and threats from all sides in a conflict situation. The reports are conflicting depending on what the source of information is. The different reports quoting police are also varied. According to these the police maintains that the journalist Aasif Sultan has been arrested for ‘harbouring militants’, has found incriminating evidence on his computer. The journalist, according to some cops, is charged of writing against the security forces. The latter two are not tenable arguments and if the case indeed is of harbouring militants, the police should have sufficient evidence to prove the charge. The family and editor of the detained journalist, Aasif Sultan, have expressed concern that the journalist has been arrested after his cover story on militant Burhan Wani, which gives a detailed account of the ground position in militant organizations and gives an informative insight into the intricate dynamics of cohesion and differences within the militant groups, while relying on several accounts including those of over-ground workers of militant groups. If writing of the article is being confused with harbouring of militants, it is not a valid assumption. A journalist’s job is to collect different perspectives and inform; different perspectives may involve meeting cross-section of people, some who may also be on the wrong side of the law, which cannot be concluded as an act of criminality. The family also alleged that he is being pressurised into disclosing his sources. The police has yet to make an official statement as to why the journalist has been arrested and this enhances the suspicions of foul play. The police has no legal right into arm twisting any journalist, discharging his or duty in collecting information and sharing it with public, into revealing his sources. If the problem is volume of material found in the computer of the arrested journalist, this may be a frivolous charge. As pointed out by Kashmir Editors Guild also, every journalist’s laptop will have volumes of so-called incriminating material because data collection is the fundamental activity of reporters.
The arrest follows the similar pattern of previous cases of persecution of journalists at the hands of the government. Earlier, the NIA sought to justify the arrest of a journalist by poking holes in his credibility on grounds that he had never covered a government function, an assumption that is incompatible with law. The NIA’s objections were also on grounds that the arrested journalist was among the first to reach the site of stone-pelting, which only goes to prove the journalist’s efficiency and not some criminality. In 2016, when the state government banned a newspaper, it called the entire newspaper as ‘objectionable’ without pointing to precise contents and quantifying the objections as per law. Sweeping remarks cannot be used to persecute journalists through a process of criminalisation. The investigating agencies need to first understand the basic nature of the job of a professional journalist working in the field, which is best discharged through an unbiased collection of data, quarrying of information from all kinds of sources, and then putting it together for the reader or viewer. They also need to understand that opinions being expressed by journalists in their comment pieces are often critical of government positions, policies and actions and this is cover under the fundamental right to expression. None of the agencies of the government have any business trying to judge the bonafides of a professional journalist. The latter may be held liable only if there is some serious evidence of his wrong-doing and criminal intent as per the law of the land not on basis of some highly opinionated notions of some officers. The journalists in Kashmir are already working on the razor’s edge, facing constant physical intimidation. The shocking murder of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari in June has instilled a sense of panic and fear among journalists, further restricting their space of operating freely. It is important that the government gives the press the much needed confidence or atleast allows the media to operate as freely as possible without the different pulls and pressures to make them toe a particular line.
News Updated at : Wednesday, September 5, 2018