Indian authorities have released a prominent Kashmir journalist on bail nearly two years after he was arrested on accusations of publishing “anti-national content” and “glorifying terrorism” in the disputed Himalayan region.
Fahad Shah, founder and editor of news portal The Kashmir Walla, was arrested in February 2022 under India’s sedition and anti-terror laws. He was released on Thursday after a court last week granted him bail, saying there was not enough evidence to try him for terrorism and quashed some of the charges.
The 21 months' confinement of Shah, who is also a correspondent for U.S. newspaper Christian Science Monitor and other international outlets, highlighted the widening crackdown against journalists and freedom of expression in the contested region. The Indian government banned The Kashmir Walla earlier this year for undeclared reasons.
“What he and his colleagues at The Kashmir Walla actually did was to report widely and honestly about events in Kashmir, where journalists operate in an increasingly oppressive and hostile atmosphere,” Mark Sappenfield, editor of The Christian Science Monitor, wrote on Monday after Shah was granted bail.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, press freedoms in India have steadily shrunk since he was first elected in 2014.
At the time, the country was ranked 140th in the global press freedom index by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. This year, the watchdog has ranked India at 161 out of 180 nations — below the Philippines and Pakistan. The slide has nowhere been more glaring than in Kashmir.
Muslim-majority Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world and the fighting has left tens of thousands of people dead.
Media has always been tightly controlled in India’s part. Arm twisting and fear have been extensively used to intimidate the press since 1989, when rebels began fighting Indian soldiers in a bid to establish an independent Kashmir or union with Pakistan. Pakistan controls Kashmir’s other part and the two countries fiercely claim the territory in full.
Kashmir’s diverse media flourished despite relentless pressure from Indian authorities and rebel groups. But their situation has gotten dramatically worse since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019, throwing Kashmir under a severe security and communication lockdown and the media in a black hole. A year later, the government’s new media policy sought to control the press more effectively to crack down on independent reporting.
Since then, dozens of people have been arrested, interrogated and investigated under harsh anti-terror laws as authorities began filing criminal cases against some journalists in a campaign that has been widely seen as criminalization of journalists in Kashmir. Several of them have been forced to reveal their sources, while others have been physically assaulted.
Authorities have pressed newspapers by chastising editors and starving them of advertisement funds, their main source of income, to chill aggressive reporting.
Fearing reprisals, local media has largely wilted under the pressure and most newspapers appear to have cooperated and self-censored stories, afraid to be branded anti-national by a government that equates criticism with secessionism.
The court in its judgment said that although getting bail under India's anti-terror law was difficult, it could not be denied to Shah because he did not pose a “clear and present danger” to society if released.
“It would mean that any criticism of the central government can be described as a terrorist act because the honor of India is its incorporeal property," the court said in its bail order. "Such a proposition would collide headlong with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the constitution.”
Shah continues to face trial under other sections of the anti-terror law.