In a letter to the Indian government on June 3, the United Nation's rights experts asked the basis behind the detention of four journalists from Kashmir and the allotment closure of the Kashmir Times' office.
The letter itself, written by UN Human Rights Council-appointed Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan and Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Elina Steinerte, was made public following the expiration of a 60-day deadline.
In their letter to the government, Khan and Steinerte raised concerns about four journalists – Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul and Qazi Shibli.
“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the information made available to us, we express serious concern at the reported acts of harassment and seemingly arbitrary detention and criminal proceedings and detentions levied or imposed against the aforementioned journalists, which is reportedly related to their journalistic activities on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir,” the letter said.
It also mentioned that both rights experts were concerned about the alleged closing down of the Kashmir Times office, "which also seems to be connected to its independent and reportedly outspoken reporting in the region.We respectfully recall that journalism constitutes a necessary service for any society, as it provides individuals, and society as a whole, with the necessary information to allow them to develop their own thoughts and to freely draw their own conclusions and opinions...We note that the deprivation of liberty of any individual for exercising his/her right to freedom of expression would constitute an arbitrary deprivation of liberty, contrary to Article 9 of the Covenant,” it said.
The Wire reported that there had not been any response from the Indian government to the letter as yet.
The letter detailed allegations of intimidation in six cases pertaining to Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmirwalla, between 2017 and 2021. Following an interrogation in October 3, 2020, after a reporting assignment in Punjab, Shah was asked to show "self-restraint" and report “cautiously” about matters related to “national security”. He was said to have signed a written statement that his phones and his car were not tampered with and had no legal representation during his detention till 10 pm.
Similarly, Auqib Javeed was arrested and subjected to questioning for between July 14 and 16, 2018, after interviewing a Kashmiri separatist leader. His lawyer was apparently not allowed to attend NIA hearings either.
"That same day, at around 5 pm, Mr. Javeed was summoned by a State official via phone for the next day in relation to this story in the city of Shergadi, located 66 km from his home town. He was accompanied by two colleagues from the Kashmir Press Club. Their phones were taken when they entered the premises, while the journalists were asked to wait in a room," the letter said.
"Subsequently, a police officer asked Mr. Javeed to accompany him, and asked the other two journalists to wait in the room. During the interrogation, Mr. Javeed was slapped multiple times, while officers inquired about the article he had written and accused him of publishing a fabricated story. He was also threatened, and was told that the 'Kashmir police is burning houses because of people like [him] were spreading fake narratives'," it added.
Sajar Gul, a freelancer, was allegedly threatened by a local police officer after he reported on a demolition which had been carried out without permission. The police officer in question is said to have razed down Gul's property following which locals protested. The journalist was charged for rioting, criminal trespassing and assaulting a public servant.
The last name mentioned was of Qazi Shibli, editor of The Kashmiriyat. Sibli was detained and kept in confinement under the Public Safety Act. Eight weeks after his release he was detained for 18 days for reporting on an allegedly fake encounter.
Notably, none of the journalists in question were provided with legal representation during interrogation.
"We also express deep concern at reports indicating that Mr. Javeed’s computer and mobile phone were allegedly searched without a warrant and that data contained within them was reportedly deleted, in apparent disregard for the prohibition of unlawful and arbitrary interference in the private life of individuals, which we recall is an essential component of media freedom."
"We are also particularly concerned that some of the above journalists seemingly did not have access to legal representatives while in detention, in apparent contravention of the right to counsel and to a fair trial under international human rights law.We are deeply concerned that these alleged violations of the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and to a fair trial and defence guarantees may be part of a broader pattern of silencing of independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may ultimately deter other journalists and civil society more broadly from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region," the letter added.
The rights experts also asked for five clarifications from the Indian government in all of the cases mentioned.
"Finally, we remain deeply troubled by the fact that, in addition to being punished for it, some of these journalists were reportedly told or threatened to change the focus of their reporting, sometimes on vague national security related grounds. We remind your Excellency´s Government that any limitations must be determined by law and must conform to the strict test of necessity and proportionality must be applied only for those purposes for which they were prescribed and must be directly related to the specific need on which they are predicated," the UN rights experts mentioned.