Press freedom, democracy, and Fahad Shah

Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla newspaper and a Monitor contributor, remains behind bars.

Dar Yasin/AP
Kashmiri children walk past paramilitary soldiers near the site of a grenade explosion in Srinagar, India, in August. India annexed Kashmir in 2019 and instituted a highly restrictive media policy the following year.

Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla newspaper and a Monitor contributor, was jailed in February in response to stories that Indian authorities said were “glorifying terrorist activities.” He remains behind bars, having repeatedly made bail, only to be rearrested on a new charge. 

Between March and May, he was held under “preventive detention,” which allows incarceration for two years without charges. Then a new case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, centered on an 11-year-old guest opinion piece, resulted in him being moved to a jail in Jammu, far from his immediate family members, who are the only ones allowed to visit but cannot travel. That has left Fahad isolated, even as his health deteriorates, colleagues say. 

In addition to highlighting the cost to an individual journalist, Fahad’s story is a cautionary tale about the anti-democratic – and thus, anti-media – forces gathering strength globally. 

At the recent congress of the International Press Institute, held this year at Columbia University in New York, a global array of journalists delved into the disinformation, online abuse, imprisonment, and impunity that threaten their work. Carlos Dada, founder of the El Salvadoran publication El Faro and a winner of IPI’s 2022 World Press Freedom Hero Award, said in accepting the award that “every one of [more than 2,000 journalists killed since 1992] paid the ultimate price for informing, ... for denouncing corruption, for walking into organized crime territory or investigating injustices against underprivileged people, crimes against the environment, against humanity. Most of those deaths remain unpunished.”

Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of the Indian publication The Wire, says the media are particularly targeted in Jammu and Kashmir. “Two journalists – Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul – have been jailed for nearly 9 months because their reporting and social media posts have annoyed the authorities,” he shared via email. “The aim is to intimidate the wider media fraternity rather than to prove trumped up charges in an open trial. The authorities are also enforcing an undeclared – and illegal – travel ban on Kashmiri journalists. Such is the climate of fear that most prefer not to speak about their experience” or turn to the courts for relief.

Indeed, that repression and threat of jail have sharply curtailed the work of The Kashmir Walla and forced layoffs. The publication is struggling financially. Yet, as Mr. Dada said, “the world we want to be part of needs an independent press that ... puts its methods at the service of truth and better understanding why we live the way we live.”

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