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On 27 August, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization based in New York City wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The letter, demanding the release of Kashmiri journalist Asif Sultan, was signed by 397 journalists and civil society members like N Ram, Karan Thapar, Mani Shankar Aiyer, Harsh Mander, Meenal Baghel.

A journalist who covers politics and human rights for the Srinagar-based Kashmir Narrator, Sultan has been detained since 27 August 2018, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), for allegedly being complicit in “harbouring known militants". CPJ also had a poster printed in The Washington Post, in solidarity with the Sultan, demanding that he be freed.

This year, other Kashmiri journalists such as Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani were booked under the UAPA, others were summoned for questioning and the editor-in-chief of The Kashmiriyat, Qazi Shibli, was jailed twice in the last year. With the new media policy in Kashmir, which, among other things, authorizes government officers to decide on what is “fake news" and take action against journalists or organisations, there is a growing fear.

Conversations around the freedom of the press in India—or the lack thereof—have been front and centre this month, particularly after journalist Ratan Singh was shot in Ballia in Uttar Pradesh. Journalists from Caravan magazine filed a complaint with the police in northeast Delhi earlier this month, stating that a mob attacked Kashmiri photojournalist Shahid Tantray and the woman journalist on their team was sexually harassed, while on assignment, by a group of men. At least five journalists were attacked after a riot broke out in Bengaluru on 11 August.

India ranks 142nd among 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Mint spoke to Aliya Iftikhar, senior researcher, Asia Desk, CPJ about how international organizations can help strengthen and encourage free and fair reportage in India, the media situation in Kashmir since 5 August 2019, and the way forward. Edited excerpts:

The CPJ has been advocating for the release of journalist Asif Sultan for a long time. Could you tell us some of the efforts made in this regard? Does this kind of pressure/advocacy usually yield results?

CPJ has been advocating for Aasif’s release since the day he was detained two years ago. We have raised his case with Indian members of parliament, the European Union, the United Kingdom, French, and Norwegian embassies, and the US State Department. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to garner support for a Kashmiri journalist, especially when they are being accused under an anti-terror law, given the narratives and perception of Kashmir across India. But Aasif Sultan is a journalist who has been imprisoned for two years now because of his reporting. No journalist should ever face that.

Our hope with the letter and advertisement is to increase awareness about Aasif’s case and to make sure he is not forgotten. We hope that journalists in Kashmir, in India, and across the world will raise their voices and let the Indian government know that it is never okay to jail a journalist. And, of course, we hope that India will swiftly release Aasif, especially considering the concerns around covid-19.

What are the challenges you see for the press in Kashmir since the abrogation of its special status on 5 August 2019?

Unfortunately, there will be many. Kashmiri journalists are already working in a dangerous environment and under a climate of fear, given the various threats they face from multiple actors. This climate of fear has been exacerbated also by state surveillance, police questioning journalists about their reporting, and criminal and anti-terror cases that have been filed against journalists. Add to that proposals to increase regulations over Kashmiri media, such as the social media policy, and the space for independent journalism continues to shrink.

As an organization that has been observing this situation, how would you assess press freedom in India over the last few years?

Unfortunately, press freedom in India has been rapidly declining in recent years. There’s been a significant increase in harassment and intimidation that journalists face, particularly with legal and criminal cases that are filed against them for critical reporting. Journalists who have dared to report critically have also been detained or physically attacked, and in some cases even murdered. There has been no justice or accountability in the majority of these cases, which allows attacks on journalists to continue going unchecked. Unfortunately, this shows a government that prioritizes criminalizing journalism and critical reporting instead of upholding press freedom.

Over the last year alone, India has seen large-scale protests and even violence in the National Capital in February. Under these circumstances, how important is a free press and what is your assessment of the coverage?

A free press is most crucial at times of large protests and historical moments. Journalists have to be able to document what is happening and inform the public without fearing for their safety. Nowadays, especially with the prevalence of smartphones and social media, many people can be journalists, not just those who have accredited press badges. CPJ will assist anyone we determine has been regularly disseminating news and information and is facing retaliation for their work.

There is a debate in India with regards to free speech and hate speech, particularly in the media. Your thoughts?

There’s no doubt that hate speech is a huge problem, there have been so many well-reported pieces on hate speech on social media platforms, especially in India where there are so many people who use social media. In many of these reports there have been clear links showing government and political officials who have ties to people who perpetuate hate speech, or may perpetuate it themselves. I think social media platforms haven’t adequately addressed concerns over hate speech and they must do a better job. The Indian government and politicians also have a responsibility not to engage in hate speech and they should explicitly condemn it if it’s coming from their supporters. It’s also important that as this much-needed debate happens, that governments don’t use regulating hate speech as a guise to further control or limit critical reporting.

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