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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - HONG KONG — A Kashmir journalist who was arrested under India’s sedition and anti-terror laws has returned home Thursday after being released on bail following nearly two years behind bars.
Fahad Shah, founding editor of The Kashmir Walla, an independent news outlet in Indian-administered Kashmir, was accused of publishing “anti-national content” and arrested under the country’s anti-terror and colonial-era sedition laws in February 2022. Critics say Shah’s case highlights declining press freedoms in the contested region.
The Indian government has tightened its grip on Kashmir since Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped the region’s special status in 2019 and split the former state into two union territories, bringing it under direct rule of New Delhi.
Claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, the mountainous Kashmir region has been at the epicenter of an often-violent territorial struggle between the nuclear-armed neighbors for more than 70 years. The region is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, and a de facto border called the Line of Control divides the area between New Delhi and Islamabad.
India said the move to revoke Kashmir’s semi-autonomy was to ensure the nation’s laws were equal for all citizens and to increase economic development in the region, as well as to end separatism and terrorism it alleged was aided and abetted by Pakistan. However, journalists and activists critical of the government’s position say they repeatedly face harassment and possible arrest from authorities.
On Monday, the Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh High Court ordered his release and quashed some of the charges, according to a court document seen by CNN.
In its 25-page judgement, the court said if the prosecution’s argument that Shah attempted to “incite the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to adopt violent means of protest to secede from India” is accepted, “it would literally turn criminal law on its head.”
“It would mean that any criticism of the central government can be described as a terrorist act because the honour of India is its incorporeal property,” the judgement read. “Such a proposition would collide head long with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution.”
Shah’s arrest had sparked outrage among media rights organizations in and out of India.
“The arrest of Fahad Shah shows Jammu and Kashmir authorities’ utter disregard for press freedom and the fundamental right of journalists to report freely and safely,” said Steven Butler, Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program, at the time.
Aside from running The Kashmir Walla, Shah’s work has been featured in international publications including The Guardian, Time and Foreign Policy. He was awarded the 25th Human Rights Press Awards 2021 in explanatory feature writing for his coverage of communal violence in Delhi in February 2020.
India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, is the world’s largest democracy and one of the largest media markets in the world.
But the Modi administration has been repeatedly accused of intimidating the press, stifling free speech and censoring independent news organizations.
In the annual World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, India has dropped from 140th in 2014 — the year Modi came to power — to 161 out of 180 nations in this year’s list. That puts India below countries like Laos, the Philippines and neighboring Pakistan.
The group said the situation in Kashmir is “very worrisome,” adding “reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries, with some being subjected to so-called “provisional” detention for several years.” — CNN
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