In Jail Since Four Years, Journalist Asif Sultan Booked Under PSA After Bail

The 35-year-old journalist was shifted from Srinagar central jail, where he was lodged, to a police station close to his residence and will serve further detention at Kot Balwal jail in Jammu.

Srinagar: Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have booked journalist Asif Sultan under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) days after a court granted him bail after four years of imprisonment.

The 35-year-old journalist was shifted from Srinagar central jail, where he was lodged, to a police station close to his residence and will serve further detention at Kot Balwal jail in Jammu, over 250 km from the capital.

Sultan was first arrested on August 27, 2018, during a dramatic night raid by Jammu and Kashmir Police and paramilitary forces at his Firdous Abad residence in Srinagar. He was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and various other sections of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) – now the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The charges against Sultan, who worked as an assistant editor at a news magazine called the Kashmir Narrator, included criminal conspiracy, harbouring militants, aiding and participating in militancy – charges that his colleagues, family and media rights bodies later rejected vehemently.

Before Sultan was booked under the controversial PSA – the law that allows detention without trial for up to two years – a special judge on the National Investigation Agency (NIA) court ordered his release on April 5.

His family, who visited Batamaloo police station for days, was shocked after learning that Sultan’s detention would continue under PSA despite a bail order from the court in previous cases.

“It was heart-wrenching to know that there is no recourse once the authorities want to see someone behind bars. There was no reason earlier, and that has been proved, and I believe being booked under PSA means there is no reason to keep him in jail for long,” a former colleague of Sultan said, wishing anonymity.

Sultan is the third journalist from Kashmir to be booked under the PSA since January. Earlier, the J&K police booked a budding journalist Sajad Gul after a court granted him bail in cases involving charges like “spreading disinformation” and “provoking” people against the government. A month later, on February 4, another journalist Fahad Shah was arrested by police in Pulwama and later shifted to Shopian and Srinagar for different cases until finally he was booked under the PSA.

Since Asif’s arrest in 2018, the Kashmir Narrator has ceased printing, and its top editor Showkat A Motta has stopped active journalism. His home, however, was raided by J&K police in a different case, following which he was questioned for days. The police also seized electronic devices from his home, including mobile phones and laptops, during the raid in what many later defined as a “tactic” to suppress journalism in the restive region.

Several media rights bodies and watchdogs, including the International Federation of Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, have called for the release of incarcerated journalists in Kashmir, including Sultan, who was awarded the prestigious annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award by the National Press Club of America in 2019.

Journalism in Kashmir is seen to have hit an all-time low as J&K’s bureaucratic government shows little regard for press freedom in the region. There has been an increase in cases of harassment, intimidation, arrests, and raids, while at least six journalists have been booked on serious charges related to terrorism. But, many say these charges are “politically motivated” to silence ground reporting critical of the government.

Recently, a fact-finding committee (FCC) of the Press Council of India (PCI) said that the media in Kashmir is being “slowly choked” as there extensive curbs imposed by the local administration. The PCI report stated that the normal lines of communication between the local administration and journalists have been disrupted because of a suspicion that a large number of them are “sympathisers” of the cause of militants while urging the authorities not to penalise journalists for reports that the authorities may not find palatable.

First published by Newsclick.