Calling it an attack on freedom of the press, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh has quashed an FIR registered against journalist Asif Iqbal Naik who was booked for reporting on custodial torture by police in the region.
“No fetters can be placed on the freedom of press by registering the FIR against a reporter, who was performing his professional duty by publishing a news item on the basis of information obtained by him from an identifiable source,” the court said, adding that freedom of the press was “vital for the functioning of any democratic country like India.”
Naik had reported about a case of custodial torture by the police to a resident of Kishtwar, Akhtar Hussain Hajam, on April 19, 2018 in the Jammu-based English daily Early Times where he still works. The news story titled ‘Father of 5 brutally tortured by Kishtwar Police’ quoted the victim’s cousin Irshad and his brother Abdul Gani. Both claimed that Hajam was subjected to severe torture in a local police station in Kishtwar after being illegally confined for nearly a month.
Gani, according to the report, had accused the then SP Kishtwar, the then Deputy SP HQ Kishtwar and the former SHO at the Kishtwar Police Station of “torturing” his brother. The reporter was booked under FIR no 117/2018 on May 12, 2018, under sections 500, 504, and 505 of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC).
The court said that the FIR against Naik was an abuse of process of law and that the allegations against him were “absurd”. The mode and manner in which the FIR had been lodged, the court pointed out, clearly reflected mala fide intent on the part of police, which could have given its version through a similar mode but instead chose a “unique method of silencing the journalist”. “It is undoubtedly an attack on the freedom of the press,” the order read.
“This is not in dispute that the petitioner is a journalist by profession and his job is to gather information and publish the same in the newspaper or in any other media. The information published in the form of news may pertain to issues of national, international importance or local in nature,” the court added.
Asif Naik, who has been working as a journalist for over 20 years, told Newsclick that the case against him by the officials was only aimed at intimidating journalists and draining their energies in legal battles.
“This case is a classic example of how police officials try to settle a vendetta. Journalism should not be criminalised,” 41-year-old Naik said. He added that he had faced harassment earlier as well, too and was prohibited for entering district magistrate office twice, a ban that was revoked by the court.
In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), India was ranked 42 out of 180 countries, the country registering a serious climb down in recent years. International rights bodies and global media rights groups have accused authorities, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, of using arbitrary force against journalists in the region. Many reporters have said they have been summoned by the police for questioning, even asked to reveal their sources on occasion. All this seen as an attempt to silence the media and discourage reporters from covering happenings on the ground.