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Two Quote Marks Could Have Saved Me: Kashmiri Journalist Reacts to UAPA Charge for Social Media Posts

Masrat Zahra has been booked under UAPA in which an individual can be designated a terrorist and jailed for up to 7 years. (Photo: News18)

Masrat Zahra has been booked under UAPA in which an individual can be designated a terrorist and jailed for up to 7 years. (Photo: News18)

Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist in Kashmir, said she skipped quotation marks in a tweet on Burhan Wani because of the platform's character limit.

Srinagar: On Tuesday, Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist from Kashmir, was summoned to the Cyber Police Station in Srinagar for questioning, a few days after she was booked under a stringent anti-terror law for her social media post.

She explained her side of the story to the policemen, but officials have said investigations will continue. “Two small apostrophes around the word Shaheed could have kept me away from harm's way. I am not sure though,” she sighed, while speaking to News18 afterwards.

The 26-year-old was pointing to the caption on a picture she uploaded a few days back on social media that is being cited as the main reason for the FIR against her. The picture, published in 2018, shows a group of Shia mourners carrying a poster of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani during a procession on Muharram.

The text on the poster described Wani as “shaheed,” or martyr. Zahra had captioned the photo with this information.

Zahra says she started posting a series of pictures, used earlier by different publications, on social media as she was bored staying home due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

“I started digging through my old feeds and uploaded pictures with captions. But because there is a character limit on twitter, I could not put apostrophes (denoting quotes) in the caption of this particular picture,” she says, adding, “you will notice I have tried to squeeze characters.”

In her four-year career, Zahra’s work has appeared in reputed publications like The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, The Caravan magazine and Turkish news channel TRT. “I never thought I would face this kind of a situation,” she says.

Tahir Ashraf, SSP of the cyber police wing, however, told News18 that the particular picture may not be the sole reason for the photojournalist being booked. “I don't have all the details,” he said, but claimed that the cell has received complaints “from time to time”.

Ashraf has faced backlash for booking the journalists, and his old tweets, which were critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and right-wing parties were widely shared and commented on. He was forced to delete the tweets. “I am doing a professional job and some people are getting personal on social media. This is unfortunate,” he says.

The cyber cell has booked Zahra under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and IPC Section 505.

The UAPA allows authorities to declare individuals as terrorists and seize their properties. If found guilty, a person can be jailed for up to seven years. Section 505 of the penal code deals with provocation to commit offence against any class or community.

Police in a statement said it had “received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely ‘Masrat Zahra’ is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquillity”.

“The Facebook user is also believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order. The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country,” the statement said.

Zahra is not the only one booked by cyber police. Gowhar Geelani, a noted author and commentator, was also booked on Tuesday. In a statement, police said his "social media posts are prejudicial to national integrity, sovereignty and security of India".

Charges against him include “unlawful activities, including glorifying of terrorism in the Kashmir Valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public that may lead to commission of offences against public tranquillity and the security of the state.”

The statement did not mention Geelani as a journalist and did not cite the sections under which he was booked, but sources said these were similar to those connected with Zahra.

Geelani, the author of Kashmir Rage and Reason, and whose works have appeared in national and international publications, has written extensively on Kashmir for the last 15 years. He has appeared on TV debates and is known to put forth his views candidly while maintaining a calm demeanour.

“I have been telling all kinds of stories from Srinagar to Berlin, from New Delhi to London. A journalist can’t make all sides happy. Someone always finds something unpalatable. But that’s a journalist’s professional predicament,” he wrote on Twitter.

“I have been writing stories of the marginalised and the dispossessed, the powerful and the powerless — all kinds of stories, the tragedies and triumphs. I have been showered with accolades by the people & global institutions. As a journalist, it is my job to write, to tell stories and analyse and interpret different situation…,” he tweeted.

Media watchdogs and rights groups have called the police charges against journalists in Kashmir a "brazen attack" on freedom of expression and urged the government to revoke the cases.

Before Zahra and Geelani, Peerzada Ashiq, a correspondent for The Hindu, was also summoned by cyber police to explain the content of a news story. On Monday, the police said they had booked Ashiq for the alleged “fake news item”.

The police claim the story — related to an encounter in Shopian — was published without confirmation from district officials. In his defence, Ashiq had said he had evidence to prove that he had got the facts right.