In 2018, a First Information Report was filed against Saleem Pandit, a reporter with the Times of India, alleging a news story by him was “based on false information and malicious intention with a view to disrupt peaceful tourist season and to create an atmosphere of threat”. The complainant alleged that the incident — of stones being thrown at tourists in Srinagar — had not occurred at all.

Mr. Pandit was charged under the section 505 (1)(b) of the now repealed Ranbir Penal Code–statement conducting to public mischief and “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.”

Two years later, the High Court in Srinagar has quashed the complaint against Mr. Pandit, noting that though the occurrence of the incident was initially denied by the police, “but it has, in its media briefing, admitted that two tourists got minor injuries on 1 st April [2018] when the vehicles in which they were travelling came in the middle of an area where stone pelting was going on.”

Quashing the FIR against the reporter, the High Court observed: “reporting of events which a journalist has bona fide reason to believe to be true, can never be an offence. Taking a contrary view would be violative of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.”

Over time, the nature of the news reports and names of journalists have changed but the allegations, similar to those levelled in the 2018 case, have remained constant; off late, the term “fake news” is routinely used by the Jammu and Kashmir administration to discredit genuine journalistic work.

In the recent instances of attack on the press in Kashmir, the police booked two journalists under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and summoned countless more–including The Kashmir Walla’s editor–accusing them of disturbing the peace.

In the case of author and journalist Gowhar Geelani, the police had stated: “The unlawful activities (his social media posts) include glorifying terrorism in Kashmir Valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public that may lead to commission off offences against public tranquility and the security of State”.

Referring to the observations of the Division Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, in a similar case of freedom of speech, the court noted that “The limitations on freedom of the press cannot extend to registration of a criminal case against a reporter, who in discharge of his duties and on the basis of information gathered by him, makes a report about certain incidents which he thought in public interest should be published.” 

The most important part of the judgement in Mr. Pandit’s case, perhaps, is the court’s observation that reporters were not liable for the news story’s fallout: “It is immaterial that said report may have adversely affected the business of some person(s) as long as the reporter had reasonable grounds to believe that his report is true. The police in such type of cases, cannot be allowed to hound the journalists by misusing its powers.”

The free press’ significance, after all, is evident in the fear and contempt for it that authoritarian regimes exhibit. “Give me free press, institutions that are free,” the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi also recently remarked, “and then the government will not last.”

Another judgement of importance for journalists–across India but more so in Kashmir–is the August 2020 judgement by the Kerala High Court that, while dismissing a petition for regulating the media, ruled out regulations for the press: “we have no hesitation to hold that a public interest litigation to frame guidelines to restrict the media on the basis of the allegations made in the writ petition cannot be entertained and no guidelines can be framed.”

In Kashmir, however, the authorities were able to impose a new media policy, amid resentment but little tangible opposition from the media community. It is, perhaps, time for the press in Kashmir to rise above their petty differences and decide upon a well-thought out collective course of action — drawing upon all legal precedents and forging new alliances — for a free future.

The comment originally appeared in our 12-18 October 2020 print edition.

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