Laws abused to intimidate activists, scribes in conflict zones

When does downloading a document from the Internet land you in jail? In the strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) can do the trick. Like it did for journalist Iftikhar Gilani back in 2003.

When does calling upon “Dalits, women, minorities, farmers and adivasis to build organisations in order to fight for their rights” (among other things) qualify as sedition? In the police notice to Dr. Rati Rao, vice president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, it does.

Mr. Gilani and Dr. Rao were among the journalists and activists who spoke of State repression at a conference of Media and Law organised by the Human Rights Law Network, here on Sunday.

“When they arrested me they said it was in the national interest. When I was released, they said it was in public interest,” Mr. Gilani told the audience. Jailed for seven months, he said several victims like him were “rotting” in the prisons of J&K. He recalled a man who had spent 12 years in jail under the Public Security Act (PSA) for digging up a cricket pitch.

Maqbool Sahil, writer and Chief Editor of Pukar in Kashmir was subjected to the third degree after being arrested under the PSA and accused of spying for Pakistan. “Journalists are performing a challenging task since the militancy of the 90s. Eleven journalists have died so far in direct and indirect attacks by the government. I was held without trial for 30 months. When I was released in January 2008, I had lost all contacts and sources. I rejected an offer from the Hurriyat to become a separatist leader. Instead, I have returned to my profession.”

In a minefield

Preventive detentions, threats and encounters have become the order of the day in conflict zones. For journalists working in such areas, “it's like walking in a minefield,” said Irengbam Arun, Editor of IREIBAK, Manipur.

Mr. Arun said “the culture of impunity,” built when the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was in effect, has now spread to the police. Six journalists, one recently, and five others in the 90s have died in various encounters. “When it happens, you don't know if it's the army, the police or the militants,” he said.

In the backwards areas, the anonymity of remote jungles and the tag of ‘naxalite' make for a perfect combination for the administration to stage encounters with impunity. “Police atrocities are increasing in Narayanpatna and Naupada in Orissa. Children are kept in jails. People are shot in jungles and termed naxalites,” said journalist and activist Khuturam Sunani, himself charged with sedition.

From Lakhmipur in Uttar Pradesh, journalist Samiuddin Neelu of Amar Ujala recounted his close escape from a possible police encounter.

“They claimed to have recovered a lion's nail, the skin of a rhino and a sandalwood stick from me,” he said. The National Human Rights Commission later ordered the U.P. government to pay Rs. 5 lakh to him for illegal detention.

Mr. Gilani's fight opened his eyes to the way the media treats crime stories. While he was still inside his house during a raid, the television reported him to be absconding. And the papers reported that he had admitted to being an ISI agent in court. “If the media did that to me, what about the other people? The reportage built up an atmosphere [of distrust]. Since the police have no proof, they use the media [for such purposes],” he said.