by Raashid Andrabi
SRINAGAR: A day after the arrest of journalist Irfan Mehraj by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), various media groups and human rights watchdogs have called for his immediate release. The political class is also seeing his release.
The Press Club of India expressed its strong disapproval of the application of the UAPA to journalists and expressed concern over the NIA’s arrest of Mehraj. “We vehemently oppose the imposing of UAPA on media persons,” the powerful club said in a tweet. “The misuse of this draconian law by NIA in randomly arresting Irfan Mehraj, a journalist from Kashmir ominously points towards a violation of freedom of speech and expression. We demand his immediate release.”
The Editor’s Guild of India (EGI) has also expressed their concern over the arrest. The “space for media freedom has progressively eroded in Kashmir”, said the Editors Guild of India on Wednesday.
The Guild has voiced ‘deep concern’ over the ‘excessive use’ of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against journalists, citing the recent arrest of Irfan Mehraj, a Kashmir-based journalist, by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).”
In a statement, the Guild reported that on March 20th, Irfan received a call from an investigator who asked him to come to the local NIA office in Srinagar for a brief meeting. However, after his arrival, he was arrested and later transferred to Delhi. According to the Guild, Irfan was charged under the draconian UAPA and was previously summoned to Delhi in relation to a case on “NGO terror funding”, to which he cooperated with the NIA’s investigation.
The NIA, in its press note, alleged that Irfan was a ‘close associate’ of the Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez.
Mehbooba Mufti, President Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir also criticized the NIA’s actions. “While conmen are given a free run in Kashmir, journalists like Irfan Mehraj are arrested for doing their duty by speaking the truth,” Ms Mufti said. She criticised the abuse of “draconian laws like UAPA” and their constant use to ensure punishment through the process itself.
The arrest of Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj was also condemned by Amnesty International India.
“The arrest of Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj under terror charges is a travesty,” said Aakar Patel, chair of the board at Amnesty International India, in a statement. “The arrest is yet another instance of the long-drawn repression of human rights and the crackdown on media freedoms and civil society in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The stifling of the rights to freedom of expression and association continue unabated in Kashmir.”
Patel also expressed concern over the criminalization of human rights work, stating that “Human rights defenders such as Irfan Mehraj should be encouraged and protected, not persecuted. He must be immediately released. The repression must stop. Criminalization of legitimate human rights work is extremely alarming and the authorities must put an end to this immediately.” Amnesty International has termed the arrest as “yet another crackdown on media freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.”
Expressing profound apprehension, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, also stated her deep concern regarding the detention of Irfan.
“I’m deeply concerned about the Kashmiri HRD and journalist @IrfanMeraj. He was called to come to the @NIA_India office in Srinagar and arrested in a 2020 case, accused of serious offences. I call for his immediate release,” Mary Lawlor tweeted.
It is worth noting that Irfan was taken into custody by the NIA in Srinagar on March 20, on charges under several sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Irfan, who is the founder of Wande Magazine, presently serves as a senior editor at TwoCircles.net. His works have been published by The Indian Express, Al Jazeera, Himal Southasian, DW, and TRT World.
Incidentally, Irfan’s arrest coincided with the arrival of a three-member team of the Press Council of India (PCI) to Srinagar.