Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – On the morning of September 4 last year, Kamran Yusuf left his home in Kashmir’s Pulwama for work, carrying his backpacks and cameras, but the photojournalist never returned, his family says.
The following day, his family came to know through news channels that Yusuf, who has been working as a photographer in the small town known for its apple orchards, was arrested by Indian security forces and sent to New Delhi, the Indian capital.
The arrest of Kamran Yusuf, a working photojournalist contributing to several media outlets, is clearly a violation of press freedom and journalists' rights.
The 22-year-old freelance photojournalist, who has been documenting the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir, has been slapped with charges of “stone throwing” and “waging war against India”. He has been in jail since then.
Irshad Ahmad Ganaie, Yusuf’s uncle, says the family is still in shock.
“His mother was divorced when he was two years old. Since then, they are living with us. He was just working hard as a photographer in his hometown; he used to freelance with many organisations, and has taken all kinds of photographs,” he said.
Ganaie, 38, says his nephew is being framed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). “He is being punished for his work.”
Not a ‘real journalist’
In the charge sheet presented before a special NIA court in New Delhi, the anti-terror agency has said that Yusuf was not a “real journalist”, as he had not covered social work done by the army and paramilitary forces in the disputed Himalayan region.
“Kamran Yusuf had hardly taken any video of such activity and video or image of any such activity can rarely be seen in his laptop or mobile which clearly show his intention to only cover the activities which are anti-national and earn money against such footages,” the charge sheet has said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders have called on Indian authorities to immediately drop charges and release Yusuf.
“India’s National Investigative Agency is way out of its league and has no business defining what ‘a real journalist’ should cover,” Steven Butler, CPJ Asia programme coordinator, said in a statement.
He added that Yusuf’s work taking photographs of conflict in Kashmir is a “public service in the best spirit of journalism”.
Rights groups, local journalists and media watchdogs have raised their concerns at what they call “fabricated” charges against the young journalist.
Amnesty International, in its annual human rights report released on Thursday, said that if convicted, Yusuf might face life imprisonment.
“Amnesty International believes the charges against him to be fabricated and politically motivated, and part of an attempt to stifle journalism in Kashmir,” the rights body said in its report.
Threats and intimidation
Journalists in Kashmir, one of the most militarised zones of the world, with more than half a million Indian forces, say threats and intimidation are routine.
According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists, published last November, at least 21 journalists have been killed in the conflict – either directly targeted or caught in the crossfire in Kashmir.
Muneeb-Ul-Islam, a freelance photographer, told Al Jazeera that journalists are caught in the line of fire.
He says that he himself has been “beaten by security forces many times” and had his cameras broken.
India's National Investigative Agency is way out of its league and has no business defining what 'a real journalist' should cover.
“Police think we side with stone-throwers and stone-throwers think we are covering from police’s side,” said the 27-year-old.
Activists say the arrest of Yusuf will have a chilling effect on media freedom in the region, that has been on the boil since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014, adopted a hardline policy to quell anti-India protests.
Yusuf Jameel has covered Kashmir for more than two decades. He says there is an indirect censorship on journalists in Kashmir.
“Though there is no official censorship, they create an atmosphere where it becomes difficult and sometimes impossible for a journalist to report,” he said.
His views are echoed by a prominent human rights activist in the Muslim-majority region.
“By arresting a photographer, the Indian government wants to create an example for the photo and video journalists in Kashmir who document gun battles and stone-throwing for the world to see,” said Khurram Parvez.
‘Evidence of stone-pelting’
Muhammad Aslam Chowdhary, a senior police officer in south Kashmir, admitted there was no direct case filed against Yusuf; however, his involvement in “stone-pelting and other cases is under investigation.
“In one case, it has been found that a video where the burning of tricolor took place in south Kashmir was uploaded from his Facebook account, but we have not been able to question him yet, the investigation is still on,” Chowdhary told Al Jazeera.
The NIA spokesperson, Alok Mittal, however, told Al Jazeera that “there is an evidence of stone-pelting against Yusuf.
“Involvement of accused Kamran Yusuf who claims to be a photojournalist in stone-pelting incidents was conclusively established. There is sufficient evidence on record, showing his participation in the incidents of stone-pelting, which has been submitted to the competent court. The Court has already taken cognisance of the charge sheet,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Laxmi Murthy, a journalist based in Bangalore and author of IFJ’s report, said the laws, in particular, counter-terror laws, with sweeping and vague provisions, have long been used to stifle the media.
“The arrest of Kamran Yusuf, a working photojournalist contributing to several media outlets, is clearly a violation of press freedom and journalists’ rights,” she said.