story on a controversial encounter involving the Indian armed forces in which an alleged armed rebel was killed.mar Mukhtar knew he was in trouble when he received a message that he had been summoned to a local police station. Just the day before, the online portal The Wire based in New Delhi had published his
“I was shocked and terrified,” the 30-year-old journalist from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district told ADC. He was sure he had presented all sides in his story. But journalists have often been in the crosshairs of administration in Kashmir, and their situation had gotten worse after India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in August 2019. Located in India’s north, the region has the longest unresolved conflict between India and Pakistan. It is also rife with stories of journalists being summoned by police, questioned, and sometimes beaten and even jailed for months.
Mukhtar, though, was a member of the Srinagar-based Kashmir Press Club (KPC), the largest independent organization for journalists in India-administered Kashmir; he called his KPC senior colleagues and informed them about the summons.
“I took a sigh of relief after my seniors assured me full support,” Mukhtar said. “Next day four members of the KPC accompanied me to the police station. Their presence gave me strength.”
Police allowed Mukhtar to go after brief questioning.
But just 10 months later, on January 17, 2022, KPC ceased to exist, and its premises handed over to the government estate department.
“The government is concerned over the emergent situation, which has arisen due to the unpleasant turns of events involving two rival warring groups using the banner of the Kashmir Press Club,” the circular issued by the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) said. It added that a duly registered, bona fide society of all journalists would be constituted as soon as possible and that this would be “able to approach the government for reallocation of the premises.”
Aakash Hassan, a Srinagar-based journalist who writes mostly for international publications, believes independent journalists are going to be most affected by KPC’s closure because they were the ones who made full use of the support it offered. In a place like Kashmir, where foreign correspondents are not allowed to visit without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi, local independent journalists play a crucial role to cover stories from the turbulent region that would otherwise fail to reach the global audience.
“KPC wasn’t just a building with us,” Hassan said. “It was an institution — rather (the) only institution — speaking for journalists, and its closure means one more blow to the press freedom in Kashmir where we are already working in dangerous situations. It is part of a sustained campaign to silence journalists, especially those who are reporting facts on the ground with which government is uncomfortable.”
More than just a “club”
Indeed, in the absence of a support system and ready workplace, journalists say that what remains of independent voices in the region can only dwindle even further. Said Mukhtar: “Press clubs exist everywhere. However, (KPC’s) closure in Kashmir means that true journalism will not be tolerated. They know it is easy to target an individual, but difficult to target an institution.”
In fact, just some two weeks after KPC was shut down, police detained the editor of the leading online portal Kashmir Walla for allegedly allegedly “glorifying terrorist activities and “inciting the public” through his social media.
The editor, 33-year-old Fahad Shah, has contributed to top international media outlets including The Nation, Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Christian Science Monitor. Over the last two years, Shah has been summoned by police multiple times and questioned over his reporting. Last February 4, 2022, he was booked under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and sedition charges. UAPA enables the state to detain someone without a charge for 180 days. He eventually made bail for the two cases, but was arrested for yet another case. Shah was awaiting his bail hearing in the third case, when he was slapped with a detention order under the Public Security Act, which allows the authorities to detain a person without trial for up to two years.
Then again, this is no longer a surprise in India, where press freedom has been on decline under the Narendra Modi government. Last year, India dropped two places and was ranked 142 on the 180-country World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The world’s largest democratic country is also in the list of nations considered “bad” for journalism and is among the most dangerous places for journalists across the globe.
Almost immediately after the announcement about KPC’s closure, global press freedom advocates and national media bodies, as well as local rights groups, were up in arms. Among the media groups that demanded KPC’s immediate restoration were the Mumbai Press Club, Delhi Union of Working Journalists, Press Club of India, and the Editors Guild of India, which also said: “The violation of the sanctity of the club by the police and the local administration is a manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom in the state.”
“Suspending Kashmir Press Club’s registration and taking over its premises is the latest move by the Jammu and Kashmir administration to prevent journalists from doing their jobs,” said Steven Butler, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program, in Washington, D.C. “Jammu and Kashmir authorities should immediately allow the Kashmir Press Club to resume operations and stop its repeated harassment of journalists in the territory.”
Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific Desk, said, “We call on Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to immediately restore the KPC’s license and order its reopening. This society’s closure is clearly the outcome of a coup hatched at great length by the local government, which follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s orders.”
He added, “This undeclared coup is an Indian government insult to all the journalists trying to do their job in the Kashmir Valley, which is steadily being transformed into a black hole for news and information.”
Forced takeover and closure
Established in 2018, KPC had 300 registered members. In July 2019, KPC held its first-ever elections on who would sit in an 11-member body that would govern over the club. Their term ended in July last year; new elections were delayed because of COVID-19. The club also had to re-register under new laws as the region had been turned into federal territory and was now controlled directly by New Delhi. Its re-registration was granted on December 29, 2021.
But then on January 14, 2022, the administration in India-administered Kashmir issued a circular that put the re-registration of the KPC in “abeyance,” citing adverse reports by the criminal investigation department of police.
In the end, there were also no new elections. Two days before KPC was declared shut, a clique of journalists, accompanied by members of the police force, arrived at the club. Within an hour, the visitors had declared themselves as a new interim body of three members, with Saleem Pandit, an assistant editor with the Times of India, as President; Zulfikar Majid, bureau chief of Deccan Herald, as General Secretary; and Arshid Rasool, editor of Daily Gadyalas, Treasurer of the KPC.
The takeover sparked an outcry on social media in Kashmir, with most of the journalists calling the incident a “coup.” A few days later, the police in a statement given to the Scroll dissociated themselves from the KPC takeover. In the statement, they said that the only police or government forces present in the club when the incident occurred were two personal security officers of Pandit.
Freelance journalist Muzamil Shafi is already feeling KPC’s absence. Aside from helping journalists in times of trouble, KPC had offered the only meeting point in Kashmir where journalists could work on their stories, and exchange ideas with each other in peace.
Soon after the club’s closure, Shafi had found himself running along the Bund in Srinagar, looking for a proper place where he could sit, work on his story, and then send it to his editor. He eventually ended up sitting on a public bench, braving the winter cold.
“Journalism has been dragged to this level in Kashmir where we don’t have even a space to work,” said Shafi, who is based in Srinagar. “Every day brings new obstacles for journalists in Kashmir.”
Budding journalists are also missing the KPC, where they would often go to take advice from seniors. Said one young journalist who wished to remain anonymous: “The press club was like a journalism school, where, without a formal pedagogical structure, journalists learnt from each other. Their experiences transferred across gender and sub-regional divides. And, most importantly, it provided journalists with a space of reassurance, which is sometimes the most desperately needed thing in a place like Kashmir, where press freedom has been decimated by the state.”
Another journalist who also declined to be named said that after she completed her graduate studies in 2020, she used to go to KPC to talk and listen to senior journalists.
“KPC was like a college for me where I was learning new things every day from my seniors,” she said. “Its shutdown will definitely dent the media in Kashmir as well as the careers of beginners like me. Journalism is dying a slow death in Kashmir because of mounting pressure from the state.”
Shafi, however, said, “Whatever the situation will be, journalism will survive.” ●
Adil Kumar is a Kashmir-based independent journalist.