The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar was permanently closed on Monday and its premises officially taken over by the government of the union territory of Kashmir. The government has announced that the largest body of journalists in the valley has ceased to exist – it has lost its registration as a company, its lands have been taken back by the government.
The administration’s intentions were clear on Friday, the day after the Press Club announced elections for key posts on February 15. The following day, a group of journalists, seen as government supporters and accompanied by armed police, stormed into the club and locked the premises, preventing independent journalists from entering the area and declaring that they would henceforth run the ‘organization.
In its dismantling of the civil society group, the government followed the model it used in November 2018 to dissolve the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. Shortly after the regional parties formed an alliance and demanded the formation of the government, a rival group did the same with the support of the BJP. Then-governor Satya Pal Malik said he had not received any letters from regional parties regarding their right to form government because the fax machine in his office was not working. He then dissolved the assembly, necessary, he said, to prevent the parties from buying off each other’s MPs in their effort to prove they had the numbers required to form the government.
The Kashmir Press Club, founded in 2018, was the largest group of independent journalists in a region where press freedom continues to erode. A year after Jammu and Kashmir was declared no longer a state and its special status and autonomy removed, the club was asked to re-register as a company. This process was completed in December, but suddenly, two weeks ago, the new registration was suspended, the government saying that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police had made unfavorable reports on the character and the backgrounds of members of the governing body of the club.
The club was prevented from holding democratic elections for its governing body. Administration says intervention was imperative after reports in ‘social media and sources’ of ‘potential law and order situation’ and breach of peace; he said he was also looking out for the safety of journalists.
The Press Club had 300 members. With his demise, the government’s approach is pretty obvious – he won’t allow any institution that doesn’t toe the official line or is in tune with the ruling party’s political ideology. The only platform that has spoken out against the frequent harassment of journalists has been shut down, delisted and dispossessed. “Voice stifling” of journalism, the club said in a statement.
Kashmir has lost all its social spaces. Unions, advocacy organizations and civil society groups literally disappeared. Elections for the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as the Kashmir High Court Bar Association, were effectively stalled. Jamia Masjid Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest social and cultural space, has remained largely closed for Friday prayers since August 2019. Democratic processes are shattered.
Elections for 20 District Development Councils were held in December 2020. These were the first elections where the people voted after Jammu and Kashmir was replaced as a state by two union territories. The Gupkar Alliance, which includes long rival regional parties, performed well in the crucial elections. Some manipulation meant that the six-party alliance failed to control fewer councils than their votes allowed.
While much of the local media, dependent on government advertisements, has long lined up, many freelancers and working journalists refused to submit and insisted that the Kashmir Press Club was not remotely controlled; they faced multiple cases of harassment against journalists, police FIRs and detentions.
Independent journalists in Kashmir have always been vulnerable. At the height of militancy and separatism, those who refused to toe the line became targets for terrorists. Shujaat Bukhari, killed in June 2018 by terrorists, is one of more than a dozen Kashmiri journalists who have died for doing their job.
There is a long list of journalists who have been threatened and intimidated by separatists, terrorist groups and governments. I got my share and also endured a social boycott for doing my job. But the way the government systematically stifles the media is appalling. For the past two years, journalists have been officially banned from covering meetings and public order situations in Kashmir. Tweets and other social media posts have landed journalists in jail, and many face criminal charges.
The Kashmiri American poet Aga Shahid Ali wrote of a “country without a post office”. The Kashmir Press Club was the post office for journalists – the last bastion of free space in the valley has disappeared.
(Nazir Masoodi is the NDTV Bureau Chief in Srinagar)
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