The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar was permanently shut down on Monday with its premises formally taken over by the government of the union territory of Kashmir. The government announced that the biggest journalist body of the Valley has ceased to exist - it has lost its registration as a society, its land has been reclaimed by the government.
The intentions of the administration were clear on Friday, a day after the Press Club said elections were to be held for key posts on February 15. The next day, a group of journalists, seen as supporters of the government and accompanied by armed policemen, barged into the club and locked the premises, preventing independent journalists from entering the area, and declaring that they would now run the organization.
In its dismantling of the civil society group, the government has followed the template it used in November 2018 to dissolve the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. Soon after regional parties formed an alliance and staked claim to form government, so did a rival group with the support of the BJP. The then Governor Satya Pal Malik said he didn't receive any letter from the regional parties about their right to form the government because the fax machine in his office was not working. He then dissolved the assembly, needed, he said, to prevent parties from buying each other's MLAs in their effort to prove they had the required numbers to form the government.
The Kashmir Press Club, founded in 2018, was the largest body of independent reporters in a region where the freedom of the press has been steadily eroding. A year after Jammu and Kashmir was declared no longer a state, and its special status and autonomy were removed, the club was asked to register anew as a society. That process was completed in December but suddenly, two weeks ago, the new registration was put on hold with the government claiming that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police had given adverse reports about the character and antecedents of those on the governing body of the club.
The club has been prevented from holding democratic elections for its governing body. The administration says its intervention was imperative after reports in "social media and sources" about "a potential law and order situation" and breach of peace; it said it was also looking out for the safety of journalists.
The Press Club had 300 members. With it being made defunct, the government's approach is quite evident - it will not allow any institution which doesn't toe the official line or is in sync with the political ideology of ruling party. The only platform which raised the voice against frequent harassment of journalists has been shut, de-registered and dispossessed. "Stifling of the voice" of journalism, the club said in a statement.
Kashmir has lost all its social spaces. Trade unions, rights bodies and civil society groups have literally vanished. Elections to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, as also the Kashmir High Court Bar Association have been effectively stalled. Jamia Masjid Srinagar, the largest social and cultural space in Kashmir, has largely remained closed for Friday prayers since August 2019. Democratic processes are being wiped out.
Elections to 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 regional parties who were long-time rivals, performed well in these crucial elections. A certain amount of manipulation ensured that the alliance of six parties did not succeed in getting control of fewer councils than their votes enabled.
While a large section of the local media, dependent on government advertisements, has long fallen in line, many independent journalists and working journalists refused to submit and ensured that Kashmir Press Club was not remote-controlled; they were challenged with multiple cases of harassment against journalists, police FIRs and detentions.
Independent journalists in Kashmir have always been vulnerable. At the peak of militancy and separatism, those who refused to toe the line became the target of terrorists. Shujaat Bukhari, killed in June 2018 by terrorists, is among over a dozen Kashmiri journalists who died for doing their job.
There is a long list of journalists who have faced threats and intimidation by separatists and terror groups and governments. I have had my own share, and have also endured a social boycott for doing my job. But the way the government is now systematically stifling media is appalling. In the last two years, journalists have been officially barred from covering encounters and law and order situations in Kashmir. Tweets and other social media posts have landed journalists in jail, many are facing criminal charges.
Kashmiri American poet Aga Shahid Ali has written of a "country without a post office''. Kashmir Press Club was the post office of journalists - the last bastion of free space in the Valley is gone.
(Nazir Masoodi is NDTV's Srinagar Bureau Chief)
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