On 15 January an unprecedented scene was witnessed in the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) when a few journalists accompanied by government forces entered into the premises and appointed themselves as the new “interim body” to look after the club affairs.
Many journalists termed the incident a “coup” and condemned the arbitrary takeover of the club and accused the new interim body for working at the behest of the government. However, the new interim body led by senior journalist Salim Pandit denied the accusation.
The sudden takeover drew severe criticism from journalist associations across India and abroad.
Reputed organizations like Editors Guild of India (EGI), Press Club of India (PCI), Mumbai Press Club (MPC), Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), Chennai Press Club (CPC) condemned the “forcible takeover” of the KPC.
Two former chief minister’s Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti also took to micro-blogging site Twitter terming the episode “state-sponsored coup”.
At least ten Kashmir-based journalist bodies also expressed anguish over the “illegal and arbitrary” takeover of the Club by some journalists with “open support” from the local administration.
A day before the takeover, the government had put re-registration of the Club into abeyance following directions from Srinagar district authorities. Later, the government canceled the allotment of building and land which housed KPC and retained the property.
The government handed over the property back to the estate department citing that it wanted to avoid a law and order situation after “rival groups leveled various allegations against each other”.
The sequence of the events made many journalists believe that the move was another onslaught on the free press in Kashmir which is facing different curbs and pressure from the government post abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on 5 August 2019.
Since then more than 50 journalists have been booked, arrested, summoned and intimidated mainly after carrying reports adverse to the government‘s version.
Many journalists have also been put on a look out circular under which they are barred from traveling outside India.
Several journalists took to social media to express their anguish over the sealing of the Club and the suppression the fraternity is facing for the past two and a half years.
“August 5, 2019 is not merely a date, but an act which is being implemented and normalized in Kashmir on a daily basis. Ending Kashmir Press Club for merely being a space of safety and collective thinking for scribes is unfortunate and saddening, threatening too (sic),” senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq tweeted.
Another journalist Samiya Lateef also highlighted the hostile environment Kashmiri journalists are working in over the years.
“Most Kashmiri journalists working in hostile environments have been nothing but brave all these years. They have withstood the harassment, done their job with utmost honesty & dedication. That’s what scares the state. I stand in solidarity with you all #KashmirPressClub #Kashmir (sic),” Samiya said.
A noted journalist and author Mirza Waheed said that the forcible takeover of KPC has precedence to it.
“Of course, Kashmir’s only press club will be taken over forcibly, men with assault rifles imposing an armed coup, an elected body thrown out in a few hours. There’s precedent to this, both recent and across history (sic),” Waheed tweeted.
On 15 January, a young journalist Sajad Gul was arrested under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and shifted to Kot Bhalwal jail for trying to create a law and order problem in his hometown in north Kashmir’s Bandipora.
Gul, who had been working as a trainee reporter at The Kashmir Walla, was earlier granted a bail by a local court in a case registered against him for hatching “criminal conspiracy”.
In April 2020, Jammu and Kashmir police booked photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for “uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention”. Similarly, at the same time, cyber police booked senior journalist Gowhar Geelani for “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media”.
Meanwhile, The Press Club of India (PCI) on Thursday wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha demanding an impartial inquiry over the closure of the KPC, saying it is necessary to bring the truth out.