Journalists decry ‘forcible takeover’ of Kashmir Press Club

Journalists take over the Kashmir Press Club administration as police and troops stand by – a move journalists call a ‘dangerous precedent’.

Men with posters stand in a street
Kashmiri journalists hold placards during a protest against a new media policy that was announced last year in Srinagar [File: Dar Yasin/AP]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Journalists have decried the “forcible and illegal takeover” of an independent media body by a group of journalists with the alleged help of local administration in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Outgoing KPC members say that, on Saturday, a group of journalists barged into the KPC administration’s office in Srinagar, the region’s main city, and announced themselves “interim” office-bearers.

“On January 15, the day when the administration had declared weekend lockdown in view of COVID surge, a group of journalists barged into the club office and forcibly took control of the club by keeping the office members hostage. A large number of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed beforehand for this highly condemnable and completely illegal move,” the outgoing KPC office-bearers said in a statement, calling the move a “dangerous precedent by the administration”.

“This move, in which a group of journalists self-appointed itself as an ‘interim body’ is uncivil, illegal, unconstitutional and without any precedence.”

The Kashmir Press Club (KPC), formed in 2018, is the largest independent media body in the Himalayan region, with at least 300 journalists as its members.

The controversial move comes at a time when the press in Kashmir faces increasing curbs and free speech is under attack. Kashmiri journalists are often questioned and criminalised for their works.

On January 5, a 26-year-old journalist with a local portal, Sajad Ahmad Dar, was booked and arrested for posting video of a protest on his social media accounts.

‘Illegal and arbitrary’

The move is seen as yet another attempt by the government to interfere in the functioning of the press in the restive Himalayan region.

Local media bodies expressed their dismay at the takeover, calling it an “illegal and arbitrary takeover of the KPC with open support from the local administration”.

A number of journalists in the region took to social media to express their anger.

“A set of ‘journalists’ in Srinagar enabled by local administration capture the hard-earned #Kashmir Press Club with police and paramilitary troops present and throw out an elected body. Reveals a lot about the prevailing climate in which journalists work in the embattled region,” senior journalist Parvaiz Bukhari wrote on Twitter.

The Editor’s Guild of India in a statement condemned the “forcible takeover” of KPC and termed it as a “manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom” in the region.

“The Editors Guild of India is aghast at the manner at which Kashmir Press Club, the largest journalists association in the Valley [Kashmir], was forcibly taken over by a group of journalists with the help of armed policemen on January 15,” it said on Sunday.

The Guild demanded “an independent inquiry as to how armed forces entered the Club premises” and accused the local administration of deliberately delaying the registration process of the Club.

The outgoing KPC office-bearers say the re-registration of the Club was delayed by the local administration, which is directly run from New Delhi. The elections, they said, was delayed as the registration could not be completed.

Delayed elections

The KPC had been planning to hold elections for new office-bearers on February 15 and outgoing KPC General Secretary Ishfaq Tantray told Al Jazeera they had “no idea about the formation of a new body”.

“We were busy with the re-registration process and were working on initiating the election process to the new body. Whatever has been done by this disgruntled group has no basis in law,” Tantray said.

A statement by the so-called interim body read: “With the KPC being defunct for the last six months when the tenure of the previously elected body ended, a new interim body was elected on Saturday, January 15, 2022, with veteran journalist M Salim Pandit as the President … till the elections are held in a free and fair manner”.

It added that “various journalist organisations across Kashmir valley unanimously decided to form an interim body”.

Pandit defended the controversial move, telling  Al Jazeera the “body was constituted for the welfare of the media in Kashmir”.

“My stand is that there should be elections in the press club. The previous executive had lost legal standing to continue as a body as their term had ended in July last year. They no longer remain the body. This is an interim arrangement for the time being. I am only committed to the welfare of journalists and the club. It was not an illegal takeover.”

Deputy commissioner of Srinagar, Muhammad Aijaz Assad, termed the developments as an internal matter refused to comment on it to Al Jazeera.

‘Shocking, disturbing’

Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of the region in a tweet said: “Today’s state-sponsored coup at KPC would put the worst dictators to shame. State agencies here are too busy overthrowing elected bodies & firing govt employees instead of discharging their actual duties. Shame on those who aided & facilitated this coup against their own fraternity.”

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of FreeSpeech Collective, a group that advocates for press freedom, termed the events as “shocking and disturbing”.

“The manner in which a faction of journalists have used the nailed fist of the State to muscle their way into a journalists’ organisation is unprecedented and undemocratic,” Seshu told Al Jazeera, adding that “already, journalists in Kashmir are working in an atmosphere of extreme and continuous intimidation.”

“When the independence of journalists’ organisations and institutions are undermined in this crude manner, the erosion of press freedom is complete”.

The Mumbai Press Club in a statement on Sunday has also condemned the “forceful takeover of the press club from the legally elected management”.

Source: Al Jazeera