The future of press freedom in Indian-administered Kashmir has been thrown into question after pro-government journalists and police officers forcibly took over its independent press club, which the authorities later shut down.
The incident, which follows the harassment and detention of dozens of journalists in Kashmir in recent months, is the latest attack on independent journalism in the region, which is disputed between India and Pakistan.
A small group of journalists supportive of the Indian government stormed the Kashmir Press Club with the assistance of armed police over the weekend, allegedly threatening its ruling body, and locked up the building, preventing journalists from entering.
The club, which has irked the government by defending media freedoms and its critical reporting, had been about to hold new elections.
The overthrow was widely condemned. The Editors Guild of India said it was “aghast at the manner in which the office and the management of Kashmir Press Club … was forcibly taken over” and accused the state of being “brazenly complicit in this coup”.
The former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, Omar Abdulllah, also called it a “state-sponsored coup”.
The worst fears of the independent journalist community in Kashmir were confirmed on Monday when the regional administration declared the press club had been deregistered as a society and “ceased to exist”, and that the land on which it stands was being taken back into government hands.
“It seems the ultimate goal was to shut down the Kashmir Press Club,” its general secretary, Ishfaq Tantray, said. “By this action, they wanted to stifle the voice of journalists that resonated through the forum … the only democratic and independent journalist body” in the region.
The government defended its actions as protectiing press freedom and ensuring the “safety of bona fide journalists”.
There has been a growing crackdown on independent journalism in Kashmir since the national government led by Narendra Modi unilaterally revoked the region’s autonomy in August 2019, stripped it of statehood, dissolved its government and brought it under Delhi’s control.
Journalists reporting critically in the region have faced intimidation, harassment and lengthy and exhausting interrogations and investigations. More than 40 have been subjected to raids or police questioning in the past two years or placed on no-fly lists, preventing them from leaving the country.
The government also introduced a draconian new media policy for Kashmir in June 2020, which introduced mandatory background checks for journalists and gave the administration power to prosecute those whom officials decide are spreading misinformation or fake news.
The press club is the latest independent civil society group, following the Kashmir High Court Bar Association and the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, to be forcibly prevented from holding elections since August 2019.
“Journalism has been choked in the region, especially in last two years, with continuous summons and detentions of journalists,” said Fahad Shah, the editor of the local newspaper the Kashmir Walla. “Multiple raids have been conducted at journalists’ houses and offices too. It is just unfortunate how brazenly power is being used and laws are being scuttled to force people to toe a line that the government is comfortable with.”
Sajad Gul, an independent journalist from Kashmir who has reported on alleged “fake encounters”, in which the military stages the death of civilians as militants, was detained on Monday under the Public Safety Act, a law that allows people to be arrested to prevent them acting against the security of the state.
Shah, who has published Gul’s work, said he had been detained for doing his job and that Kashmir Walla lawyers were fighting his case. “Freedom of press in Kashmir has been a casualty under the current government,” he said.