On October 19, 2020, the office of the Kashmir Times, located in the Press Enclave in Srinagar, was sealed by the Estates Department of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government, which manages government allotted properties.
One year on, the office remains sealed, and the Kashmir Times, one of J&K’s oldest newspapers, is no longer in circulation in Kashmir Valley. Since the revoking of the J&K’s semi-autonomous status by the Modi government, and its demotion to a Union Territory, journalists have been summoned, questioned, and detained by the police. Some have been booked under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. In 2020, the New Delhi- run government issued a New Media Policy for Jammu and Kashmir, which journalists in Kashmir have protested as an instrument of intimidating journalists and pushing the government narrative through the media.
For two consecutive years, India has been ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French NGO, calling it one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. On Kashmir, RSF has said that journalists were contending with “Orwellian content regulations,” reporters were harassed by the police and paramilitary, and media outlets like the Kashmir Times were liable to be closed.
Executive editor of The Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin, who moved the Supreme Court against the communication ban following the abrogation of J&K’s semi-autonomous status, and has challenged the draconian sedition law, said that while the financial constraints which came with the drying up of government ads had made it difficult to publish the Kashmir edition of the newspaper, it was the closure of their office that put the final nail in the coffin. In this conversation, Bhasin spoke to us about the last vestiges of press freedom in Kashmir, and the battle that some journalists are waging to save journalism in the conflict zone.
Could you tell us about the Kashmir Times and your father Ved Bhasin?
In 1954, my father was bringing out an Urdu newspaper called Naya Samaj after Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest in 1953. It was banned under the “Defence of India” rule because he opposed Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest. Media restrictions have been part of the problem since 1947. To continue his job as a media professional, he thought of starting the “Kashmir Times” newspaper from Srinagar but the then government didn’t allow him to register the newspaper in his name. So, he had to move to Jammu and get it registered. It was difficult even there to get the “Kashmir Times” registered as a weekly. In 1964, it became a daily newspaper. It was being printed from Jammu and circulated in both regions. The Kashmir edition was started in 2009.
Media restrictions have been part of the problem since 1947.
You have said that the National Conference government ordered the demolition of your office in 2009?
In 2009, when we started the Kashmir edition of the Kashmir Times, a lot of things were happening. The Asiya and Nilofer murder and rape case in Kashmir turned ugly. We reported thoroughly from the ground, criticizing the government for mishandling the situation. At that time, the National Conference government headed by Omar Abdullah ordered the demolition of our office in the Srinagar press enclave. We moved the court and won the case.
What happened last October?
In October 2020, by the order of the government, our office was suddenly sealed. There was no notice or order given to us. Of course, it’s a government accommodation. They have the right to throw us out but there is a proper procedure that should have been followed. They just came and asked our staff to move out and locked the main gate. They not only took away the government space that we were using but they also took away all our office equipment. We could no longer carry out our print edition.
The Estates Department claimed that you were informed.
No, they had not informed us to vacate the building. They may have informed other people, but they gave us no order. In fact, we had started hearing rumors. Our staff members had approached the Estates Department, but they refused to show us any order. Everything was done in a secret mode.
The Estate Department also said that the office building was used for residential purposes.
Our office was only used for work. They lie when they say it was used as a residential flat. This was not used as the residence. There is another building right next to it which was allotted to us as a residence. These tactics are used to keep you out of circulation. They keep you involved and drain your energy completely.
These tactics are used to keep you out of circulation.
What legal action have you taken against the closure?
We moved the District Magistrate’s office after the office was sealed, but there were no hearings. We recently filed a petition in the J&K High Court. No hearings have occurred yet.
Has media suppression in the past prepared the ground for harassing and suppressing the media in Kashmir?
Yes, of course. The media has always been suppressed in Kashmir. I mentioned my father’s case. But after 2019, there is complete intolerance to anything that is critical of the government.
There is complete intolerance to anything that is critical of the government.
You have said that the government stopped giving you ads after you filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the communication ban after the abrogation of 370. How did you manage?
We faced huge financial problems post the abrogation of Article 370. In 2019, when we approached the court, the state government stopped our ads. Our central government ads had already been stopped. It became very difficult, especially during Covid-19. We have been managing with a minimal continuation on digital space and a truncated Jammu edition. From 16 pages, we have been reduced to eight pages, which are in black and white on most days. The circulation is very little, but we are trying our best to survive. We have very few people because of our financial crisis. There is also fear of being associated with the Kashmir Times. I can understand because of the very intimidating atmosphere that reporters are working under. Some continued to work with us despite the fact that we were unable to pay their salaries on time. We were unable to go ahead with a regular pay hike, but they kept working because they believed in the cause. I feel helpless that I haven’t been able to do anything for them.
From 16 pages, we have been reduced to eight pages, which are in black and white on most days.
What is the state of the media in Kashmir today?
Every day, there is something new in terms of laws and policies which are draconian ways to stop critical media reports. Whether it’s in terms of financial support or logistical support, there are innovative ways of harassing media houses. Some of these are very subtle. Journalists are being summoned. They are slapped with criminal cases. The local newspapers are not saying anything. They have silenced everybody effectively. I think it is very difficult for the media to survive in this place anymore, but we have to keep trying to revive journalism, even as it is nearing its grave. Unless we make a collective effort, I think we will be there very soon.
How are things now different from the past repression in Kashmir.
These kinds of tactics — withdrawing advertisements, intimidating journalists and editors — started in 2008 or 2009. But the scale of harassment is huge right now. It is demoralizing. It induces fear and it completely disables journalists from working. Sources of information are drying up. Officials don’t want to speak. Civilians are afraid of speaking. There is so much anonymity in the stories.
Source of information are drying up. Civilians are afraid of speaking up. There is so much anonymity in the stories.
How do you view the new Media Policy for Jammu and Kashmir?
The new Media Policy is very draconian. They are aimed to project the positive narrative of the government, but that is not the media’s job. That is the job of the Public Relations Department. The media is supposed to bring out the ugly truth particularly about the people who are in power. That is our job. If we are not allowed to do our job then I don’t understand where we are headed. Kashmir right now is bursting with stories but we have no stories to tell. It has affected fair and ethical journalism in both regions (Jammu and Kashmir).
Kashmir right now is bursting with stories but we have no stories to tell.
How long are you going to fight to get back your office in Kashmir?
This is not one organization’s battle, it is everybody’s battle. Those who believe in free media. We need to fight collectively for it. The government doesn’t listen. They have been talking about integrating Jammu and Kashmir with India. They cannot integrate people without giving them their democratic rights. A free press will be the major sign that democracy exists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Where do you see democracy without a free press?
Nowhere. A free press is the most crucial thing in democracy today, particularly at a time when you don’t have a political space. I am talking about Kashmir, but even in the rest of India, you don’t see the Opposition speaking much. There is just one dominant narrative and that dominant section of the media which has turned itself into a Public Relations vehicle, across India and more so in Kashmir. The basic need of a democracy is to have a free press that acts as a measure of accountability. It seeks accountability from the government. It brings out the harsh truth including about those who are in power.
Is there any message from you for the young journalists working on the ground in Kashmir?
It takes a lot of courage to continue working and bringing out stories that make a difference. I hope they will continue to carry on their work without being harassed. Their courage needs to be celebrated.