Day after Dramatic Coup, Kashmir Press Club Turns into a Fortress Out of Bounds for Journalists

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Kashmir Press Club being surrounded by security forces (Photo-Twitter)

“Disgruntled” elements, claiming to be interim executive body of the club, take over the premises in the presence of paramilitary forces

Muhammad Raafi | Clarion India

SRINAGAR – A day after the dramatic takeover of Kashmir Press Club (KPC) by a group of journalists aided by the armed forces, the club premises in the heart of the city have been rendered out of bounds for the local journalist community and the Club members.

On Sunday morning, a group of journalists routinely visited the KPC and found the gate locked from outside. The authorities asked them to turn back. Lamenting the development, Shuja ul Haq, the elected president of the KPC, said. “The Club has been locked from outside and no member was allowed to enter on Sunday… The incident has pained us all as this institution had been functioning with a sheer focus of seeking (the) welfare of its journalist members.”

Unprecedented scenes were witnessed at the KPC on Saturday after a group of “disgruntled journalists” emerged in its premises and announced the “take over” of the Club. Prior to their “takeover”, a posse of paramilitary forces was deployed outside while personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Police led by the Station House Officer (SHO) of Kothi Bagh Police Station were deployed inside the premises.

“We are waiting for the sahib to take charge without any law and order situation,” a police officer, outside the Club, at posh Polo View in Srinagar, told a group of journalists.

The KPC, routinely, remained open on all seven days of the week. Journalists could file their stories all day long. “It’s sad and painful to see the Kashmir Press Club sealed for scribes. It remained open and functional, with scores of reporters jostling to file their reports all day, at the peak of unprecedented restrictions of August 5, 2019 and even during deadly waves of (the) pandemic,” Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist associated with The Hindu tweeted.

The group of “disgruntled journalists” was led by two reporters, Saleem Pandit of The Times of India and Zulfikar Majid of Deccan Herald. Pandit who is under the security cover of the state forces, appeared in his state-provided bulletproof vehicle.

Senior Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, told Clarion India that the coup is yet another “brazen and shameless” attempt to further stifle press freedom in Kashmir. He said, “The aim is to control an independent club through pliant stenographers who enjoy patronage from the government forces and administration. Such examples of illegal takeovers of institutions were either witnessed in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia.”

Immediately after the takeover, the group issued a statement that the KPC was purportedly defunct for the past six months after the expiry of the tenure of the previously elected body. They said that a “new interim body” was elected on Saturday, January 15, 2022, with a veteran journalist, Saleem Pandit, as the president. The three-member body also includes journalists, Zulfikar Majid as the general secretary, and Arshad Rasool as the treasurer, of the Club.

Salim Pandit emerges from car

The group also claimed to have the support of “various journalist organisations” across the Kashmir Valley and said they have “unanimously” decided to form an interim body of three members till elections are held in a free and fair manner.

“The interim body, besides running the day-to-day affairs of the Club, will be authorised to form a mandatory executive body which will help the KPC to flourish as a modern press club needed to cater to the growing requirements.”

Pertinently, 13 journalist associations participated in the last elections in July 2019 are part of the KPC.

However, hours after the takeover, at least nine Kashmir journalist associations denounced the forcible takeover of Kashmir Press Club by the “disgruntled” elements saying the incidents taken place over the last few days, including withdrawal of registration by the government, hints at the government’s intention to interfere with the autonomy of the KPC by throwing its weight behind the “disgruntled group” of journalists.

The Delhi Union of Journalists also expressed dismay at “the government move” to close the KPC. “Press clubs everywhere are information hubs where journalists exchange information and views enabling them to perform their jobs better. They are also places where journalists stop and rest between hectic deadlines while they wait for the next interview, the next press briefing…..They are places to get an affordable meal and a drink and socialise with colleagues.  Press Clubs, therefore, are invaluable for the profession. In Kashmir, where journalism is a tough, risky, dangerous profession, the Press Club has played a vital role.”

Meanwhile, the Press Club of India said it was deeply concerned with the developments at KPC. “We demand that the democratic process of holding elections be allowed in a peaceful manner.” PCI also made an appeal to the New Delhi-appointed Lieutenant Governor (L-G) of Jammu and Kashmir to look into the matter and facilitate elections.

On January 13, the management of the press club announced that the re-registration process of the club has been completed. “The Government has communicated the same to the management last week. The club management had been waiting for this process to be complete for the last about six months. Since the process is complete now the existing management has decided to hold the elections for the new management body as mandated by the club’s registered constitution.”

Soon after the announcement, a letter was circulated on social networking sites written by Arshid Rasool, editor of little known Daily Gadyal, Farooq Wani, editor of Brighter Kashmir, and Shafat Kira, editor of another little known Kashmir Vision.

The trio proposed to the District Magistrate of Srinagar, Aijaz Asad, the nomination of the interim committee for the Kashmir Press Club.

Interestingly, the letter contended that the previous executive body “attempted” to seek the renewal of the registration of the said club under the new Societies Act but were refused by the Registrar of Societies as the constitution or Memorandum of Association of the club barred them from making any presentation before any authority or to apply for the renewal of the registration as they cease to continue as the executive members of the KPC.

But the fact of the matter is that the club was issued a re-registration certificate by the Registrar of Societies before the letter was circulated and the re-registration was canceled after the circulation of the letter on the social media platforms, on January 14.

Additionally, one of the members mentioned in the letter, Mehraj-ud-din of the Associated Press (AP) expressed surprise at his inclusion in the letter without his knowledge. The letter said that Mehraj would be treasurer of the interim body.

“A letter to the Deputy Commissioner Srinagar is being circulated about selecting an interim body for the Kashmir Press Club. I am surprised to see my name in the said letter wherein I’m being nominated without my consent or anybody having ever mentioned it to me. It’s unethical and my name should be immediately withdrawn from the letter. I have nothing to do with it,” complained Mehraj.

Naseer Ganai, a Kashmir-based senior correspondent with Outlook magazine, said the government first registered the club, and then de-registered it. “The government should first clear why the registration process that was completed after six months of verification was canceled abruptly without any reason.”

It looks like both the government move to withhold the registration after issuing it and the coup are complementing each other, he told Clarion India.

Meanwhile, in a statement, hours after the “coup”, the Kashmir journalist bodies, said: “Today’s incident in which a group of journalists, some of whom are not even members of the KPC, barged into the club office and forcibly took over the control of the club by making the office members hostage, is highly condemnable and completely illegal. The incident took place in the presence of heavy police deployment inside and outside the club premises.”

The journalist bodies that issued the joint statement include Journalist Federation of Kashmir (JFK), Kashmir Working Journalists Association (KWJA), Kashmir Press Photographer Association (KPPA), Kashmir Press Club (KPC), Kashmir Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), Kashmir Journalist Association (KJA), Kashmir Video Journalist Association (KVJA) and Jammu and Kashmir Journalist Association.

“The move in which this group of disgruntled journalists appointed themselves as the interim body is totally illegal, unconstitutional, and without any precedence… We are looking at all the options including registration of FIR as well as legal recourse,” the joint statement said.

Pertinently, the self-appointed president in question, Saleem Pandit’s membership was suspended by the club management on November 16, 2019, as part of a disciplinary action for bringing disrepute to the Club and undermining its authority.

On Saturday, the joint statement of journalist bodies reiterated that the self-appointed president of the interim body is not even a member of the Kashmir Press Club. The nine journalist bodies’ statement appealed to the press bodies across the country, including the Press Council of India (PCI), Press Club of India (PCI), Federation of Press Clubs, and Editors Guild of India to take a strong note of how the local administration is supporting the lawlessness and throttling a democratic media body.

On Sunday, the Editors Guild of India demanded immediate restoration of the status quo before the hostile takeover, the announcement of elections to appoint a new management body and executive council, and strict prohibitions on any armed forces from interfering with the functioning of the club, without due legal sanction. “The Guild further demands an independent inquiry as to how armed forces entered the Club premises,” an EGI statement said.

On Sunday the journalists found the gates of the club shut and locked.

The Mumbai Press Club (MPC) condemned the forcible takeover of the KPC from the legally elected management body in conjunction with security forces on Saturday. It said, “The MPC also deplores the Jammu & Kashmir administration scuttling the club’s election process the previous day, Friday, 14th January, by ‘holding in abeyance’ the registration of the Kashmir club, which is registered under the Societies Act, 1860.”

The MPC statement further said, “The group who trespassed into the club premises were protected by the J&K Police… The J&K Police personnel installed themselves at the club’s gate and inside the club building. Significantly, the group that barged in and seized the club had lost the elections in 2019.”

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