We Feel Homeless After Takeover of Press Club, Say Kashmiri Journalists

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Kashmir Press Club

First-person account of two young female freelancers who decided to quit the profession after authorities laid siege to the Kashmir Press Club.

Kounsar Bashir & Mubashir Naik 

SRINAGAR – “The Press Club was like a home for us and we feel we have been expelled from it,” said a young female freelancer who is about to quit their profession in Kashmir after authorities take over the only press club building.

“On 15 January, like most of the days, after having my breakfast, I went out for a shoot and post completion of my work, I, along with my colleague, went to Press Club Srinagar (as we don’t have any office). The Kashmir Press Club (KPC) was the only place where we would go after doing our fieldwork to discuss it with our seniors.

“As we were about to enter the Press Club, we noticed police officials talking to a few journalists on the club grounds.

“The presence of the police officials inside the club premises was quite an unusual sight for me and I thought something was fishy — a summons, arrest or looking for a journalist as it could have been anything, that is all I could comprehend in my mind,” said Umar Farooq, a 19-year-old budding journalist.

The takeover

Kashmir Press Club was taken over by a few journalists in a military-style coup to form an interim body headed by president Saleem Pandit, who had arrived in an armoured cavalcade comprising a bulletproof Ambassador and a Scorpio along with his security.

The interim body was founded after a meeting held by a few journalists inside the press club. An announcement was made via press club’s official WhatsApp group and email address that “various journalist organisations across Kashmir valley unanimously have decided to form an interim body of three members with M Saleem Pandit as president, Zulfikar Majid, bureau chief of Deccan Herald as General Secretary and Arshid Rasool Editor Daily Gadyal as Treasurer of the Club till the elections are held in free and fair manner.”

The administration came under heavy fire after the takeover of press club by this group led by M Salim Pandit and accompanied by an armed police force. The Editors Guild of India termed the move a “coup” while former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti termed it a “sponsored coup.”

Anguished over the move, members of the last elected body of Kashmir Press Club condemned it calling it as a murder of democratic values.

Umar Farooq, was astonished at the way things were unfolding. “As I was working on my story seeking advice of any senior the deployment of police inside club premises kept me distracting with unsolicited questions from inside.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Shall I stay here and continue my story?”

“Is the fate of someone among us in the line of fire?”

“Are they going to take somebody from here and book him, like they did with ‘Sajad Gul’?” Amid all this chaos I continued my work and in the meantime, “a colleague of mine whispered in my ear that the press club had been taken over by a group of journalists,” Umar recalled

Days after the press club takeover, followed the massive criticism from the journalist fraternity of Kashmir including CPJ, Editors’ Guild of India, Mumbai Press Club and Press Club of India (PCI). In addition to it, some politicians and former CMs criticised the decision. Meanwhile, when everyone was still struggling to accept that KPC has been taken over, on 17th of January the Jammu and Kashmir administration decided to cancel the allotment of the building to the club and reverted the building to the Estates Department citing the reason that “the government wanted to avoid a law and order situation” after “rival groups levelled various allegations against each other.”

Press Club was a platform to meet seniors

The KPC was a platform where young and senior journalists interacted with each other, sometimes veterans as well. “I feel the closure of KPC will impact my journalistic career. It was not a press club for me, it was an institution. I often used to go there and discuss my work with senior journalists; take suggestions. Now I have to find them one by one, which is difficult and it will affect my work.

Journalism students might be afraid of doing their work in future. When a junior would see what happened with the seniors, it will, beyond doubt, impact his willingness to work,” Umar farooq added.

Kashmir Press Club was the last hope for the freelancers of the region, where they could gather and hold healthy discussions among them, but, with its closure they are feeling homeless.

Yawar Hamid, another young freelancer from Srinagar hoped that cancellation of building shouldn’t hamper journalism in Kashmir. “We had not a press club before 2018 but journalists were working fine and doing tremendous job. In 2016 mass agitation, journalists reported superbly from ground zero without having any press club here.”

But Yawar is worried about the allegations and counter-allegations of journalist fraternity on each other. What happened on 15th January is really bad.

“For every freelancer, including myself, the KPC was like an institute to learn. But after its closure, where would we go to learn and seek guidance,” asked Yawar.

Although we were lucky to get these opportunities of learning, what impact will it have on the upcoming journalists especially students if there will be no KPC in future? “My few friends have already abandoned their dreams of journalism due to the events that had unfolded in the past few years with Journalists. They are focusing on photography instead.”

“In my view, without KPC, Journalism students will not feel safe in the field and they will look for photography and filmmaking instead. The noble profession of journalism is at stake in Kashmir,” he added.

Irshaad Hussain, another young freelancer hailing from HMT area of Srinagar, said, “For years, I saw how authorities are intimidating and harassing journalists.”

Being an independent journalist, I used to meet my seniors and share ideas with them on different stories at the KPC. If a junior would see what happened with the seniors, obviously, it will impact him, as I felt myself ‘helpless’.

Hussain added that authorities always wanted to curb press freedom in the region and takeover of the press club and cancelling of its registration is an open attempt to control the narrative of freelancers.

“The KPC had always played its role when it comes to our support, but when there is no club, there is little safety especially for those who work as independent journalists,” said Hussain.

Qazi Shibli, editor of a local independent media outlet, The Kashmiriyat, said the closing down of the press club should not be seen as an incident in isolation, it is a smaller threat to a large picture of harassment of press in Kashmir Valley.

Kashmiri journalists have continually been intimidated, arrested, summoned to Police stations, and such policy can only help disintegrate the credibility of institutions.

“Kashmiri journalists have survived tough times and came out much sturdy and better out of the extremely intimidating situation post the abrogation of Article 370,” said Shibli.

Chaos in the minds of young journalists

The KPC coup has caused chaos in the minds of young journalists, feeling helpless as they are thinking of quitting the profession.

Nawheeda, a 20-year-old freelancer from Anantnag, said that the KPC was a backbone to freelancers. I don’t think journalism in Kashmir would survive without it. The press club was like a home for us and we feel we have been expelled from it.

“I along with some fellow journalists are thinking about quitting this profession as there will be no one backing us if anything happens,” she said with a sigh.
“I can’t bear to get harassed, intimidated and there will be no one to take a stand for me, said a 24-year-old Kaisar as it is already so tough to be a female journalist in Kashmir.

A dejected Kaisar said, “as much as I was enthusiastic when I entered this profession this has now become my lifelong regret after filing my pending two stories I will forever say goodbye to journalism.”

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Kounsar Bashir and Mubashir Naik both are Kashmir-based Journalists.

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