Srinagar: In the latest blow to press freedom and what appears to be an attempt to establish a new normal, the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) government sealed the office of the 66-year-old newspaper Kashmir Times here on 19 October without notifying its editor Anuradha Bhasin.
The eviction comes 15 days after Bhasin was evicted from her government-allotted home in Jammu and four days after a prominent news agency was verbally asked to vacate its Srinagar office.
“This is an attempt to silence me because I have been criticising the government and its decision(s),” Bhasin, 52, told Article 14, referring to the 5 August 2019 abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and a June 2020 New Media Policy with vague, undefined threats against fake news, reportage against ‘India’s integrity’ and ‘public decency’ and security checks for reporters.
With Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the Congress party in the Rajya Sabha, Bhasin also challenged the legality of a J&K communications shutdown in the Supreme Court in August 2019, after which government advertisements to the paper ceased.
India was ranked 142 of 180 countries in the 2020 global Press Freedom Index, which the advocacy Reporters Without Borders said was “heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir”.
“It is the residential quarter of late Ved Bhasin saab that has been locked, since he died a couple of years ago,” said an official of the estates department, speaking on condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The official was referring to Bhasin’s father, who founded Kashmir Times in 1954 and to whom a residence and office premises were allotted in Srinagar. The office has been sealed, not the residence, which is not currently in use.
“The allotment (of the residence) was cancelled in July this year,” said the official, who insisted that quarter no 4, where the newspaper office was located, is still in the possession of Kashmir Times.
“These are just stories,” said Bhasin. “Our office has been locked.”
A similar eviction faced Mohammad Aslam, owner of Kashmir News Service (KNS). “They should have given us time. I am thankful to the government for giving us this apartment and allowing us to function there for 20 years. But they are yet to give me in writing the reasons for vacating the property.”
After 5 August 2019, journalists have faced a new level of state intimidation and violence, as Article 14 reported on 22 September. Bhasin has urged the media to fight their fear of the State.
“The realm of fear, real as it is, cannot be used as a perpetual excuse by editors of newspapers to defend their silence,” Bhasin wrote in The Wire on 8 September. The silence of the region’s newspaper editors, she said, was “guided by considerations of both fear and ambition of turning their publications into robust commercial enterprises”. She accused them of becoming extensions of the government’s public-relations department.
Sharing a photo of her locked office in Srinagar, Bhasin tweeted: “Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation and eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu, where my belongings including valuables were handed over to a new allottee. Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed. How Peevish (sic)!”
Bhasin told Article 14 that “lower staff” at the estates department informed her of plans afoot to evict her, so she filed a case in September in a court presided over by the local deputy commissioner.
The officials locked the office around 5 pm, without allowing about 10 staffers then present to remove computers and other equipment. Bhasin was in Jammu, 266 km to the south, when the officials came by.
The eviction comes after the 4 October sealing of Bhasin’s government accommodation in Jammu also, she said, “without intimating her”. She accused the brother of a former legislator from Jammu of barging into her apartment and vandalising it, “in connivance with the estates department and some police personnel”.
Shooting The Messenger
Locking media offices with no notice or comment appears to be, as we said, an attempt by the J&K government to set a new normal, but the precedent was established four years ago.
On 2 October 2016, a local newspaper, the Kashmir Reader, was indefinitely banned for being critical of the government during summer unrest triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Muzzafar Wani on 8 July 2016.
The then deputy commissioner of Srinagar in a two-page order said the newspaper, “contains material and content which tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquillity”.
The ban was lifted three months later.
“When I spoke to the deputy commissioner of the estates department and asked him to give me the reason (for the eviction), he did not (give me one) and gave me an hour’s time to vacate the office,” said Aslam of the KNS.
The eviction of Kashmir Times was related to its criticism of the government, said journalists.
“Curtailing and squeezing the media is an established fact in Jammu and Kashmir, but this new attempt at browbeating the paper comes after its editor had pointed out complacency and complicity of the local press in reacting to those curbs and silencing by the State,” said Najeeb Mubaraki, a former editor at the Economic Times and Kashmir Reader. “Journalism doesn’t die, but now it seems it will be a prisoner in the short and medium term in J&K.”
Gowhar Geelani, a journalist who was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, in April 2020, wrote on social media: “The sealing of Kashmir Times office in Srinagar and eviction of the newspaper’s executive editor Anuradha Bhasin and her staff members from Jammu Quarters are reprehensible acts aimed at normalising criminalisation of independent journalism in #Kashmir. There was a corrupt media mafia and stenographers union against Anuradha which not only organised a vilification campaign against her, but also ensured that she was punished for her views on freedom of speech and articles that she wrote.”
Journalists Offer A Helping Hand
Many journalists offered to help Kashmir Times however they could.
“In the face of the government’s crackdown on the Kashmir Times, a newspaper many of us grew up reading, we offer our professional help,” said Tariq Mir, who is a freelancer for international media, including Washington Post, Boston Review and Al Jazeera.
“We express our solidarity and support to its editors and our colleagues there,” said a statement issued by 11 journalists, who offered “some work hours, for free, every day to support the Kashmir Times editorial team which can somewhat help sustain the paper in these difficult times”.
The Kashmir Times and its editor Bhasin, said Hilal Mir, a former editor at the Hindustan Times and a correspondent with Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency, had been at the “forefront of fighting against the government curbs on communication and press freedom in Kashmir, especially post August 5 clampdown last year, when the majority of the local press was found wanting in reportage, choosing silence over speaking truth to power”.
Bhasin said she was “overwhelmed by all the solidarity”.
“This is so nice,” she said.
(Shafaq Shah is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)