'Illegal Coup' at Kashmir Press Club: Editors Guild of India Condemns 'Police Complicity'

In what is being called another example of the free press being 'throttled' in Kashmir, a group of journalists and newspaper owners escorted by armed forces took over the management of the Kashmir Press Club on January 15.

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Srinagar: The management of Kashmir Press Club (KPC), the leading Srinagar-based membership organisation of media professionals, which was preparing for its annual elections, was taken over on Saturday, January 15, by a group of journalists and newspaper owners who were escorted by armed forces.

Several media bodies termed the “coup” at the KPC, a society registered in 2018 under J&K Societies Registration Act, as “lawlessness” and “throttling (of) a democratic media body” in Kashmir where the administration, which is run by New Delhi, often faces charges of curbing free press.

The Editors Guild of India said the “armed takeover” by “self-declared management” is “violation of the sanctity of the club” and a “manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom in the state”. “Even more disturbingly, the state police entered the premises without any due warrant or paperwork, and have therefore been brazenly complicit in this coup,” the Guild said in a statement.

The Press Club of India has also expressed concern and demanded that democratic elections be held.

However, the interim body led by Saleem Pandit, who works with the Times of India, has denied the charges.

“I am a founding member of the club. My only concern is that it should run smoothly. The government has refused to register them. We will get it registered and elections will follow in free and fair manner,” he told The Wire.

Also read: Kashmir: Sajad Gul Arrested for Tweeting Video of Protest; Media Groups Point to Continuing Suppression

The dramatic changes in Kashmir’s largest association of journalists took place days after the process to elect a new body had been put into motion. The previous body completed its two-year tenure on July 14 last year, but fresh elections could not be held due to the uncertainty sparked in the aftermath of the reading down of Article 370.

In April last year, the J&K administration had asked all societies in J&K to re-register under Society Registration Act, 1860 since the J&K Act had been annulled following the scrapping of Article 370. Last week, the KPC managing body said that it had got approval of re-registration from the government.

On January 14, the KPC, which was founded under the PDP-BJP coalition government and which also gets yearly funds from the public exchequer, announced that the “existing management had decided to hold the elections for the new management body”. However, in a surprising turn of events, the approval of re-registration was withdrawn following a “report received from SSP CID (Hqrs),” according to officials.

The CID or Criminal Investigations Department is the counterintelligence wing of J&K police, which was recently given powers to probe all the militancy-related cases in Jammu and Kashmir. “I received communication from the (office of the) deputy commissioner in Srinagar to put the re-registration of Kashmir Press Club in abeyance and accordingly I issued the order,” Mehmood Ahmad Shah, registrar of societies, told Outlook.

On Saturday morning, armed with automatic weapons, dozens of policemen and paramilitary troopers arrived at Aiwaan-e-Sahafat, the home of KPC, on Srinagar’s Poloview Road, triggering panic and anxiety among journalists there, some of whom left the venue, even as a group of journalists and newspaper owners, many of them widely perceived to be government-friendly, started gathering there.

At around 1:45 pm, they were joined by Saleem Pandit, who arrived in an armoured cavalcade escorted by security personnel. A  meeting then took place inside the KPC’s conference hall. Saleem is among the handful of journalists in Kashmir who have been provided security cover by the administration following the scrapping of Article 370.

Saleem Pandit arriving at the KPC office ahead of the meeting on Saturday. Photo: Special Arrangement

Saleem’s press club membership was cancelled in November 2019 for “bringing disrepute” to the media fraternity, according to a statement issued then by the KPC, after he reported for his paper on July 19, 2019 that the editor of a prominent English daily had “close connections to terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and has hired known ‘jihadi journalists’ to write for his newspaper.”

Speaking with The Wire, Sajad Ahmad, the manager of KPC, said a group of journalists entered the office premises on Saturday afternoon and asked him to hand over the office computers, stationery and other documents. “When I asked them who they were, they said they were the interim body,” he said.

Also read: Global Spotlight on Harassment of J&K Journalists Grows With UN Experts’ Latest Letter

After the meeting ended, Saleem told the journalists waiting outside the KPC premises that they “should not consider we have taken it over by force.”

“We have the support of you, me and everybody. We have unanimously elected an interim body of president (Pandit), General Secretary (Zulfikar Majid, reporter with Deccan Herald) and treasurer (Arshid Rasool, editor of local daily Gadyaal),” he said.

“We are authorised… you people have authorised us. We will form different committees to look into various issues, like the membership, who they (members) are, whether they are eligible to be members of this club, and other issues,” he said. Asked about the “arbitrary takeover” by the “interim body”, Saleem prevaricated: “Give us suggestions on how to run the club. You are part of us.”

In a statement later in the evening, without specifying names, Saleem said that “various journalist organisations across Kashmir Valley unanimously decided to form the interim body” that “will also be authorised to form a required executive body which will help the KPC to flourish and grow into a modern press club much in need with the growing requirements.”

He has not so far specified the names of “journalist organisations” that support his move.

Shuja-ul-Haq, the president of the now deposed body, said the takeover by Saleem “has pained us all as this institution had been functioning with a sheer focus of seeking welfare of its journalist members”.

“I urge the administration and the Hon’ble LG of J&K to look into the matter and ensure the institution is allowed to function democratically,” Shuja, former reporter with India Today network, said in a statement.

Terming the takeover as “illegal and unconstitutional,” at least nine journalist associations, including the former managing body of the Kashmir Press Club, said they are “anguish(ed) over the illegal and arbitrary takeover… by some journalists with open support from the local administration.”

“On the day when the administration had declared weekend lockdown in view of Covid surge, a group of journalists barged into the club office and forcibly took control of the club by keeping the office members hostage. Large number of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed beforehand for this highly condemnable and completely illegal move,” they said in a statement.

Also read: Summoned, Raided, Censored: Crackdown on Journalists Is the New Normal in Kashmir

The associations appealed to the Press Council of India, Press Club of India, Federation of Press Clubs and Editors Guild of India to “take a strong note of how the local administration is supporting lawlessness and throttling a democratic media body”. “If such incidents are allowed to happen with a Press Club in Kashmir this can be precedence for future,“ the statement added.

Since the publication of this article, the Mumbai Press Club has released a statement against the takeover. The Delhi Union of Journalists has also called for its restoration.

Saleem, the interim KPC president, however, said the club’s elected managing body ceased to exist on July 14 when its term ended. “It is a defunct body. It is not even registered any longer. My motive is to get the KPC reregistered. I am ready to hand over the baton after the elections are over,” he said.

A KPC member, wishing anonymity, said the ‘existing’ managing body of the KPC was not consulted about the takeover. He conceded that they were “unable to work for the welfare of journalists”, a charge levelled by Saleem, because of the “constraints imposed on free press” by the administration. Since 2019, several journalists have been booked under stringent laws for doing their professional duties. “The brazen manner in which a democratic media body was taken over has shocked our fraternity,” he said.

The Srinagar office of Kashmir Press Club has been closed for a week. Photo: Special arrangement

“This was like a stranger barging into a house and taking over its possession while accusing the house-owner of being unable to keep it clean. It is completely illegal and undemocratic,” said the journalist, an executive member of KPC’s previous managing body who works with a local English daily.

The change of management in the KPC has also triggered a political row in Kashmir with former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti training guns at the administration for “overthrowing” a democratically elected body.

“There is no government this ‘journalist’ hasn’t sucked up to and no government he hasn’t lied on behalf of. I should know, I’ve seen both sides very closely. Now he’s benefited from a state sponsored coup,” Omar Abdullah tweeted, referring to Saleem.

“Todays state sponsored coup at KPC would put the worst dictators to shame.State agencies here are too busy overthrowing elected bodies and firing government employees instead of discharging their actual duties. Shame on those who aided and facilitated this coup against their own fraternity,” Mehbooba Mufti tweeted.

Note: This article has been updated with reactions from journalists’ bodies.