Srinagar: In what is being seen as an assault on press freedom in Kashmir, authorities sealed the office of a prominent English newspaper, The Kashmir Times, in Srinagar, days after its executive editor Anuradha Bhasin’s forced eviction from her government-allotted apartment in Jammu.
Bhasin has been critical of the government’s policies in the region, especially the communication blackout enforced since August 5, 2019, following the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two union territories.
Bhasin had filed a writ petition in Supreme Court of India which was referred to as the ‘Kashmir internet case’. Her petition, filed on August 10 last year, had stated that the restrictions imposed in the region were curbing the rights of journalists and fuelling anxiety among the people. Due to the severe restrictions imposed by the authorities to thwart any opposition or protest against the revocation of the special law, the newspaper was not able to publish for days.
Bhasin has since been critical about the government’s crackdown on media, due to which, she says, she is being targeted.
“Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation & eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu, where my belongings including valuables were handed over to "new allottee". Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed. How peevish!,” Bhasin wrote on Twitter after the incident.
The senior journalist, who is based in Jammu, had alleged earlier this month that a group of people, including some cops in civil clothes, had barged into her government-allotted residence and ransacked her belongings. Bhasin wrote about the incident and shared pictures of the attack on social media following which the state’s estates department said they had issued a notice of eviction, which Bhasin denies having received.
This is not the first time that The Kashmir Times has had to face the government’s ire. The newspaper, established in 1954 first as a weekly and then circulated daily ten years later, has been known as an anti-establishment voice. Its founder, Ved Bhasin, Anuradha’s father, was a prominent figure known for his contribution to journalism in the region. In 2015, Ved died at the age of 86, having left behind six decades of his work. His death also came at a time when his newspaper was already blacklisted by the government, leaving it in a deep crisis.
In 2010, a year in which Kashmir witnessed a massive people’s protest against the state, which KT covered widely, central government DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) ads were stopped to several Kashmir-based newspapers, including hers. “After two years, they resumed ads for some newspapers. But for Kashmir Times no ads were resumed ever since October 2010,” Bhasin told NewsClick.
The advertisements were not only stopped for its Kashmir edition, but for its Hindi and Dogri edition in Jammu as well. In 2018, the management was forced to close down the Hindi and Dogri editions.
“Last year, the day I went to court, the ads were stopped to us. They gave a few trickle of ads in the month of August and September but in October, ads were completely stopped to us. Since then, we have not received any government ads,” Bhasin added.
The targeting, she said, had begun right from the day the newspaper was established. “Even for getting it registered, my father had to move out of Srinagar because the government was putting several roadblocks in the process of registration. So, he had move out and get the first print from Delhi. It was seized at Lakhanpur border. He got it finally registered in Jammu in somebody else’s name,” she said.
Despite being at odds with the establishment since the beginning, what makes the present situation different, Bhasin said, is that “there is no due process of law being followed.”
“There is no accountability. Today there is complete silence and abject lies that they peddle. In my particular case, no due process was followed. There were no orders, no eviction notices. We also approached the court. The remedial measure for journalists are not working now,” Bhasin pointed out.
The attack on Bhasin is not an isolated incident. The press in Kashmir has been facing unprecedented pressure from authorities who have booked many journalists under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Since August last year, over a dozen journalists were summoned for questioning by the Jammu and Kashmir police and were asked to reveal their sources in many instances. The Jammu and Kashmir police’s cyber cell, which is a counter-insurgency unit, recently assaulted Aquib Javeed, a scribe, for reporting on their excessive use of force against online dissidents. The attack on Aquib was one among many such incidents since August.
Due to the continued pressure and a lack of support, KT was operating on bare minimum means with minimal infrastructure and staff. Its circulation was also impacted because the management was unable to invest money in it. Over the last three months, Bhasin said the Jammu edition was being printed regularly but with little circulation. In Srinagar, they were unable to do that because of financial constraints.
“During COVID-19 we suspended the print editions of Jammu and Srinagar for a while. A month later, when we tried to resume work, it was very difficult as finances were down. It was not just because government ads were impacted, but businesses in Jammu and Kashmir has been impacted because of the previous lockdown and the pandemic,” Bhasin added.
The fresh attack on the newspaper has dealt another blow at a time when it is already dealing with a crisis. Members of the media fraternity have called out the action against the newspaper and its editor as ‘disturbing’ and yet another ‘attempt to silence the press’.
Many journalists have expressed solidarity with the newspaper and have extended an offer of devoting free work hours to support the newspaper’s editorial team to help sustain the paper.
“We are aware that Kashmir Times, and its editor, has been at the forefront of fighting against government curbs on communications 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. In view of these government-sponsored intimidation attempts to silence an independent newspaper, we express our solidarity and support to its editors and our colleagues there (sic),” a statement from the journalists read.
Independent journalist Majid Maqbool, who is among the group of 19 journalists who extended support, said the newspaper and its editor are being targeted for not toeing the government line and said that the attempts were being made to make their publication “impossible.”
“These intimidation tactics also send out a signal for the rest of the local media and journalists that if they don't toe the official line, there will be consequences for them,” Maqbool said.