Two months after the Kashmir Press Club’s “takeover” and subsequent closure in Srinagar, some journalists in Kashmir say a report by the Press Council of India has corroborated what they have alleged for a long time now – that they’re being targeted by fellow journalists for being “critical” of the government.
The Press Council has been praised for spotlighting the plight of the media in Kashmir. But journalists told Newslaundry the report also quoted those who usually target them for not toeing the administration’s line, and who label them as “anti-national”.
But first, some context.
In the first instance, the press club saw a group of 12 people, led by Times of India assistant editor Saleem Pandit, on January 15. Two days later, the Jammu and Kashmir administration of the club’s premises, and the club stood dissolved.
Pandit explained the motivations of his “takeover” during an event organised in Srinagar by the Indian army in March, claiming the press club had been “used as a mouthpiece...for Pakistan”. He even said the club’s previous executive body had comprised “agents” who “hampered the anti-terror operations of the security forces”.
Then, 10 days after Pandit’s speech, the Press Council’s report was released. A fact-finding team had been dispatched to Srinagar and Jammu in October and November last year to speak to journalists and publishers after former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti flagged “intimidation” of journalists critical of the government.
Interestingly, many journalists who met the committee had also either directly or indirectly participated in the “takeover” of the press club – an event that the Press Council itself had condemned.
While the report of the committee – comprising Dainik Bhaskar editor Prakash Dubey, Jan Morcha editor Suman Gupta, and New Indian Express journalist Gurbir Singh – did of journalists being subjected to intimidation, fear and pressure, it also gave space to the “other view”.
It’s important to note that on January 17, journalist Sajad Gul was arrested from his home in north Kashmir. He was subsequently given bail but jailed again under the Public Safety Act. Around the same time, the Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah was arrested in south Kashmir’s Pulwama for “uploading anti-national content”, the content being a news story published on his website. Shah was also , under which a person can be detained for up to two years without trial.
The ‘other view’
While the report validated that the media in Kashmir is in crisis, journalists pointed out that it also said “many of those” who appeared before the committee were of the view that the government did not interfere with their rights as long as they “kept away from reporting and commenting on ‘anti-national’ themes, a popular euphemism used in Kashmir for content that is critical of the government and its policies”.
Here are other excerpts from the report.
Neeraj Rometra, executive editor of Jammu based Daily Excelsior, was quoted by the committee as saying that “many journalists” in Kashmir “come under the influence of militants”.
In the context of four journalists being last September, Rometra said, “Those persons’ credentials are doubtful, they are associated with secessionist organisations.” Rometra did not provide evidence for these claims, and the report did not clarify that the police have yet to find incriminating evidence against the four journalists.
Next, the report quoted Hafiz Ayaz Gani, a businessman turned editor of Rising Kashmir. Gani emphatically told the committee, “We are working in a free and fearless atmosphere. Mehbooba Mufti’s complaints do not apply to us.”
But who is Gani? He was a business partner at Rising Kashmir who took over the newspaper after the assassination of its founder-editor Shujaat Bukhari, who was also Gani’s brother-in-law. Under Gani, Rising Kashmir deleted its online archive, laid off staff it perceived as “anti-national”, and reportedly compelled its staff to replace the term ”, which its staff contended was dangerous. The paper is also among the biggest beneficiaries of government revenue, often than news.
The Press Council’s committee also met journalists Bashir Assad and Iqbal Ahmed, who were quoted in the report as saying: “The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar feels as if we are in Muzaffarabad Press Club. Yes, there is press freedom in Kashmir.”
Assad runs a web portal called Kashmir Central which has a reputation of . He is also a frequent speaker at events organised by the army in Kashmir. Ahmed was part of Pandit’s team that staged the “takeover” of the press club. He is the editor of Kashmir Central and Kzine’s Urdu publication, as well as the of the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Congress.
Both Assad and Ahmed also told the committee: “There are two constituencies in media – anti-nationals and nationalists.”
This view was furthered by Rahil Rashid, who runs a newspaper called Asian Mail in Kashmir. Rashid told the committee, “There are two types of people and there are two types of journalists. There are journalists for and against the government. If the journalist has the right to write against the government, the government has the right to shut you out.”
This was reiterated by Shafat Kira, who was also part of the team that “took over” the Kashmir Press Club. Ironically, Kira was also a member of the press club’s last elected body, which was accused by Saleem Pandit as having links to Pakistan.
Kira told the committee, “There should be a line between journalism and activism. If you truthfully report, no one can harass you.”
Apart from Kira and Iqbal Ahmed, several other journalists who had led the takeover of the press club were quoted in the committee’s report. Such as Iqbal Wani, editor of Srinagar News, who said the press was “not facing any problems while highlighting public issues” and that his team “was not facing pressure from any quarter”.
“In fact, the local administration has a good grievance redressal process,” Wani said, “and we see prompt action being taken in case of complaints.”
The committee spoke to Zulfikar Majid, senior correspondent at Deccan Herald who became the general secretary of the new Kashmir Press Club. Majid said “some” journalists “may have become activists”, and those who haven’t should not be punished. Importantly, Majid has of being separatists or government agents.
Majid Haideri, a television panelist who was also a member of Pandit’s group, was identified by the fact-finding committee as a “freelance journalist”. Haideri told the committee that “we in Kashmir are caught between the devil and the deep sea”.
Interestingly, the report also quoted statements by Javed Beigh, a political activist who is a regular participant at candlelight vigils organised by the Indian army. Beigh said that Kashmir’s “newspaper owners and editors are spreading negativity and questioning the idea of India” and also lamented the “Arabisation” of Kashmir’s culture.
The comments by all these journalists are curiously in line with what senior police officials told the committee.
Quoting Pandurang Pole, the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, and Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police, Kashmir, the report read, “On certain occasions it has been observed that media persons/journalists abuse their position and try to resort of activities that has tendency to incite people which ultimately leads to serious law and order situation...“
Kumar also said that between 2016 and October 2021, 49 cases were registered against journalists. Of this, 17 pertained to criminal intimidation, 24 to “extortion and other crimes”, while eight were charges under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Interestingly, Wani, Gani, Assad, Ahmed and Kira – all of whom are quoted in the report – are also members of the Jammu and Kashmir Press Corp, which later as “false but also malicious”. In a statement, the group said the media is “growing” in Kashmir and this had been “conveyed” to the committee which “conveniently suppressed those facts”. (Note: These “facts” are mentioned in the report.)
The group also accused the committee of a “prejudiced mindset”, of presenting a report with “premeditated fatal misstatements”, and said they had “made it clear” in their meeting with the committee that “no bonafide journalist have been harassed or summoned by police”. The group did not explain what constitutes a “bonafide journalist”.
Saleem Pandit on the media
Ten days before the release of the report, on March 3, Saleem Pandit gave a speech at a seminar titled “Kashmir at historic crossroads”, jointly organised by the Indian army’s 15 Corps and the Kashmir chapter of the International Centre for Peace Studies. It was a gathering at Srinagar’s Badamibagh cantonment, attended by army personnel and others.
Pandit was introduced by a senior army officer as a Times of India editor who “exposed hidden agendas of the separatist lobby”. “This is why we love him,” the officer said.
Pandit at the event. Source: Indian army spokesperson
Reading from a piece of paper, Pandit accused journalists of being “activists” and “blackmailers”, particularly hitting out at those who worked as freelancers.
“Everybody has come and tried to act as a journalist in Kashmir though they are not with the profession...they call themselves freelancers,” he said. Describing social media as a “unique war of terrorism as instigation and incitement”, he said, “The white collar terrorists are tasked to distort the images of the institutions by using the social media.”
Pandit also warned of Kashmiris misusing their fundamental rights. “I remember General Patankar, who was the corps commander, and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was his chief minister,” he said. “That time, he was the adherent opponent of...giving the mobile phone or this kind of device to Kashmir because he knew it, rather he foresaw that something is going to happen and this will be misused…And that happened.”
He added, “Elements who challenge the integrity or sovereignty of the country need to [be] dealt with sternly and firmly so that rule of law is maintained...The country like ours seems to go soft against such elements who spread hate against the nation through the social media.”
“The need of the hour,” Pandit said, “is that these elements should be identified on the basis of political ideology.”
Incidentally, police chief Kumar, the report stated, “had no hesitation in conceding that there exists a programme to profile journalists working in the J&K region, “Our aim is to profile 80 percent of Kashmiris, and we will do it for journalists too,” he said.
While Kashmiri journalists Pandit’s “takeover” of the press club in January, perhaps they refrained from commenting on his statements at the seminar because he is believed to enjoy close ties with the administration, as evidenced also by his security detail during the “takeover”. Journalists are also cognisant of the fact that the Jammu and Kashmir police have been booking journalists over social media posts.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.