Press freedom

Kashmir Times: Where the mind is without fear…

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of 'Kashmir Times'.

The front page of the newspaper carrying the news of its office sealed by the authorities.

The sealing of the Kashmir Times office is the latest in the series of attacks on the 66-year-old English daily published from Kashmir for its bold and fearless stance.

As a former employee of Kashmir Times, this writer was eager to have a look at its front page on October 20 morning. The lead story was on the Enforcement Directorate questioning former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah days after the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration came into existence. A plain report on the sealing of the newspaper’s office in the Press Enclave Area of Srinagar the previous day was carried as the fifth story in the first deck of the 66-year-old daily.

Amid political repression in Kashmir, the media particularly have been facing the most challenging situation after August 5, 2019, when the Centre unilaterally stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special constitutional status and Statehood. Since last year, reporters have been roughed up by the security forces on several occasions, summoned to key counterinsurgency centres of the police, called Cargo, and detained illegally. In some cases, they have been slapped with terror charges under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). In addition, the local economy ruined by lockdowns and the coronavirus pandemic has forced news organisations to scale down operations for want of revenue in the absence of advertisements.

Against this backdrop, Kashmir Times’ office was sealed 15 days after its executive editor, Anuradha Bhasin, was evicted from her government-allotted accommodation in Jammu without any notice and four days after a leading news agency, Kashmir News Service, was informed verbally to leave its government-allotted office in Srinagar. Anuradha Bhasin had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court last year, seeking its intervention to lift the clampdown on the media and the restrictions on communications that had led to an information vacuum in the former State after August 5 last year. Government advertisements remain the lifeblood of newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir. Prabodh Jamwal, editor in chief of Kashmir Times, said, “A day after we moved the top court, the Jammu and Kashmir government cut off its advertisements to the paper. In the past five years, we have discussed with the Press Council of India on several occasions how the government has been taking repressive measures against Kashmiri media. But that hasn’t helped us in any way.”

Anuradha Bhasin described the Estates Department’s actions as “vendetta for speaking out”. Mohammad Aslam, Deputy Director, Estates Department of Kashmir, told this writer that quarter number 9, which was locked on October 19, was allotted by the then government in 1994 to the late Ved Bhasin, the editor of the paper who passed away in 2015. “The allotment was cancelled by the current government in July this year as part of a routine process. We had served two eviction notices before the paper handed over the possession of the quarters to the department,” Aslam said. But he could not confirm whether the allotment was cancelled by the office of Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha.
Also read: Interview with Anuradha Bhasin on media freedom in Kashmir

The management of the newspaper, however, refuted Aslam’s claims, maintaining that due process was not followed for the eviction. Said Prabodh Jamwal: “Officials came to our office unannounced without any justifying documents. They asked our employees to leave the office and locked its entrance. Our generators, computers, printers and other equipment remain locked inside the office. We have got a stay order from the Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, which is valid until October 30 only, as required under the new laws. But the Estates Department has not opened the lock so far.”

Incidentally, almost two years after the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly was dissolved by the then Governor, Satya Pal Malik, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have not vacated their government bungalows as yet. Said Harsh Dev Singh, former Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party: “Going by the rule book, they should have left their government-allotted houses within one month. But the Estates Department officials are giving undue benefits to the BJP’s ex MLAs, MLCs and even petty party workers.”

When contacted, Subash Chibber, Director, Estates Department, said curtly, “We have issued notices to all the defaulters irrespective of their party affiliations.” Despite repeated calls and a message, Mohammad Elyas, the Deputy Director of the department in Jammu, did not respond.

The price of journalism

A strong voice against human rights violations, Kashmir Times, despite limited resources, has remained critical of the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policies and the local media’s stoic silence on uncomfortable truths. Anuradha Bhasin recently came under attack from a powerful section of the local media after she wrote an article, “Kashmiri editors can't use fear as an excuse for their continued silence”, for the online news portal The Wire in September. Her article argued that “the valley’s leading newspapers have chosen to keep their publications alive by killing news stories and burying all morals of journalism”.

The article elicited a rebuttal from Haseeb Drabu, the former Finance Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in Greater Kashmir, another local daily. He wrote: “With every passing day, Kashmiris are coming under attack. If it is not a constitutional assault, it is judicial apathy. If it is not the government, it is the political parties. If it is not the bureaucracy, it is the investigating agencies. If it is not the security forces, it is the militants. Kashmiris are at the receiving end; either being belittled or berated. It is fast becoming a national pastime. The latest to join the party is the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Ms Anuradha Bhasin.”
Also read: A region of unfreedom (on Kashmir's new media policy)

This is not the first time that Kashmir Times has been in the cross hairs for its fiercely independent editorial policy. Sanjeev Kerni, general manager of Kashmir Times, told this writer: “During the summer unrest of 2010, the UPA II [United Progressive Alliance II] government had suspended advertisements to Kashmir Times. Earlier, in 2004 as well, the Central government had stopped its advertisements to the paper. In June 2002, the then Delhi bureau chief of the paper and senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani was arrested on flimsy grounds.”

In the past few years, Kashmir Times had to stop publication of its monthly children’s magazine and the weekly supplement of its English edition. It had to shut down its Hindi and Dogri editions. While the advertisement ban on other papers has been lifted, Kashmir Times remains blacklisted. Said Kerni: “The paper has always been a platform for opinions of all shades. Even Union Minister Jitendra Singh has been a regular columnist for almost seven years.”

Anuradha Bhasin, in the article in The Wire, had labelled Jammu and Kashmir’s new media policy as “Orwellian Media Policy 2020”. The policy is viewed as a threat to press freedom in the insurgency-hit region.

An institution for budding journalists

Kashmir Times was founded by Ved Bhasin, in 1955 as a weekly and it became a full-fledged daily in 1971. The paper soon became a training institute for aspiring journalists and remains so to date. This writer was barely one-month old at Kashmir Times’ Jammu office in 2007 when he had his first encounter with Ved Bhasin. While our group of trainee reporters were busy editing press notes, Mr Bhasin unexpectedly entered the newsroom. After having taken a cursory look at the papers, he told the group, “Press notes that praise people, welcome political statements and hail government decisions deserve to be thrown in the garbage bin. Take everything with a pinch of salt. Go to the field, listen to the people, report their grievances and hold the government accountable for its actions and inactions…. Give voice to the voiceless through your stories… without fearing the consequences of upholding truth and justice….” In the newsroom, there used to be a poster that had Rabindranath Tagore’s epic poem: “Where the mind is without fear….”

He considered the Kashmir conflict a political problem and believed that it could not have a military solution. “Unless the root cause of militancy and the people’s disenchantment with India is tackled, no worthwhile and lasting solution is possible,” he would say. According to him, there could be no “peaceful negotiated settlement” of the Kashmir dispute without the participation of all sections of people living on both sides of the line dividing Jammu and Kashmir.
Also read: How to settle the Kashmir issue

Another memory that has stayed with this writer is that of the newspaper’s library—a gold mine of information on Jammu and Kashmir—frequented by scholars, academics and journalists. A visit to Kashmir Times’ office two years ago was a painful realisation of the newspaper’s struggle to stay afloat in an ocean of uncertainty.

Show of solidarity

Several political leaders, including two former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, were quick to criticise the sealing of the paper’s office. Mehbooba Mufti, Peoples Democratic Party leader, who was released on October 13 after 14 months of detention under the PSA, described Anuradha Bhasin as “one of the few local newspaper editors in Jammu and Kashmir who stood up to the GOIs [Government of India’s] illegal and disruptive actions” in the former State. She tweeted: “Shutting down her office in Srinagar is straight out of [the] BJP’s vendetta playbook to settle scores with those who dare to disagree.”

Similarly, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah chose the occasion to highlight the current state of the local media. He wrote: “This explains why some of our ‘esteemed’ publications have decided to become government mouthpieces, printing only government press handouts.”

Asserting that media persecution had increased since last year, Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, four-time legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Kulgam in South Kashmir, said, “The sealing of Kashmir Times office is nothing but an attempt to suppress dissenting voices.”
Also read: Tribute to Shujaat Bukhari

Several national and international organisations working for press freedom, such as Reporters Without Borders; Committee to Protect Journalists; Editors Guild of India; Press Club of India; Delhi Union of Journalists; Network of Women in Media, India; and South Asian Women in Media have condemned the government’s actions. They have called on the authorities to immediately reopen and allow the staff to work from the newspaper’s Srinagar office.

Reacting to the sealing of the Kashmir Times office, the Kashmir Editors Guild said in a statement, “In the last 10 years, the successive regimes have been preventing the circulation of newspapers, blacklisting the newspapers from getting government advertisements and interrupting routine operations. These are in addition to the issues that reporters face on a daily basis while gathering information.”

People’s newspaper

Several Kashmiri journalists, meanwhile, have volunteered to work for the embattled newspaper without remuneration. In a statement, the signatories said: “Kashmir Times and its editor has been at the forefront of fighting against government curbs on press freedom, especially [the] 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. We extend an offer of devoting some work hours on daily basis, for free, to support the Kashmir Times editorial team.”

In a Facebook post, Gowhar Geelani, a Srinagar-based author and journalist who was booked by the police in April for allegedly glorifying terrorism through social media, said: “One way of demonstrating our solidarity is to stop subscription of the mouthpieces and instead buy Kashmir Times newspaper as and when it resumes its publication. This act of solidarity will go a long way in telegraphing a message as responsible citizens that we care for independent journalism and abhor stenographers and their ilk.”

Commenting on the outpouring of support, Mohammad Sayeed Malik, the newspaper’s chief editorial consultant, said, “Any such move for professional solidarity, over a professional issue, has far-reaching positive consequences for journalism in Kashmir.”

On the challenges facing Kashmir Times, Malik, said, “It’s the people’s paper. It has the resilience to bounce back in one form or the other. How and when, it’s only a matter of time.”

Stressing that the government has been controlling the local media, Anuradha Bhasin said, “What keeps us going is the motto of the organisation to uphold the ethics of journalism… to inform, bring to public naked truth and to speak truth to power. These are the guiding principles for Kashmir Times laid down by its founding editor, Mr Ved Bhasin.”

“In the current set of circumstances, there are two options—either you bow down to the government dictates or face the consequences,” the crusading journalist said. “I would choose the second option any day.”