SRINAGAR - In its 66-year history, the Kashmir Times has weathered many attempts to block its reporting: pressure by militants, withdrawal of state advertising, even people setting fire to stacks of the paper in the street. Its latest hurdle: eviction from the newspaper’s Srinagar offices
Authorities in the Indian-controlled region of Jammu and Kashmir this month ordered staff to vacate the premises and sealed the Kashmir Times office. A few days earlier, they sealed the Srinagar offices of the Kashmir News Service (KNS) news agency.
Both were in a district of Srinagar where the government provides building space for low rent to news outlets in an otherwise expensive area.
Moazum Mohammad, vice president of the Kashmir Press Club, said sealing the two news offices “without serving them eviction notice” is the latest in a series of indiscriminate actions against the region’s journalists.
Former Kashmir Times journalist Syed Ali Safvi said he believed the action would make other outlets think twice before publishing reports that are critical of the Indian government.
The frequency of attacks on and harassment of Kashmir’s media has increased since last August, Mohammad said. In 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370, which granted rights to Jammu and Kashmir — India’s only Muslim-majority state— including its own constitution.
Kashmir is claimed in full by India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it, and each rules part of it. India’s portion has been hit by separatist violence since the late 1980s.
In revoking Article 370, Modi said Pakistan had used the region’s special status “as a weapon to incite people of the region against India.”
Since the change in status, more than a dozen journalists have been summoned by police,?the government imposed an advertising ban on the independent daily Kashmir Reader,?and authorities have repeatedly extended orders blocking high-speed internet. The latest, issued October 21,?extends the ban to November 12.
The Indian government cites misuse of data service by “anti-national elements” and says the ban is there to protect public order.
Local journalists have said they believe the bans are a deliberate attempt to prevent reporting from Kashmir.
The directorate of information in Srinagar and India’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment.
‘No due process’
Anuradha Bhasin, the owner and executive editor of the Kashmir Times, acknowledged the eviction from the paper’s offices was a setback, but said she would find a way to keep publishing.
“Mere lockdown of the building won’t shut down the newspaper,” Bhasin told VOA. “We were thinking of resuming the Srinagar edition but now it may take a little longer because all our technical equipment is inside the sealed premises.”
The Kashmir Times is one of the region’s oldest papers. With a readership of 2 million, it is known for its in-depth and objective coverage of the region.
Bhasin said that when government officials entered the office at 5 p.m. October 19, they told staff to vacate, without providing a reason.
A court issued a stay to temporarily block the eviction, but authorities still have the building under lock, she said.
No due process was followed, Bhasin said. “No time was given to us for evacuation. They have taken charge of the whole building, and all our belongings are within the premises.”
Bhasin said authorities also evicted her from her apartment in Jammu on October 4.
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! pic.twitter.com/J5P0eKxvbx— Anuradha Bhasin (@AnuradhaBhasin_) October 19, 2020
Estate department officials told reporters in India the premises were allotted to Bhasin’s father, the paper’s founder, Ved Bhasin. After his death in 2015, the allotments expired and were canceled.
M. Aslam Bhat, editor in chief of KNS, told VOA his news agency had also braved many tough situations since it opened in 2002.
KNS is the first multilingual and widely circulated daily news wire of Jammu and Kashmir, with its main offices at Srinagar and Jammu.
“The estates department of the government had allotted a flat to KNS like other local publications. The authorities in the department have now chosen to take the facility back and sealed it without any prior notice,” Bhat said.
The news agency has a wide circulation both online and offline and is carried by many local and national newspapers, periodicals, websites and TV channels.
'We are still clueless'
Neither journalist could be sure if a specific article or piece of coverage was behind India’s actions.
“Frankly speaking, we are still clueless about it. Because no one in the estates department has actually come up with a reason for the sealing,” Bhat said.
Two former chief ministers of the Indian-controlled region, who were detained for months after Modi revoked Kashmir’s status, criticized the move as an attempt to block independent reporting.
Omar Abdullah tweeted that "the price of independent reportage is to be evicted without due process."
This explains why some of our “esteemed” publications have decided to become Government mouthpieces, printing only government press handouts. The price of independent reportage is to be evicted without due process. https://t.co/Vs7nfWWd4h— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 19, 2020
And Mehbooba Mufti said the Kashmir Times was one of the few papers that stood up to the government. On Twitter, she described the Indian government’s action as a “vendetta … to settle scores with those who dare to disagree.”?
Anuradha was one of the few local newspaper editors in J&K who stood upto GOIs illegal & disruptive actions in the state. Shutting down her office in Srinagar is straight out of BJPs vendetta playbook to settle scores with those who dare to disagree https://t.co/yyZYlw4Me8— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) October 19, 2020
History of attacks
Local media in the India-controlled region depend heavily on government support, and the sealing of two news offices will likely affect access to independent news.
Hilal Mir, a freelance journalist based in Kashmir, told VOA the evictions reflected the myriad ways the state can silence the media. “Apparently, this is an eviction the government can justify citing rules. But the real import of the vindictive decision is not lost on anyone,” Mir said.
Former Kashmir Times journalist Safvi said the move could lead to self-censorship.
“Everyone will now think twice before publishing any report. In such unfavorable circumstances, real journalism becomes the first casualty,” Safvi said. “Journalists are supposed to report events, not peddle propaganda or certain narratives.”
The state has previously retaliated against the Kashmir Times. In 2019, Bhasin petitioned the Supreme Court over the media blackout.?“The very next day, state government stopped advertisement [in the] Kashmir Times, and since then we haven’t got a single advertisement from them,” Bhasin said.
Hindu right-wing groups in the Jammu region have also tried to block distribution of the newspaper, attacking those who sell it or snatching the papers and burning them, Bhasin said.
Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk at Reporters Without Borders, said the arbitrary way in which India expelled the Kashmir Times’ journalists from their office was shocking.
“This is yet another attempt by the central government of India to prevent its Kashmiri citizens from accessing independent information, and to impose its own narrative in the valley,” Bastard said.
Aliya Iftikhar, from the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, said it appeared to be a further example of authorities trying to silence critical reporting, adding, “The sealing of the office of the Kashmir Times is clearly intended to have a chilling effect on the press.”
Journalist Safvi told VOA, “We live in a time where the government has adopted a my-way-or-the-highway approach, which is very unfortunate in a democracy like India. Either journalists have to toe the government line or face the music.”