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Kashmiri Media Rally to Restore Press Club

FILE - A sealed lock hangs at the gate of the closed Kashmir Press Club building in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 18, 2022.
FILE - A sealed lock hangs at the gate of the closed Kashmir Press Club building in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 18, 2022.

Masrat Zahra's Twitter feed was blowing up with rumors that Kashmir police planned to arrest a female photojournalist.

It was a Monday morning in April 2020, and Zahra was already acutely aware of the details of the case.

The cyber police department in Srinagar had called a few days earlier, ordering the journalist to come to the station.

Such calls instill dread in Kashmiri journalists. But Zahra, an award-winning photojournalist who regularly posts her work for international news outlets on social media, had a plan.

Before speaking to police, she made a call to the Kashmir Press Club.

The independent body of journalists in the Indian-controlled region was known to offer legal support and guidance. Zahra was sure that its president, Shuja-ul-Haq, and general secretary, Ishfaq Tantry, would know what to do.

"[They] told me not [to] go anywhere, as they took up my case with the authorities," Zahra told VOA during a recent call from Germany, where she is attending a fellowship.

When Zahra went to the police station to be questioned, members of the club came, too. When she was accused of posting anti-national content, the club provided a lawyer and issued a statement on her behalf.

International watchdogs and media activists amplified the club's message, demanding that the police drop the investigation.

"The club stood by me during the toughest times. The management of the [club] used to call me regularly and check about my well-being and safety," Zahra said.

'A sublime mountain'

That practical and emotional support has been a valuable resource for Kashmiri media, as arbitrary arrests and police questioning are common.

"Where there is a sustained campaign against journalists for reporting the truth and an unflinching state machinery constantly attacking press freedom, with barely any other institution standing for your rights, the club served as a sublime mountain shielding us from the onslaught," Tantry told VOA.

That protection is now gone.

Last month, authorities revoked the club's registration, which permits it to operate in the Indian-controlled region, and took over its premises.

The closure was a shock. The club had just renewed its registration on December 29 and had announced elections for a new board on January 13, a statement from its president said.

Then, on January 14, authorities suspended the club's new registration.

A further twist came the following day, when a group of journalists not on the club's board entered the building with police. The new journalists declared themselves in charge. Some in that group are believed to be supportive of the central Indian government, according to India's The Wire and Britain's The Guardian.

Citing dissent among journalists, regional authorities on January 17 revoked the Kashmir Press Club's registration.

The building, which acted as a headquarters and space for workshops, is now locked and under guard.

The move was widely criticized. The Editors Guild of India described it as "an armed takeover."

Already its loss is being felt. Police summoned four journalists Monday for questioning over their coverage of a deadly clash in south Kashmir's Pulwama district.

But without the club, they had no one to rally to their side.

Neither the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Information and Public Relations nor the General Administration Department responded to VOA's requests for comment.

History of advocacy

Founded in 2018, the Kashmir Press Club quickly established itself as an important support network.

With around 300 members, the club had a strong presence, issuing statements of solidarity when journalists were threatened or harassed, and offering legal and moral support.

It backed nearly every journalist who had been harassed, arrested or threatened, said Tantry, who worked for the daily Tribune in Kashmir as well as acting as the club's general secretary.

"The club also organized several meetings with police authorities, urging them to respect press freedom," Tantry said.

Members could attend training sessions, including data boot camps run by Google News and digital company DataLEADS.

The workshops were welcome, but the club's support is what set it apart.

FILE - Kashmiri journalists prepare for a meeting to discuss the shutting of Kashmir Press Club building, the region’s only independent press club, in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 20, 2022.
FILE - Kashmiri journalists prepare for a meeting to discuss the shutting of Kashmir Press Club building, the region’s only independent press club, in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 20, 2022.

The Kashmir Press Club provided a refuge for independent journalists. Losing that space, "especially in this manner, with guns and muscle, leaves journalists bereft of support," said Geeta Seshu, the Mumbai-based co-editor of the Free Speech Collective, an Indian free-expression group.

Seshu questioned how authorities became involved in the seemingly internal conflict that led to the club's closure.

"The club had become an important independent space for Kashmir's media, which already operates under huge pressure in one of the most militarized zones in the world," Seshu said. "This sends a signal to the media that even their nonofficial or recreational time and space will be monitored and regulated."

The closure comes at a tricky time for the region's media, with increasing arrests and questioning as journalists cover renewed violence and separatist fighting in the disputed region.

Indian forces have carried out around a dozen military operations since the start of the year, and more than 20 militants, including at least two from Pakistan, have been killed.

New coalition

A group of 10 journalist organizations has banded together under the name Kashmir Media Coalition to protest the closure of the club.

They want authorities to tell them why the club was closed. More important, they want to "explore all avenues to restore Kashmir Press Club as soon as possible," according to a statement issued by the coalition.

Seshu said it is heartening that journalists in Kashmir have gotten together to try to restore the administrative structures of the press club.

For those who benefited from its help, especially freelancers, the closure is bitter.

"It is unfortunate that the KPC and the place that housed the club doesn't exist anymore," Zahra said.

Zahra left Kashmir in 2021 for a fellowship at the Hamburg Foundation, a nonprofit that brings together people persecuted for their work on human rights and freedom of speech.

Her home region has a strong community of young journalists striving to be published, Zahra said. But "it is not easy in a place like Kashmir, where you can get a call anytime from the authorities on the authenticity and facts regarding the story."