Government authorities sealed the Srinagar office of The Kashmir Times newspaper on October 19, without stating any reasons, owner Anuradha Bhasin said. According to her, no official notice was presented to them before sealing the office with the staff’s infrastructure locked inside. The office, which has been functioning out of its government-allotted premises since 1994, has never been imposed with such “lawless” action before, Bhasin maintains. She claims it is political “vendetta for speaking out” about the ugly, ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir.
In an exclusive interview with SheThePeople, Bhasin elaborated, “Our office was sealed on 19th October at around 5’o clock by the Estates Department. Our staffers were working then and were told by the authorities that they would be evicted. The staffers asked for the notice, the eviction process, anything. But they said there weren’t any papers. They locked the office with all our infrastructure inside.”
Bhasin believes that The Kashmir Times is facing backlash for its honest, unbiased journalism in covering the affairs of the conflict region. Especially in the aftermath of the blackout initiated in the state on August 5, 2019, post the abrogation of Article 370. “Last year when the communication ban had been imposed, affecting journalism, I had approached the Supreme Court. Perhaps all these compounded together made them uncomfortable with The Kashmir Times,” she says.
Days Leading Up To The Sealing
The newspaper, begun by Bhasin’s father and prominent journalist Ved Bhasin, is one of the oldest English dailies in J&K. For holding up the ethics of journalism, it has been the target of armed militants as well as previous governments in the past, Bhasin says. But such unaccountable action is something new.
She says, “We’ve always been critical about all governments. In 2009, the then government was unhappy with us for reporting extensively on the Shopian rape and murder case. They slapped us with an eviction order and demolished part of our building. But a proper process was followed, a system was in place. Now there is no system of accountability, no one is willing to take up any responsibility.”
Bhasin claims that the targeting of their media outlet wasn’t entirely unprecedented. “There was pre-emption of targeting in this climate of censorship in Kashmir. We had been speaking continuously, trying to highlight the shortcomings of the government, its policies and actions, and the ugly ground realities they wanted to hide.”
“About six weeks ago, we started hearing rumours originating from the Estates Department, which said our allotment was going to be cancelled and we were going to be evicted. We approached them in advance to seek an order but they said there was no issue of the sort. We then approached the District Commissioner’s Court and petitioned there for protection on the basis of the rumours. But the order wasn’t being given to us.”
The Kashmir Times finally got the order on October 21, but dated 19, to make it appear as if it had been issued before the 5’o clock that the office was sealed. Bhasin said that the authorities initially agreed to open the lock, but are now refusing to do so. “Since our office is located on govt property they can evict us anytime. But there is a due process to these things. They cannot take ownership of our belongings and deprive us of our infrastructure.”
The Kashmir Times Paying A High Price For Truth?
The cost of journalism has inflated severely these past few months in mainland India, feeding off highly-sensationalised cases of Sushant Singh Rajput‘s death, the gang rape of a Dalit girl in Hathras, NCB’s drug probe of Bollywood celebrities, and an alleged TRP scam in the media. But that is more or less incomparable to the plight of democracy’s fourth estate in the turbulent region of J&K, that has to risk speaking the truth at the cost of life itself.
From when her father was assaulted in the 1980s inside his office to now this sealing of Kashmir Times, the conflict of media has been persistent in Kashmir for a long time.
Bhasin recounts the 1990s when The Kashmir Times was up against peak hostility. “There was heavy intimidation during that decade. In the 90s, we faced resistance from both security forces and militant groups. Hindu right-wingers used to snatch our newspaper copies from hawkers and beat them up. Sometimes the militants banned our newspapers, sometimes the government would stop its circulation clandestinely.”
But what is it about The Kashmir Times that invites a clampdown on it repeatedly, from across the political spectrum? To those in power, what is so provocative in the newspaper?
“We don’t get swayed by any narratives,” Bhasin answers. “We try to project the picture as it is, in keeping with the best ethics of journalism. We have pursued an independent policy through critiques, right from our inception. But authorities want to project only one kind of narrative: that of everything being alright. They do not want the ugly, naked truth to come to the fore. That’s why.”
The State Of Media In Kashmir, Before And After 2019
After the state’s special autonomy status was revoked by the centre in 2019, J&K had gone into a long security lockdown resulting in a total blackout of communication (with cell and internet services being gagged) and a clampdown on media. Little to no voices were allowed to escape the valley, an issue that was raised and condemned by human rights organisations and journalists across the world.
Bhasin contextualises the gag in Kashmir in 2019, within the land’s troubled history with media. “Before August 5, things were in the making. Fear and panic has existed for the past three decades to some extent. There have been phases when mediapersons have tried to speak out and then threatened to maintain silence or censorship. Journalists were picked up and detained, some were kidnapped by militants and pro-government gunmen. These incidents added to the vulnerability of the media over the years.”
And in the months before August 2019, some newspapers had begun to feel threatened in advance, because “advertisement support had been withdrawn and some editors had been grilled by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).”
Come August 5, Bhasin expresses, “There were logistical impediments imposed on the media. Journalists were pushed into a co-working space where everyone had to jostle for resources. There was a sense of fear stemming from surveillance, given that journalists were working out of a government-facilitated centre. Mediapersons were being targeted and harassed only for reporting facts. Many photojournalists complained that security forces were forcefully deleting their footage. Journalists were summoned to police stations and grilled, abused for hours – as if they were criminals.”
She analyses the culmination of all this in the centre’s 2020 Media Policy, which will empower officials to “unilaterally decide what is fake news, what can be construed as anti-national, what can be used against professional journalists.”
Way Forward For The Kashmir Times
Growing up to take the baton of the newspaper forward, Bhasin was greatly inspired by her father’s ideals. Ved Bhasin, right from his younger days as a student leader until he became a journalist with a newspaper, had been enamoured by the idea of democracy, a value his daughter too inculcated. After her graduation, she joined the paper as a reporter in 1989, a year that coincided with the insurgency and heightened terrorism in the state.
“I grew up with ideas of secularism and democracy,” she says. “And as a journalist, it becomes my duty to highlight disempowerment, justice, peace, and human rights. The basic principle of journalism is to speak truth to power, to make powerful stakeholders and governments accountable, to critique them in the event of wrongdoing, to become the voice of oppressed people.”
Such an objective outlook has seemed to be the cause of many political roadblocks in The Kashmir Times’ legacy. To avoid similar gags or sealings in the future, does Bhasin ever think of reforming the editorial policy of the paper? “No chance,” she declares, “We will never succumb. The day I’m unable to perform my job honestly to fulfil the basic purpose of journalism, I cease to be a journalist. The Kashmir Times policy is not going to change. They can shut our office, our newspaper, but not our voice. We will fight until the very end.”
Views expressed are the author’s own.
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