Monday, January 24, 2022

When benevolence turns hostile: Why press clubs shouldn’t depend on government patronage

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on January 20, 2022


The Kashmir Press Club is dead, killed in its infancy. The dramatic events around this have drawn our attention, yet again, to the dire state of media freedom in Kashmir.

How significant is the development around the Kashmir Press Club within the larger story of endangered press freedom in that region?

What happened on January 15 is now well known. First, a group of journalists, reportedly close to the administration, barged into the premises of the press club accompanied with armed personnel (apparently assigned to protect some of these senior journalists) and literally took it over. Then, following the outcry by journalists, including the elected committee that had managed the club, the administration decided that it had become a battleground between “warring” groups and hence must be abolished altogether. On January 17, it cancelled the lease to the space occupied by the club and reverted it to the estates department.

Most non-journalists have little idea what function a press club serves. It is presumed that it is simply a meeting place for journalists, where they also get subsidised food.

Yet, these clubs are not just watering holes. They are also intensely political spaces. Every election for a managing committee is closely fought; journalists group around those who have similar political leanings. This is no secret.

Also, depending on who gets elected, some clubs are proactive on issues like press freedom as well as the welfare of journalists. They also provide a space for open discussion on a range of issues, including politics and culture. As they are usually centrally located, they also turn into alternative offices or meeting places for independent journalists.

Could one envisage something like what happened in Srinagar taking place in say Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai? Perhaps not. But one factor is common to all these institutions. They function out of spaces provided by the government. That makes them vulnerable to pressure from governments, direct or indirect.

This kind of government patronage was extended at a time when it was viewed as benign and not a lever that governments would use to get the media to fall in line. But even in the best of times, this was a fine line, and the journalists managing these spaces were well aware of the risks.

In the context of Kashmir, there have been attempts in the past to set up a press club with mixed results as reported by Rayan Naqash in this piece in Newslaundry. In each attempt, the key factor was whether the government of the day was willing to allocate space for such an institution.

In 2018, the government led by Mehbooba Mufti finally allocated a space. Perhaps if Kashmir's status had not changed so dramatically on August 5, 2019 when Article 370 was read down, the club would have been just another institution. But since then, its importance for local journalists has grown.

On August 5, 2019, all journalists were suddenly deprived of the basic tools of their trade, access to the internet. Although this was partially restored, journalists were compelled to work from a crowded government-run media centre. Once the internet ban was completely lifted, journalists found the Kashmir Press Club an ideal base from where they could work and interact with other journalists.

The media in Kashmir has been under pressure on many fronts including financial, as I outlined in an earlier column. Many publications have either closed, or reduced their staff. The majority of publications that have survived now toe the government line given their dependence on government advertising.

In this scenario, younger journalists have been left with no option but to operate as freelancers or stringers, writing for multiple publications in India and abroad as and when they can sell a story. For them a space where they can work, get access to the internet, and also meet other journalists is essential. The press club provided that and became something of a hub for independent journalists, including many women journalists.

Yet, the closure of the Kashmir Press Club is only a small part of the larger story of how systematically, the media has been forced to fall in line. As one editor told me, “Journalism in Kashmir has been criminalised; it is virtually on its deathbed.”

But unlike the outcry about the closure of the press club – with strong statements by the Editors' Guild of India and several press clubs including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai as well as journalists' unions – we hardly find statements of solidarity for the Kashmiri journalists who are harassed, interrogated, surveilled and jailed, for no other crime except that they are doing their jobs.

Take the latest case, that of Sajad Gul, an independent journalist and media student, who was picked up by the police from his home on January 5 and detained. His crime apparently was posting a video on social media of women shouting anti-government slogans after an encounter between security forces and a militant. Even as he got bail in this case, he was arrested again for an earlier case under the draconian Public Safety Act, under which he can be held without trial for at least six months.

Gul has had several run-ins with the police in the past for his stories. Like him, many journalists are interrogated on the phone shortly after they file a story, or share information on social media that the administration finds offensive. But Gul's arrest takes that level of almost routinised surveillance and intimidation to another level.

What about the growing band of women journalists, many of whom are being recognised and rewarded for their work in Kashmir under these circumstances? Read this wrenching piece by Quratulain Rehbar describing the challenges she faces as an independent woman journalist:

“Even though you know about the intimidation of journalists that happens in Kashmir, and are aware of your colleagues going through the same or worse, nothing prepares you for your own interrogation. They ask for your name, the name of your parents, and how many people are there in your family. They asked me, ‘What is your ideology? Who do you write for? How much do you earn? How many brothers do you have? Has anyone gone to Pakistan? What’s your Facebook ID?' For someone with elderly parents and two brothers, these questions are chilling. It is a nightmare that you never wake up from.”

Incidentally, Rehbar was one of the over 100 Muslim women who were targeted by the misogynistic, Islamophobic and dehumanising "Bulli Bai" app that sought to "auction" them by using their social media profiles.

Or read about the experience of Anuradha Bhasin who runs one of Kashmir's oldest newspapers, Kashmir Times. Bhasin challenged the internet shutdown by filing a case in the Supreme Court. In October 2020, the estates department, without notice or explanation, locked up her Srinagar office which operated from Press Colony.

Since then, she has struggled to keep her newspaper afloat. The central government had already stopped advertisements for the paper. After Bhasin moved the Supreme Court on the internet ban in 2019, even state government advertising vanished. As a result, the newspaper has shrunk to just eight pages. Her paper remains one of the diminishing critical voices in the state.

Although Bhasin too is pessimistic about the future of journalism in Kashmir, she says that there is some hope because of the quality of the younger journalists who, despite the intimidation, have continued to write and report.

These developments in Kashmir around the media should be a wake up call for the rest of us. If a government can arbitrarily take back what it gives, by way of offices, residences, or club premises, what is to stop other governments in the rest of the country resorting to the same tactics?

It has been clear for some time that the Modi government believes that the media is free to do what it wants as long as it sings only one tune. And by choice, or due to financial compulsions, most of the media has already done that. In Kashmir, the centre has gone a step further and experimented with additional ways to make this happen. In addition to the arrest and intimidation of journalists, the arbitrary closure of the Kashmir Press Club is an extension of this experiment.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any for press clubs in India that believe they have a role beyond being meeting places for journalists to think of alternative ways to fund themselves and not be dependent on government patronage. Given the developments in Kashmir, there is no guarantee that this apparent benevolence will not turn hostile in the future.


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