Srinagar, Jan 16: The Editors Guild of India, Mumbai Press Club and Delhi Union of Journalists on Sunday condemned the "forcible" takeover of the Kashmir Press Club while the Press Club of India sought the intervention of LG Manoj Sinha to facilitate the club elections.
The EGI, in a statement, said it is "equally alarmed by an arbitrary order of putting the registration of the Kashmir Press Club “in abeyance”, a day before this “armed takeover of the Club, on January 14, 2022, by the Registrar of Societies".
"The armed takeover has effectively scuttled this rule-based functioning of the Club. Even more disturbingly, the state police entered the premises without any due warrant or paperwork, and have therefore been brazenly complicit in this coup, in which a group of people have become self-declared management of the Club,” it said.
“This violation of the sanctity of the club by the police and the local administration is a manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom in the state".
It demanded "immediate restoration of the status quo before this hostile takeover, announcement of elections to appoint a new management body and executive council, and strict prohibitions on any armed forces from interfering with the functioning of the Club, without due legal sanction".
The Guild further demanded an "independent inquiry as to how armed forces entered the Club premises".
Mumbai Press Club condemns
The Mumbai Press Club (MPC) condemned the "forcible takeover of the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) from the legally elected management body in conjunction with security forces" on Saturday.
"The MPC also deplores the Jammu & Kashmir administration for scuttling the Club's election process the previous day, Friday, 14th January, by holding in abeyance' the registration of the Kashmir Club, which is registered under the Societies Act, 1860," it said in a statement.
On December 29, the club’s registration was issued following which it was decided to initiate the process of fresh elections, but all of a sudden, a group of journalists, including some non-members, approached the administration with a proposal for an “interim body” and subsequently the re-registration was kept in abeyance.
MPC said the order "effectively has put the entire 300-member journalist body in cold storage and negated the democratically called election process". "This being not enough, the next day, Saturday, 15th January, using the Covid lockdown announced for Srinagar, a group of journalists barged into the Press Club premises in the Polo View area and declared themselves to be an 'interim' body. The group who trespassed into the club premises were protected by the J&K Police,” it said.
"Significantly, the group that barged in and seized the club had lost the elections in 2019. This indeed beats the imagination of how the local administration and police had blessed the trespass and takeover of the Kashmir Club on 15th January by a rival group, a day after the local government had frozen the organization through 'de-registration' on 14th January ''.
The Kashmir Press Club, the MPC said, "went through a democratic process of elections in 2019 and has been representing the voice of independent journalism in the Kashmir Valley for some time. To dub those who are writing and reporting in a balanced manner as "anti-national' is a cause of concern, and to derail a legally registered body from holding its own election process smacks of autocracy and is a violation of the freedom of the press guaranteed under the Constitution".
The Mumbai Press Club has demanded that the registration of the Kashmir Press Club be restored "and that its legally elected body be allowed to conduct its election freely and fairly without threats and sans the shadow of the gun".
Restore Independence of Kashmir Press Club, demands DUJ
In statement, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) said it was dismayed at the “government move to close the Press Club of Kashmir.”
“Press Clubs everywhere are information hubs where journalists exchange information and views, enabling them to perform their jobs better. They are also places where journalists stop and rest between hectic deadlines, while they wait for the next interview, the next press briefing…..They are places to get an affordable meal and a drink and socialize with colleagues. Press Clubs therefore are invaluable for the profession. In Kashmir, where journalism is a tough, risky, dangerous profession, the Press Club has played a vital role,” read a statement, issued by DUJ.
The authorities had renewed the license of the Kashmir Press Club on December 29, 2021, after the issue had hung fire for months. Once the renewal notice was received the Press Club belatedly announced elections. Now the license renewal has been suddenly cancelled, ostensibly because of an adverse CID report. This volte face is inexplicable, it said,
“It is singularly unfortunate that a division seems to have been created within journalists, with a small faction ‘taking over’ the Club when Srinagar was under a lockdown. Police and paramilitary personnel were deployed during this process. Several associations of Kashmir journalists have signed a joint statement objecting to this ‘takeover’ of the premises.
“We also note that the arbitrary arrests, detentions and questioning of journalists in Kashmir continue unabated. On January 5, 2022 Sajad Gul, a trainee journalist with Kashmir Walla, was arrested for fomenting anti-government feelings. Last year Salman Shah and Suhail Dar were arrested for ‘breach of peace’. Journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail since August 27, 2018 and awaits trial.
“We call for greater democracy and freedom of the press in Kashmir today. We view the developments in the Kashmir Press Club as one more reprehensible attempt to intimidate journalists. We demand immediate restoration of the Club to the duly elected office bearers and a renewal of the license.There must be no government interference in the running of a journalists’ club.”
The Kashmir Press Club (KPC) was witness to unfamiliar activities on Saturday when a few journalists accompanied by policemen reached there and claimed to be its "new management", a move that came hours after the Jammu and Kashmir administration had put on hold its registration.
The policemen claimed to be Personal Security Officers of one of the journalists who released a statement to the media stating that "some journalist forums" had chosen them to be new office-bearers.
The journalists -- M Saleem Pandit as president, Zufliqar Majid as general secretary and Arshad Rasool as treasurer -- said in the statement that the previous elected body had served its tenure for a period of two years, which ended on July 14, 2021, and the elections were delayed for unknown reasons.
"Now, therefore, on January 15, 2022 various journalist organisations across Kashmir Valley unanimously decided to form an interim body of three members with Pandit as president," it said.
The claims of the interim body were countered soon by a statement issued by around nine journalist bodies in Kashmir who denounced this forcible takeover of the KPC office with "open support from administration" and termed it "a wrong and dangerous precedent".
The statement said all Kashmir-based journalists have expressed anguish over the illegal and arbitrary takeover of the KPC by some journalists with open support from the local administration.
"On January 15, the day when the administration had declared weekend lockdown in view of Covid surge, a group of journalists barged into the club office and forcibly took control of the club by keeping the office members hostage. A large number of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed beforehand for this highly condemnable and completely illegal move," the joint statement said.
They said the administration, by allowing a few disgruntled elements to hoodwink the club constitution, bylaws and flout all norms of law, has set a wrong and dangerous precedent.
On December 29, the club's registration was issued following which it was decided to initiate the process of fresh elections, but all of a sudden, a group of journalists, including some non-members, approached the administration with a proposal for an "interim body" and subsequently the re-registration was kept in abeyance.
"This move, in which a group of journalists self-appointed itself as an 'interim body,' is uncivil, illegal, unconstitutional and without any precedence. It has been taken at a time when the process of registration is still pending before the authorities," it said.
They also appealed to the Press Council of India, Press Club of India, Federation of Press Clubs and Editors Guild of India to take a strong note of how the local administration is supporting lawlessness and throttling a democratic media body.
Press Club of India seeks LG's intervention
While expressing concern over the developments, the Press Club of India appealed to LG Manoj Sinha to look into the matter and facilitate elections.
Omar, Mehbooba react
The move also drew reactions from politicians with former chief minister and vice president of National Conference Omar Abdullah terming it a "state-sponsored coup" and hit out at one of the journalists of the interim body, saying "there is no government this 'journalist' hasn't sucked up to and no government he hasn't lied on behalf of. I should know, I've seen both sides very closely. Now he's benefited from a state sponsored coup."
Former chief minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti tweeted that the government does not want a "debate on the oppression unleashed in JK.
She said today's incident was a "state sponsored coup at KPC" which would put the "worst dictators to shame".
Both the chief ministers shared a purported picture from inside the KPC office showing two policemen holding their assault rifles, with Mehbooba saying it conveyed the most obvious yet disturbing reality gripping Kashmir.
"Every illegal and undemocratic action undertaken by GOI is carried out at the barrel of a gun. The aim is to hide the growing number of skeletons tumbling out of the closet and scuttle honest reportage," she added.
The existing KPC body denounced the "forcible" takeover, saying it has set a "bad precedent".
It said, "There were no consultations with the existing body. We have been informed by the manager that they forced their entry into the press club, they have forced him to open the seals of the club. They did not show any government order and just declared that they are an interim body," KPC general secretary Ishfaq Tantray told PTI.
Tantray said the members of the interim body "threatened" the staff at the club and took over seals and writing pads.
"This is all illegal, they have no legality. They have set a bad precedent. Some non-members (of the club) were also part of this so-called meeting of the interim body. It is a theft of the trust of journalists," Tantray said.
In an order, the Registrar of Society, Jammu and Kashmir, said the office of the senior superintendent of police, CID, has put on hold the non-involvement and verification of character and antecedent certificate of the members of the managing body of the KPC.
"The re-registration granted (to the KPC) on December 29, 2021 is hereby kept in abeyance till the receipt of final report from additional district magistrate, Srinagar," the order read.
The KPC had on Thursday announced it will hold elections to form a new body on February 15. However, after its registration was put in abeyance, the elections were deferred.
On Sunday, the interim body led by Pandit issued another statement to the media, saying the “previous committee had delayed the elections for unknown reasons and the club was headless”.
“It is an open fact that the Kashmir Press Club at Poloview Srinagar founded in 2018 with immense efforts of the Kashmir based journalists who had unanimously handed over the responsibilities of the Club to veteran journalist M Saleem Pandit, who works with The Times of India (ToI) as the founding President.
“With the passage of time, however, the Kashmir based journalists held elections of its executive body on 15th July 2019. The elected body served its tenure for a period of two years, which ended on July 14, 2021. As the previous committee delayed the elections for unknown reasons the Club was headless, thereafter for around six months, putting [the] media fraternity to unwanted trouble.
“Now therefore on January 15, 2022 various journalist organizations across Kashmir valley unanimously decided to form an interim body of three members with M Saleem Pandit as president, Zulfikar Majid, bureau chief of Deccan Herald as General Secretary and Arshid Rasool Editor Daily Gadyal as Treasurer of the Club till elections are held in free and fair manner.
“The interim body besides running the day-to-day affairs of the Club, will also be authorized to form a required executive body which will help the KPC to flourish and grow into a modern press club much in need with the growing requirements. The new body has pledged to ensure the welfare of journalists as its top priority.” (With inputs from PTI)