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Government was uncomfortable with my Supreme Court petition: Editor, Kashmir Times

SAM SPECIAL-ENG-27-10-2020 (1)

The office of one of Kashmir’s well-known newspapers Kashmir Times was sealed earlier this week for reasons not known to the Editor of the paper Anuradha Bhasin. She spoke to South Asian Monitor about the paper’s turbulent journey over the last 66 years. Here are excerpts:

South Asian Monitor (SAM): What had happened exactly?

Anuradha Bhasin (AB): On Monday, the employees of the Estate Department came and sealed the office. Our staffs were inside, working. They asked about a written order but it was not there. The Press Enclave (Lal Chowk) where all the newspaper offices are located, more than a dozen, belongs to the government. So, if they want to remove someone, a prior notice has to be served and a time has to be given to respond, but the due process was not followed. Moreover, we earlier moved the court after hearing a rumor that we may get evicted, and a stay was issued on the eviction, though we did not receive the stay order. The stay order was issued on the 19th, the day the office was sealed. It was given to us on Wednesday. When we approached the Estate Department with the stay order, they told us that they would remove the seal but they did not.

SAM: Was any other paper’s office sealed?

AB: I have heard that Kashmir News Services’ (KNS) office is sealed. 

SAM: Why was it sealed, you think?

AB: I do not know. May be because we wrote consistently against the government. 

SAM: Your father Ved Bhasin started the paper. Which year was it?

AB: It was in 1954, then it was a weekly. It was converted to a daily in 1962. 

SAM: Mr Bhasin was always a journalist…

AB: He was. He was briefly in politics before 1947 and also started an Urdu newspaper, Naya Samaj, which was banned in 1953. He was critical of Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest and opposed New Delhi’s interference. After the paper was banned he decided to start a new paper. It was Kashmir Times. So – in a way – Kashmir Times’ journey, even before it began, was marked by struggle. My father was also allowed to make the declaration for a new newspaper in Srinagar and had to go to Jammu to file it in someone else’ name, a reason why he eventually shifted to Jammu from Srinagar. 

SAM: The paper started printing in Srinagar much later…

AB: Yes in 2009. But we shifted to this building, which was sealed, in 1994. The paper used to come from Jammu earlier by road and assembled and distributed from this office. But this was the third building. We were in two other buildings before shifting to the one which was sealed.

SAM: Has it been sealed before?

AB: No. But printing was stopped for several reasons, several times. But other papers also could not publish for similar reasons related to curfew, agitations etc. Then in 2019, communication could not be established between Jammu and Srinagar, as the internet was stopped, so the paper could not be printed here.

SAM: Now if the government has sealed your office the question is who is the government now in Kashmir?

AB: I do not know, difficult to define. But the Lt. Governor is running the administration. But whenever we asked in the last few days, who gave the order of sealing our office, they replied that it came from the “higher ups” and we do not know how high up it is. We do not know who decided the targeting…

SAM: Or if the order came from Delhi…

AB: Cannot say….

SAM: What do you think about the general situation in Kashmir? Is it better than last year or has it deteriorated in terms of freedom to write or speak…for journalists and the papers?

AB: What happened last year was that there were logistic impediments. There was a communication ban and everyone had to cut down printing…reducing the number of pages. Information was not coming either, due to the communication ban. Then, journalists were forced to work out of the media facilitation center. It deepened fear. Because while working there, journalists felt that their work was under surveillance. Moreover, journalists could not fully move around, people were scared and not willing to talk. Officials were not willing to talk either. Journalists were beaten up, videos were deleted. 

Now, it is different. Now the communication ban is lifted – though the internet is not fully functional – and there are new fears. Journalists are often summoned by the police, grilled, abused, intimidated and threatened that cases will be slapped. There is an unannounced censorship. Many are questioned for on-the-ground reporting.

SAM: Then there is a media policy…

AB: Yes, in June another stringent document to control the media was issued which hangs like a Damocles’ sword. According to that, any Information Department officer can decide with the involvement of any professional, expert group, as to what is fake news and what is anti-national. This will be misused against journalists. It is not acceptable to have fake news or say things which are anti-national but government officers cannot decide what is fake news. They will always ensure that anything critical of the government is described as anti-national. The policy is most likely to be used against the journalist who is working professionally. 

SAM: So the situation has deteriorated?

AB: It has. Still journalists are trying their best to report.

SAM: How are they trying?

AB: Trying to report as much as they can from the ground. Every second or third day we hear that journalists are detained. In fact The Print (news website) did a story recently that 18 journalists were summoned recently. 

SAM: Who is under maximum pressure – journalists of the local, national or international press?

AB: Local press. As curbs are higher on them so that nothing goes out to the people here.

SAM: Did you get any support from Indian media? 

AB: Yes. Support was tremendous. Many, Kashmiris and non Kashmiris, called in to express solidarity. Many have said we can republish their articles free and many are willing to work for free. Indian press published stories and overall there was good support. 

SAM: What do you plan to do now?

AB: We will try to fight it (sealing) legally and also explore opportunities. In times like this, we need to think out of the box – how to reduce our dependence on the government or the corporate sector to run the paper. Alternate revenue models have to be explored. We are trying to explore.