The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday expressed anguish at the shutting down of Kashmir Press Club and said that the move has set a dangerous precedent for media freedom.

On Monday, the Jammu and Kashmir government took control of the building allotted to Kashmir Press Club after a group of journalists and newspaper owners accompanied by members of armed forces took over the establishment and elected a management body on January 15.

The building was taken over by the government a day after it suspended the registration of the press club, citing adverse reports from the police’s Criminal Investigation Department. Before this, the Kashmir Press Club had announced it will hold elections to form a new management and an executive committee on February 15.

In its statement on Tuesday, the Editors Guild noted that the Kashmir Press Club was established in 2018 and had over 300 members, making it the largest journalists’ association in the region.

“With the shutting down of the club and the government reverting the land to back to the Estates Department, an important journalistic institution in a region that has seen the worst kind state heavy handedness against any independent media, has effectively been dismantled.”

The Editors Guild pointed said that the space for media freedom and civil society has been fading in region. It listed several instances of detention of journalists, including that of Sajad Gul, Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, Fahad Shah, and the killing of the Rising Kashmir Editor Shujaat Bukhari.

The press body also pointed out that the office of the Srinagar office of Kashmir Times was sealed in October 2020 and in April last year, and that the police had issued advisories stopping the media from reporting on the gunfights with militants.

“In a state-ridden with such excesses against the media, Kashmir Press Club was an important institution for fighting for protection and rights of journalists,” it said.

The guild also reiterated its earlier demand to restore status quo with respect to the functioning of the club and the administration work towards “building and protecting the space for a free press”.

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Now-shuttered Kashmir Press Club was the last institution holding the government to account

‘The takeover’

The Kashmir Press Club controversy started with a couple of letters that surfaced on social media on January 13. They were addressed to the Srinagar district magistrate and apparently signed by various journalists, many of whom were members of the club.

They pointed out that the tenure of the club’s elected executive body had lapsed six months earlier and asked the district magistrate to intervene. They also proposed the formation of a interim committee.

Within hours, the elected body, whose term had lapsed in July 2021, responded with a statement. Elections had been held up, it said, because the club had to be registered afresh under the new laws of the Union Territory government. But that process was now complete.

“The government has communicated the same to the [club] management last week,” the statement said. Elections for a new managing body could now be held.

But then the government appeared to have made a U-turn. On January 14, the club management issued a fresh statement saying it had received an order “informing that the re-registration certificate issued to the club on 29/12/2021 under Society Registration Act, 1860 has been kept in abeyance”.

On January 15, a group of journalists, led by The Times of India’s Srinagar correspondent, M Salim Pandit, held a meeting of the “new interim body” in the club building while security personnel stood guard outside. They then issued a statement under the club’s official letterhead, entitled “Takeover of Kashmir Press Club, Srinagar,” declaring themselves the interim managing body.

Several journalists’ bodies, including the Editors Guild of India, Press Club of India and Mumbai Press Club, on Sunday expressed shock over the Kashmir Press Club’s takeover. They sought restoration of the club’s registration as a society and early polls.

On January 17, as the Jammu and Kashmir government took control of the press club building, it said it had been forced to act as it was “concerned over the emergent situation which has arisen due to the unpleasant turn of events involving two rival warring groups using the banner of the Kashmir Press Club.”

The government hoped that “duly registered bona fide society of all journalists” could soon be formed. The government would return the club building on the request of such a body.