It took the efforts of more than three generations of journalists in Kashmir to make the government of the day in 2018 realise the importance of having a Press Club here — a sign of a vibrant society and, above all, a norm in any other part of the country.
In spite of opposition from both the political and bureaucratic class in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Kashmir Press Club, with around 300 members, emerged as a collective address of the media fraternity in a region reeling under a violent conflict for the past three decades, that too in a very short span of time.
Kashmir remains prone to security and communication restrictions, which leaves everyone immobilised. The Club emerged as a postal address for local and visiting journalists, including foreign correspondents. From swift tip-offs about happenings in the Valley to easy Internet access to availability of food, it was the only thriving place whenever offices were shut due to security reasons or volatile situations outside.
Kashmir saw a communication blackout and unprecedented security measures on August 5, 2019, when the Centre ended J&K's special constitutional status. Like my other colleagues, I lost touch with my seniors at the office in New Delhi. Restricted to home for almost three days and left incommunicado, reaching the Club to resume my job as a reporter was my first concern. It was in the Club that I met my colleague who had flown from Delhi to Srinagar because of the office's inability to reach me. The Club was where we would leave paper notes for each other and also pen drives with reports, which my colleague also took to ensure that our ground reports were published.
This was not true earlier. Kashmir media was an orphan; it had little communication with the rest of the media fraternity. Kashmir has seen the worst times over the past three decades, with at least 18 journalists killed. All these deaths remained undocumented because of the lack of a Press Club. When it was formed, the Club provided a sense of security and acted as a watchdog in the wake of any eventuality facing journalists.
Kashmir has seen growing cases of harassment of journalists in the past two years, including summons, bookings under stringent sections and detentions, and the Club proved to be a vanguard. It reacted sharply, arguing for free and fair journalism, besides documenting the cases of harassment, which also slowed down the crackdown on the fraternity. With the two-year-old Club becoming history now, fear is again permeating the media community.
The Club also kept young and freelance journalists abreast of the latest advancements. It provided hands-on training through workshops to young and old reporters, whether it was on data journalism or techniques of investigative reporting. It was the only place where female journalists, a rare species just a few years ago in Kashmir, grew in numbers and earned a good reputation for their work. They started providing a fresh perspective on issues, thereby enriching the reportage from Kashmir. All that has come to a halt now.
On January 14, the J&K government put in abeyance the re-registration of the Club , granted on December 29, 2021, citing a police report. It was followed by a takeover by a group of journalists on January 15, which was used as a reason by the government to withdraw and de-register the institution, both in terms of the building as well as the title. The government was swift to even shut down the website of the Club.
Being a member of the election commission, which supervised the first-ever elections of the Club in 2019, I have reason to take pride in contributing to the making of the institution. I am now worried for both young reporters and the fraternity in general. Who will take the cause of free and fair journalism and provide an umbrella to the numerous organisations representing different shades of the media in Kashmir? Is the winding down of the Club the beginning of a major challenge to scribes in Kashmir? This question haunts me.