Around noon every day, freelance journalists sit down around the stretch of the Jhelum View Park or the “bund” in the center area of Lal Chowk in Srinagar to discuss their respective stories. They are still coming to terms with how they have lost their second home, Kashmir Press Club.
On January 17, the Kashmir Press Club (KPC), a body with around 300 members, was closed down permanently. The property was formally taken over by the government of the union territory of Kashmir. This dismantling took place a day after the Press Club announced elections will be held for key positions on February 15. Following this, some journalists who have been reported as the supporters of the government along with armed policemen prevented independent journalists from entering the premises by getting into the club and declaring that now on, they would run the organisation.
This coup style takeover has impacted the journalism fraternity negatively. The independent media organizations and independent journalists are the only media which is not sponsored by the government. With no work place for any of them now, the “Bund” has become an open-air Press Club for them. Journalists can be now found on the partially broken benches in the local park.
The women journalists found it even more daunting and difficult to work without the comfort and safety of being inside the premises of the Press Club. In choosing journalism, while at first they have to deal with societal stigma, situations like these make it difficult for them to work freely, which in turn make the ‘well meaning’ voices that say “this is not a safe field for a woman” ring louder.
Quratulain Rehbar says, “Press Club was a place to learn from senior journalists and meet colleagues. It was the only place for freelancers like me where we could sit and talk together or discuss ideas etc. Now, we freelancers don’t have any such place because it has been snatched for us.”
Sauliha, a young freelance journalist talks about her first experience going to Kashmir Press Club and thereafter. “When I visited the Kashmir Press Club for the first time, there was a lot of buzz inside the premises. Seniors as well as rookie journalists were moving around the premises discussing and writing stories. Young journalists were seen learning from experienced ones. It was quite a unique and memorable experience for me. Since then, I have wanted to be a part of this place,” she said.
Sauliha is one of the many female journalists who used to go to the Kashmir Press Club. For her too, it was like a second home. “The place where the finest journalists gathered and at every step there was something important to learn. As the place is closed now, we have headed towards the ‘Bund’ and everything is quite different there and obviously difficult also. This incident makes me feel homeless”, Sauliha said.
Senior journalist Gowhar Geelani also spoke to us about how journalists would prefer taking a stroll and walking along the bund. “Freelancers and independent journalists had found a new home at the Kashmir Press Club. The Bund which is in close proximity to the KPC was visited by journalists for leisure and when they needed a break from the work at the KPC,” he said.
“Now the Press Club is not there, the journalists have been going to the bund since the place is close to the erstwhile Press Club. The freelancers also need a sense of solidarity, a place to gather. They feel that if they are at the bund, they might bump into some journalists and they would strike a conversation which they were used to doing safely at the Press Club. This has become an alternative space for freelancers,” Gowhar added.
The Bund witnesses several gatherings of journalists everyday now. Wound up in small groups and discussing their work, they mostly don’t get a proper place to sit.
The climate of repression, especially against Kashmiri journalists, has led to widespread fear and sometimes self-censorship. Despite the scale of crisis, comprehensive reporting on the conflict in the Valley has been made difficult by the government. Information trickles out of Kashmir mostly through freelancers who are always on the watch of the authorities.
Independent reporting is a daily struggle of risk-taking in the face of stringent bureaucracy and accusations against journalists who stay adamant on their reports against the government. Many are labelled as biased even though obtaining official government reactions to news events is a daily challenge. The bund has become a new address for all the freelance journalists especially in Srinagar.
As they shut the Kashmir Press Club down, one could also witness the violation of ethics in a nation that ironically projects democratic ideals and free and fair elections. The KPC has maintained a fragile sort of peace for a community that exercises the freedom of expression in a profoundly unfree country.
The canteen of the press club was a place where journalists would bust their stress with a cup of tea, thereby, having crucial conversations there too. That comfort has now shifted to a local tea stall near the bund.
Seerat, a female freelance journalist said, “It is getting difficult for us to file our stories. We roam around the Jhelum View Park in this bone chilling winter. We were doing our work freely without any disturbance in the KPC. Here, it is an open space where anyone walks and being a woman, I face various societal barriers. The work of independent journalists has been more difficult. Not only do we have to struggle to maintain an economic basis for our work, but we also have to fight for access to information. Running up against brick walls when making inquiries in the public interest or requesting interviews is a constant; not getting answers is par for the course.”
Not only is the Kashmir press currently experiencing painful cutbacks, but the ability of people in Kashmir to access information is also being increasingly affected. The shrinking media space is limiting the freedom of all of us and weakening democracy in the process.
The presence of journalists across the Bund has created a journalistic atmosphere there which makes it conducive for the work. But the general consensus is that the Bund’s environment cannot compensate for what the Press Club had to offer as it was not just a shelter, but also a safe space and support to the journalism fraternity of Kashmir.
Khan Waqas is an independent multimedia reporter, covering development, conflict and women’s rights. He takes interest in assignments on justice and women empowerment He is a bachelor’s student of Journalism & Mass Communication at the Cluster University, Srinagar. You can find Khan on Twitter and Instagram.
Basit Parray is a trainee staff writer at the Mountain Ink. He is a Bachelor’s student of Journalism & Mass Communication at the Cluster University, Srinagar. You can find Basit on Twitter and Instagram.
All images as provided by the authors.