Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – The regional administration of Indian-administered Kashmir has sealed the office of a leading English newspaper, whose publisher said the action was “vendetta for speaking out”.
The local administration’s estates department on Monday sealed the office of Kashmir Times – one of the oldest newspapers in the region – located in the Press Enclave in the disputed region’s main city of Srinagar.
Anuradha Bhasin, the owner and executive editor of Kashmir Times, told Al Jazeera “no due process” was followed by the authorities in sealing their office, which Indian media reports said was allotted to them in the early 1990s.
“No notice was given to us,” she said. “They [estates department officials] just came. Our staff was working in the office. They asked the staff to come out, saying they were putting a lock.”
Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation & eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu, where my belongings including valuables were handed over to "new allottee". Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed. How peevish! pic.twitter.com/J5P0eKxvbx
— Anuradha Bhasin (@AnuradhaBhasin_) October 19, 2020
Earlier this month, Bhasin alleged she was evicted from her official residence in Jammu city.
She said the sealing of her office was “vendetta politics” and an “attempt to suppress [her]” by the Indian administration.
“Vendetta because last year, I went to court against the communication blockade and right from that very day, government advertisements to Kashmir Times was stopped. It has been going on since then,” Bhasin told Al Jazeera.
On August 5, 2019, India’s right-wing government scrapped the partial autonomy of Kashmir and divided India’s only Muslim-majority state into two federal territories, effectively bringing the region under New Delhi’s direct control.
To forestall any protests over the move, the Indian government imposed a crippling, months-long shutdown and communications blackout, and arrested dozens of local politicians.
Bhasin, who filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court challenging the cutting off of internet and telephone lines, said her newspaper continued to work “despite the communication blockade and staff being cut short because of financial distress”.
“We continued to write against several government policies and actions critically,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It [sealing of her office] is an attempt to gag me. It’s an attempt to suppress me. They can put locks on our office but they can’t put it on our voice.”
Media in Kashmir has been facing the most difficult situation post-August 2019, and yet a few of us continue to fight it. In return, govt uses media policy, jails, summons, terror cases, intimidation to stop free press. It is daily battle to sustain freedom of press in Kashmir.
— Fahad Shah (@pzfahad) October 19, 2020
Defending the move, an official of the region’s estates department told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity that they have not closed the office of Kashmir Times “as has been projected”.
“We have only taken possession of the building that was allotted to late Ved Bhasin, who died some years back,” he said.
Ved Bhasin, Anuradha’s father and founding editor of Kashmir Times, died in 2015.
“The building was allotted to Ved Bhasin but when the allottee has died, you cannot continue with the accommodation or any facility in the name of the person who is no more,” said the official, alleging that the newspaper’s office was being used “for residential purposes”.
“At the same time, they have another quarter in the vicinity of this one in the name of Kashmir Times which they use as their office,” he said.
‘Attempt to throttle free press’
But journalists in the region are outraged, calling the action against Kashmir Times yet another “attempt to throttle the free press in Kashmir by the government”.
“The move is highly condemnable. The government should reverse it and ensure an enabling atmosphere for the press in Jammu and Kashmir free from fear and coercion,” Ishfaq Tantry, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, told Al Jazeera.
Media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), also condemned the move.
“We condemn the ongoing targeting and harassment of Anuradha Bhasin and Kashmir Times. Authorities must stop trying to silence independent and critical voices and should respect press freedom,” CPJ said in a statement.
On October 15, Kashmir News Service (KNS), a local news agency, was also told to vacate their offices in Srinagar by the authorities.
“I received a call from Jammu and Kashmir’s estate department that we should vacate the office within an hour,” KNS editor-in-chief Mohammad Aslam told Al Jazeera.
“No reason or eviction notice was served but we were verbally told so. The officer told me that they have orders from the higher authorities.”
This explains why some of our “esteemed” publications have decided to become Government mouthpieces, printing only government press handouts. The price of independent reportage is to be evicted without due process. https://t.co/Vs7nfWWd4h
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 19, 2020
Aslam said the property was allotted to him by the government in 2004 and he was surprised they were forced to move out “in such a hurry”.
“On one side, we are being accused of being pro-government and on the other, we face such measures from government. At least the authorities should have given us proper time even if they wanted us to vacate the property,” he said.
Earlier this year, several leading Kashmiri journalists were charged by the Indian police under stringent laws for their “anti-national” social media posts – a move slammed by press and rights groups from around the world.
The former chief ministers of the region, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, condemned the government’s action and expressed their solidarity with Bhasin.
Mufti said Bhasin was “one of the few local newspaper editors” in Kashmir “who stood up to Indian government’s illegal and disruptive actions in the state”.
“Shutting down her office in Srinagar is straight out of BJP’s vendetta playbook to settle scores with those who dare to disagree,” she posted on Twitter, referring to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been accused of targeting journalists and activists.
India ranked 142 on the World Press Freedom Index this year over the communications blackout in the part of Kashmir it administers.