Friday, December 8, 2023

‘It was a home’: Kashmir Walla shuts, lives on in memory

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Photo: Umer Asif/Maktoob

Last weekend, when Srinagar city’s roads were bustling with traffic and noise, The Kashmir Walla’s office was filled with deafening silence and uneasiness. The staff had arrived earlier than usual and the things were scattered. They were preparing to vacate.

The Union government “blocked” the website and social media handles of a Srinagar-based independent news outlet The Kashmir Walla on 19 August 2023. 

The Kashmir Walla wasn’t just ink on paper; it was a collective heartbeat, reverberating with the energy of a team bound by shared ideals and camaraderie that defied the conventions of a workplace.

But beyond the headlines and bylines, beyond the breaking news and exposés, The Kashmir Walla was a home—an abode of shared dreams and mutual support. It was a shelter where aspirations thrived, friendships blossomed, and the very essence of being a part of something larger than oneself was tangibly felt.

And a wave of dismay, anger, and solidarity rippling through the virtual realm became proof of The Kashmir Walla’s authenticity and loyal readership.

Netizens expressed their frustration over the stifling of independent journalism, with many viewing the ban as a “blow to free speech” and a stark reminder of the challenges faced by those “who dare to speak truth to power”. The digital outcry showcased how The Kashmir Walla had transcended its role as a news outlet, becoming a symbol of resilience and a voice to the voiceless.

People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti termed the ban as a “shame”.

“What a shame. One of the few portals that dared to speak truth to power stands silenced,” she tweeted. “Fahad Shah continues to be incarcerated for his truthful reportage highlighting ground realities in J&K. Only godi media parroting GOIs narrative & propaganda is allowed to function & flourish.”

A freelance journalist Tarushi Aswani tweeted, “Having written for The Kashmir Walla myself, I can say that it stands as the last of credible voices from the ground and the ban is a direct attack on the voices that refuse to accept the fake ‘normalcy’ narrative that the BJP is trying v hard to peddle.”

The Kashmir Walla, as an independent news site, has been covering developments in Jammu and Kashmir “without fear or favor” for more than 12 years.

On 19 August, when The Kashmir Walla’s staff started their everyday hustle, they found they had been denied access to their website while its social media accounts were blocked.

“When we contacted our server provider to ask why was inaccessible, they informed us that our website has been blocked in India by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under the IT Act, 2000,” the statement said.

The statement added: “Next, we discovered that our Facebook page – with nearly half a million followers – had been removed. As had our Twitter account, “in response to a legal demand.” In tandem with this move, we have also now been served an eviction notice by the landlord of our office in Srinagar and we are in process of evicting the office.”

They added that for the past 18 months, the organisations has lived a “horrifying nightmare”  as the founder-editor, Fahad Shah remains in jail, and “the harassment of our reporters and staff, amid an already inhospitable climate for journalism in the region”.

Fahad was arrested in February 2022 over the coverage of a gunfight. Later, he went on to be arrested five times within four months. Following the arrests, The Kashmir Walla’s office was raided in April 2022 by the State Investigation Agency (SIA) and his residence in Srinagar for an investigation into an opinion piece published in 2011. 

“During the raid, most of our gadgets were seized, reporters were interrogated, and all documents were scrutinized. Since then, our interim editor has been summoned and questioned by the SIA multiple times. Shah remains imprisoned in this case in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail – 300 kms away from home,” the statement added.

Fahad, however, is not the only one from The Kashmir Walla who is incarcerated but Sajad Gul, who worked with the outlet as a trainee reporter, remains in a prison in Uttar Pradesh under the Public Safety Act. 

The news outlet, in its statement, said that they are not aware of the specifics of why their website has been blocked in India and their social media accounts have been removed and withheld. “We have not been served any notice nor is there any official order regarding these actions that is in the public domain so far.”

They added: “This opaque censorship is gut-wrenching. There isn’t a lot left for us to say anymore.”

However, it wasn’t just The Kashmir Walla team but their readers mourned the loss of the organization with the staff.

One of the users said that it was disheartening to see the young team of the outlet getting punished for their journalistic duties. “This is so disheartening to see a group of young boys & girls who worked very hard on ground [for] last many years for documenting the crimes & atrocities of Indian govt & its forces on Muslims in Kashmir are getting punished just for performing their basic journalistic duties.”

Another user said that The Kashmir Walla will never disappear from “the hearts of the voiceless” as it has disappeared from the search list after the ban.

“The Kashmir walla has disappeared from the search list after Govt of India, ministry of Communication & Electronics withheld its social media accounts. It will never disappear from the hearts of those voiceless whose stories were narrated truthfully & honestly,” the user said.

DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a group of digital media organisations in India, issued a statement and said that the move to take down The Kashmir Walla’s website reflects a “pattern of arbitrary misuse of the law to silence the media in Kashmir”. DIGIPUB added the past four years, referring to the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, “had a chilling effect on journalists, journalism, and the fundamental right to free speech”.

Over the past four years, journalists in Kashmir have been facing increasing detention, denial of passports and raids. Several Kashmir journalists still linger behind bars while the others are struggling to stay afloat.

For the last 18 months of struggles, The Kashmir Walla’s staff was alone in their grief and helplessness. But as soon as the news of closure spread, The Kashmir Walla’s office was filled with reporters and their cameras. The presence was disheartening.

Photo: Umer Asif/Maktoob

In one of the corners of the editor’s room was a whiteboard with unfinished story ideas while the cartons were carefully stuffed with photo frames, awards, certificates, old magazine printouts and books. And on the wall, remained a TV – a best friend to The Kashmir Walla’s interim editor for the last 18 months, as he explained – till the end. In another room, the conversations about how the staff went homeless and jobless overnight were echoing. The vacated walls and rooms of The Kashmir Walla hold the echoes of truth.

After the arrest of Fahad, the Kashmir Walla’s young team of six remained steadfast, embracing the challenges that come with being an unwavering advocate of truth. Yet, amidst the pursuit of truth, The Kashmir Walla faced the tempest of challenges. 

The Kashmir Walla’s journey, from inception to closure, left an indelible mark on hearts and minds, a reminder that even in the darkest times, voices can still echo in the corridors of memory.

During the last meeting of The Kashmir Walla’s staff, Fahad was remembered dearly and so was his dream of raising the news outlet like a child. There were smiles amidst the tears on the staffers’ faces as they reminisced about their journey as a journalist in the organisation that stood by ethics and truth for years.

Photo: Umer Asif/Maktoob

Abrar Fayaz, The Kashmir Walla’s former multimedia reporter, called the incident “unfortunate”. “It is very unfortunate because this was not just our office, but our home. At TKW, we were taught just like parents teach their children. I used to work freely without any fear of making mistakes. I  learned how to work and be professional from Fahad, how to speak and write the truth,” he said. “I will never forget this place, this home, and Fahad because they are the reason for who I am today.”

He said that he was “indebted to TKW” and he misses working there. “It was like a second home to me, and I wish I could return.”

Another former staffer Saide Zahoor, who worked at The Kashmir Walla as a multimedia journalist for nearly two years, said that he started off his career as a journalist with Kashmir Walla. “I worked under the mentorship of Fahad and he guided me well. Whatever I am today, it is because of Kashmir Walla.”

“It breaks my heart to realize where we ended up today. We all had seen the dream of building this institution together. It was broken without a notice,” he added.

Shivankan Mathur, who interned for The Kashmir Walla in 2021 summer said that the newsroom, which continues to be driven by young Kashmiri journalists, left an everlasting impact on him. “During my brief period at its Srinagar office, I was moved by TKW’s commitment to truth and how it always strived to help the people through impactful journalism. With extremely limited resources, TKW kept the Kashmiri people and public institutions well-informed about Jammu and Kashmir’s crucial events every single day.”

He further added that at The Kashmir Walla, he has found friends and teachers alike. “While it deeply scars the notions of free press and democracy, it directly impacts the livelihoods and motivation of TKW’s extremely talented staff of young journalists.”

Meanwhile, three days after tirelessly collecting the remnants, shifting the savings and memories of The Kashmir Walla and then vacating– The lights were out and the doors were closed. However, the former office and the staffers of the outlet weren’t left empty — some bid their goodbyes, and others couldn’t.

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Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir is a journalist based in Kashmir, covering human rights, gender, and education.

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