Back To The Beginning

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As the news hunger peaks in Kashmir, closed for three weeks, the media is consistently exploring options of collecting and disseminating news, reports Masood Hussain

Till the militancy led the newsroom of the Radio Kashmir Srinagar to shift to Delhi during 1990s, there was one basic to all the newspaper newsrooms in Srinagar – a radio set. The reason: at around 4:30 pm, the Radio would broadcast a special news bulletin that the anchor would read slowly as if giving a dictation. These were called item khabreh and this was meant for the Kashmir newsrooms where one person would be specially tasked to pen it down. As the wire services were a luxury and available to quite a few, this news bulletin was a key in-put for the Srinagar newspapers.

With the technology taking over at a ferocious pace in the last 20 years, the newsrooms would laugh over the “good old days” as telegraphic communication was taken over by the telex and then textel, fax and finally to the modem. The e-mail actually changed the media scene and in almost a decade the IT unleashed countless tools that changed the way societies collected, processed and disseminated news.

One of the key topics, during the routine newsroom meetings in recent years, would surround over the fast approaching death of the print media and the rise of the digital media! This was primarily because the smart phone and the internet changed the styles and systems of consumption of news. There were, in fact, more people consuming news on-line than in print.

Jammu and Kashmir is one of the few states having immense cell phone and technology penetration. In 2011, Census Organisation put the total population of the state at 12.5 million – one crore and 25 lakhs. By December 2018, more than 10237929 GSM cell phones were operating in the state. For every 100 people, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) statistics suggest, there are 109.19 phones. There are 13.84 million phone subscribers in Jammu and Kashmir which means it has crossed the number of people living in the state, according to TRAI that has numbers to suggest that Jammu and Kashmir hold 1.14 percent share in India’s total subscriber base. Jammu and Kashmir that would now be UT by October 31, was making almost one percent of India’s population.

It was in the midst of this debate that Kashmir abruptly landed in a situation that actually predates 1990s. In the aftermath of the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgrading of the state and division into two Union Territories, the government closed all the telephones – fixed lines and mobiles; blocked the internet facility and, for its own requirement, introduced satellite telephones. This jammed the media literally and communicating news became a real major crisis for the newsmen. Unlike the TV that uses the satellite up-linking facilities to transfer data, the problem confronted mainly the print, the radio and the photo-journalists.

How these men and women managed sending their dispatches for almost 10-days, till the government set up a Media Facilitation Centre in a hotel on August 14, is a story of struggle, almost unprecedented.

“I used to type my copies and drive to the Srinagar airport where I would hand over the packet to a passenger flying to Delhi,” one senior journalist working for a major news agency said. “These people carrying the packets would take the pains of making a phone call to my office and they would collect the same. I sent four packets and one of them never reached my editors. All other copies did reach, however, after a lot of delay.”

For almost one complete day, the journalist said he was carrying his fax machine in his car and going from one house to another in an uptown locality, trying to trace some acquaintance who could have his landline operational. He did not find any. But he was fortunate that some shopkeeper outside the Srinagar airport had his landline and data connectivity intact. “For three days, I availed this man’s facility, who would send my dispatches from his personal e-mail,” the journalist said. “But the crisis resumed after the authorities plucked all the working landlines in the uptown belts including that of the shopkeeper thus making the communication blockade much harsh.” For many days, he could not file anything and then the fixed lines were re-opened in certain city areas that enabled him to dictate his story to the desk.

Interestingly, the fixed-line phones were activated in the Lal Chowk area that houses the Press Colony for a few hours and withdrawn quickly.

The internet blockade was so harsh that authorities would even trace the lines from which particular files would be uploaded. This was especially after the government denied any protests in Soura belt. The BBC that broke the protest story later uploaded its unedited footage on its official twitter to insist that it stands by its Kashmir broadcast.

The international broadcast media faced the crippling crisis unlike the domestic TV as they could not transmit the data, mostly the footage of empty streets. “We used to load the footage on a disk, drive to airport and sent it by hand,” one journalist working with an international TV network said. “We tried to use the internet facility that the Information Department has set up at the centre but its limited bandwidth can open the html version only.”

This was how the photo-journalists would operate for more than 10 days. “We would create folders of all the photographers and save it on a chip and then handover the chip to a Delhi bound passenger who would make a call to a colleague and he would then send these to our respective organisations,” Farooq A Khan, who works with an international photo agency, said. “It was days ahead of a literal chip draught that the media centre started working.”

Earlier, the photo-journalists would send bulky files and leave the editing of the visuals to their editors at the desk. After the bandwidth became the most prized thing in Kashmir, they are now editing their images on their personal computers, interrupting the file size so that they are able to upload and send these small images at low bandwidth.

At the Media Facilitation Centre, there are around half a dozen computers and usually it is a long line in waiting. It takes time but it is helping, admitted a journalist. “I am able to send my mails but it is rare that I could get time to see if my yesterday’s despatch was used,” the journalist said. “At any point of time during the day, there are lot of people queued up for their turn.”

In the last three weeks, Kashmir witnessed huge arrival of the media, mostly from Delhi. Restricted to certain uptown localities, the TV channels are mostly offering live despatches about the quiet streets indicating the normalcy is limping back. Their restricted coverage has triggered some bad instances in which some of the crews were chased at a few places in Srinagar.

In a tough situation, the tougher get going. Some journalists evolved their distinct style of communicating news to their offices. “I write a copy and it is being photographed by a camera and then it is transmitted to Delhi by a TV network along with its routine uploads. Then, a request goes that the petty image be send on a particular address,” one senior journalist who has been filing his despatches using this innovation with the help from a TV reporter said. “It is at the newsroom that some journalist converts the images into the text.”

In this situation, it is the local newsroom that is most suffering. A number of newspapers which are printing said they literally sit in a sort of examination hall before the TV. They surf the news channels and jot down things. Sometimes they note down the points from the live despatches and draft the news on that basis.

“After the media centre was started, we usually send a person there on daily basis to check mails and download information if it is possible,” one news editor in a local newspaper said. “Then another person goes to the Information Department and collects the daily press notes detailing the activities of the government. These are being processed to create news later.”

Most of the newspapers, currently publishing, have 4-pages, (a few, however, have gone to 8 pages now) lacking opinions and edits. The publications, mostly are circulated across Srinagar and some muffasil areas. The coverage of instances is hugely truncated. Editors say they lack access to information as the communication lockout has created situation in which confirming an incident is very difficult.

There was an interesting instance. In paid advertisements that were published by Aftaab, one of the oldest Urdu daily newspapers, there was one Rasm-e-Chahrum saying that XXX died in tear gas shelling. While the death and the subsequent developments could become a paid item, it could not become news for want of details, confirmations and the two basic versions that a story normally has. The government sends Rohit Kansal, a principle secretary who is the official spokesman for the state, to the Media Centre. He has consistently maintained that there has not been any death in any law and order situation in the aftermath of the Article 370 abrogation.

In absence of internet, all the news portals of Kashmir are closed and have not been updated since August 5.

During phases of tension and turmoil when the news-hunger peaks enormously, the newspapers are unable to manage the demand. They are barely managing truncated editions to keep the show going.

These phases also witness return to the radio. During the last three weeks, the families across Kashmir have relocated their abandoned radio sets to tune in Voice of America, BBC and other stations. Some individuals admitted that they made fresh purchases to stay tuned with the developments. “But the news seemingly is the same, you tune in whichever station,” one radio listener said. “The only element that one is getting from international broadcasters is that they offer some details about the diplomatic fallout of the crisis, nothing much.”

This is because the reporters on ground are unable to send their dispatches. This created an interesting situation with the radio Kashmir Srinagar’s most popular current affairs programme, the Sheharbeen. “Last week, I tuned in and the programme started with the routine advertisements and then the broadcaster apologised saying that owing to the closure of telephones, they do not have any news today,” Altaf Ahmad, one of the die-hard fans of the programme said. “This was akin to what BBC once reportedly said – ‘we do not have any news today, please listen to music’.”

Insiders in the Radio Kashmir said that they have literally stopped Aaj Ka Tabsura because the officials have not been able to talk to the commentary writers for all these days.

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