It can happen only in Kashmir. A fruit vendor runs a news website, self-styled journalists operating around two hundred whatapps news groups, all boasting Valley’s who-is-who as their subscribers. Aakash Hassan reports the shady world of alternative news that feeds on extortion, nepotism and plagiarism
On a clear February afternoon, Muzaffar Ahmad, 30, who sells fruit from a kiosk at Islamabad’s busy bus stand, is bargaining with a customer.
A few minutes later the buyer leaves without purchasing anything on the pretext of elevated rates. Disappointed, Muzaffar turns his attention towards his android phone. As he scans through major newspaper websites he stops at a news item: “government has no plan to introduce Rs 1000 notes”.
He copies the news item, then, like a professional, he posts the same on www.fastkashmir.com, a website he is running since 2015. Interestingly, he deletes the name of the author and posts it under his own byline!
With a hint of pride Muzaffar tells that he is the CEO of this website which has over two lakh followers on its official facebook page.
Muzaffar, 27, a resident of Khanabal in Islamabad district, started his journey as news provider from his personal facebook account in 2011.
“Initially I used to check news just to stay updated,” said Muzaffar. “Then I started to copy news from different sources and upload it on my facebook account. It got online attention.”
Muzaffar, who claims to have studied up to Class 12, hates his original profession, and instead wants be a journalist. “World around us is changing fast after internet became accessible to all,” said Muzaffar. “I just want to be part of this change.”
Since then, Muzaffar, who has never written a single paragraph on his own, updates around twenty news stories daily on his website. “I don’t just copy news from major news websites,” said Muzaffar. “I also get news feed from local wire agencies daily.”
As fastkashmir became popular, a number of local journalists started sending news items to Muzaffar. “Even state’s information department sends me regular feeds.”
However, Muzaffar’s website is not registered as of now. “I have applied for registration and submitted my papers to Deputy Commissioner’s office. I am hopeful to get a nod soon,” said Muzaffar.
There are hundreds of self styled journalists like Muzaffar who own websites, webpages, facebook pages, whatapp groups etc.
Ahmad, 30, who wishes to use his middle name only, is connected to more than sixty thousand people through over 250 Whatsapp groups. All he does is to copy news from different sources and then send it across to people through these whatsapp groups. His friend list boosts of almost all top level politicians, sitting MLAs, bureaucrats, district level officer etc.
Ahamd, who doesn’t want to share details about his background, claims to work round the clock to keep his contacts up-to-date.
“I cannot afford to miss any news story as my readers rely on me for information. They wait because my news is authentic unlike other whatsapp news groups,” claims Ahmad. “Besides, my news has impact because I forward it to power corridors directly.”
However Ahmad is quick to add that his group is not confined to officials only as a number of top cops, and even separatist leaders also avail his services.
“The response is overwhelming as thousands of requests are still pending with me,” he claims. “Even I am paid by some people so that I add their numbers on priority basis.”
Apart from this, a number of such news groups are also run by former district reporters, who used to work with small media organizations mostly based in Srinagar. “These reporters want to retain ‘journalist tag’ despite the fact they no longer work with any media organization. So they start these groups to stay relevant,” said Shahid Wani, who operates more than a hundred whatsapp groups under Pannen Kasheer name.
Wani used to work with a local news channel before venturing out into social media and whatapp news groups.
Unlike Muzaffar and Ahmad, Wani has a peculiar style of working when it comes to keep his contacts informed and updated.
He is connected to around two dozen likeminded people from across Kashmir, who shares news with him from their respective areas. “It is reciprocal,” said Wani. “They share news from their respective areas with me and I do the same.”
People feeding Wani’s vast news network hail from diverse backgrounds and ideologies.
“They can be government employees, professionals, businessman etc.,” said Wani. “However most of them are dedicated to news only. They are even accepted as journalist by people and officials.”
There are a few working journalists too who run their own websites and whatsapp groups to stay connected.
Makbool Veeray, a senior journalist from south Kashmir runs Sach News, a news website with six lakh followers on its facebook page. Veeray also operates around twenty whatsapp groups. “One has to change with change in technology,” said Veeray who has worked with radio and a number of local newspapers.
However Veeray rues that fact that online news websites like his Sach News doesn’t earn much despite huge readership base. “I just earn a few thousand rupees from Google ads. But it doesn’t even compensate a single correspondents salary,” said Veeray.
Then why so many people are keen to operate news based websites, facebook pages and whatsapp group?
“It helps politicians, officials, policemen and other people who want to promote themselves,” said a Srinagar based journalist. “A politician who fails to get space in mainstream media turns to these groups for publicity.”
Likewise, if a district level officer, who has conducted a seminar or organized a function, wants to reach out to his superiors with his work, he uses these groups. “It helps them stay in good books of their superiors as everybody is connected via these groups,” said the journalist. “These officials send readymade news to these group owners for consumption and publicity.”
Despite owning a newspaper, Begh Shameem, operates around hundred whatsapp based news groups and a blog.
“I am the quickest one in this business,” claims Shameem. “I don’t copy paste from any news website etc. as such. And even if I do, I give proper credit to the source.”
Aadil Wani, 21, a BCA second year student at Amar Singh College, is managing website and a mobile app (application) under JK NEWS SERVICE.
While the website is in function since 2009, the app has already been downloaded by over twenty thousand people, claims Aadil.
“I am a technology buff. I first created website and then started posting news on it,” said Aadil. “It became an instant hit and made me popular as well.”
Aadil accepts that he copies news from leading newspaper websites to use it on his own; however some of it is also gathered by his friends. “I don’t think it is unethical in any way,” said Aadil, who earns around rupees three thousand monthly from his website.
But journalists who work with reputed news organization see a deep nexus between people who run such websites and the people they promote.
“Off course they get paid by politicians and officials for promoting them,” said a Srinagar based journalist. “They run parallel universes in media.”
There are allegations from people in mainstream media that these group owners get paid in cash as well. “They also get contracts in return for favours or promotion of officials and politicians,” said the journalist.
These self styled journalist maintain a lifestyle that otherwise defies their income and status. “The journalist who reports from ground earns only a fraction of what these people do,” said Aqib, who is a district level journalist from south Kashmir. “They sometimes use our news stories to extort money from officials.”
The situation is not different in north Kashmir as it has a number of unregistered news websites run by people with questionable backgrounds.
“They send the news item to the particular officer against whom the story is done and then extort money from him,” said Sajad , a reporter who works in Baramullah. “They even successfully use same tactics against politicians.”
Sajad says these people target politicians who are not well educated and don’t read newspapers as such. “When a newspaper published a story about such a politician, these people forward the same to him and then meet him for a deal.”
A senior PDP leader, who wishes to stay anonymous, said, “I have never seen more blackmailers in any other profession than media.”
He alleges that a number of self styled journalists keep politicians happy by writing good things about them on these alternatives news outlets and groups.
“These groups are very powerful as they have wider reach. They can land any politician in trouble by simply creating a controversy,” said the politician justifying his anonymity.
In order to give credibility to their whatapps groups and facebook pages they use popular news outlet names like BBC, Tehalka, Times, etc.