For the last 100 days, professionals reporting Kashmir use a rationed bandwidth in a designed cafe to keep the records right for the history. But is it sustainable on long term basis, asks Masood Hussain
Last time after waiting in a queue for a while when I finally had my quick ‘internet dose’ for the day, a young reporter, sitting on a sofa for a pre-fixed chat, instantly asked me: “How do you feel about using the internet in the Media Facilitation Centre (MFC)?”
“I am relieved; it is something without which one feels sort of a pain,” I responded. “Using the internet at the MFC gives the same relief that one feels when in a crowded market he finally traces a urinal, pretty crowded, but manages to ease himself, uses it quickly and leaves to pave way for another in the line.”
Then, the MFC was parked in the Sarovar Hotel, a new address, on Kashmir’s erstwhile Power Corridor, the Gupkar Road, located interestingly between the home of Kashmir’s former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, and the office of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). Its location was rumoured to have been found ideal for operating offices in case of some chaos makes the city impassable. After August 5, when Kashmir’s special status was binned after seven decades and the state was reorganised into two federally controlled Union Territories, most of the Kashmir bound Delhi media was guided to put up in this hotel.
Hours ahead of the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, authorities shut down the fixed-line and the mobile telephone services along with the internet. The fixed-line phones took more than a month to restore in a phased manner and the post-paid cell phone services resumed operations on October 14, after 72 days. The move, authorities said, was aimed at preventing the use of the social media by vested interests to fan radicalisation.
Barring the TV, when rest of the mass media started dying of the internet hunger, the conference hall of this hotel was converted into MFC on August 10. As the rush of the non-local media thawed, the MFC evolved into the only internet cafe in Kashmir. Journalists who would avoid even visiting the Aiwan-e-Suhafat, the Kashmir Press Club, rarely miss the MFC, the new shrine of the media. It’s a place to which every reporter is supposed to pay a visit, at least once in a day.
After the non-local journalists left, the MFC was finally shifted to the newsroom of the Directorate of Information at its Polo View office. It was a relief because of its better accessibility to journalists, mostly operating from the Partap Park, the Srinagar’s Fleet Street. Ten computers and a few LAN connections (for journalists carrying their own computers), the MFC is the sole link for data access to the media in Kashmir. Media has no option for updating websites, downloading news, graphics, advertisements, and transfer of data. Its 15 Mbps bandwidth comes from an ISP that was the only operational service provider since August 5, possibly because it provides broadband connectivity to the part of the security grid. The Centre sees a footfall of more than 200 users in a 24-hour cycle, a rush that sometimes crosses even 300. It is supposed to function for 15 hours starting 9 am.
MFC managers said their sole telephone – the only accessibility available to the media between August 5 and October 14, recorded 16250 telephone calls. Till date, the MFC has recorded 28500 internet sessions.
MFC survived a series of hiccups owing to the early November snowfall when the ISPs OFC connectivity was disrupted. Later the power supply failure led the Department to put its DG set in use. Some of the department employees were seen repairing the power supply lines of the department after the snowfall.
The MFC, however, has not been able to manage the infection issue. One reporter said the Centre operates like an “IT brothel” where viruses fly like the common cold. All reporters using the facility get their write-ups and photographs in their pen-drives for mailing it. They take the infected drive and insert it into their computers. “These viruses spread like the Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD),” the reporter observed. “Right now, most of the journalists have their computer systems diseased.” As the issue was flagged to the MFC managers, they got the anti-viruses but the computers of scribes are still infected. This crisis is with entire Kashmir. Almost every computer is sick because their anti-viruses have not been updated for the last 100 days. Some of them are behaving abnormally.
The anecdotes that got manufactured in the MFC in last more than three months will always remain part of Kashmir media gossip. One reporter was feeding password to his e-mail and suddenly another reporter standing behind his chair shouted: “Galat Ha Kouruth, Raath Na Ousie 370 Athmanz.” (You are writing it wrongly, yesterday, the password you fed to your account lacked 370). Last time when the reporter had written the password, his colleague had remembered it. The next day when he started writing the password, he, for a moment, started his dispatch on 370!
Passwords are personal. But in a common facility like MFC, nothing is personal. In a rush, when one reporter finally got his turn – in late August, to send his despatch, he inserted the disk in the CPU slot but forget to access it. He simply took the Control V. It triggered a tamasha: he actually sent a story that somebody had filed for his paper, minutes before.
In another case, one reporter of a Delhi based newspaper got a call from his office enquiring from him why he sent a copy as an attachment. When he reopened his mail, he found a news report in an attached copy that was actually filed by a dot.com reporter to his website, in the morning. There was no trace of the copy the reporter had actually filed. There was shock and surprise. As newer events took over, these instances were forgotten.
Unlike Sarovar, there are no CCTVs. But between 9 am and 5 pm, two cops register every entry. “You work for what,” a simpleton cop was rumoured to have famously asked a reporter. “The NYT,” was the reply.
“Is it a daily newspaper?” came the second query.
“Yes. But why are you asking?” the reporter responded.
“Weeklies and freelancers are not permitted,” explained the cop.
The issue had interesting details and was quickly resolved, thanks to MFC managers. But reporters wonder, why the cops close their ‘shop’ at 5 pm and leave. Why do not they remain around till 12 in the night? Are they sure of the antecedents of the journalists using the bandwidth after 5 pm?
Once, while working on a computer at the Sarovor, I detected an unknown young man trying to have quick visual scan of the screen. I ignored but as he started getting closer, I politely offered him a chair and asked him to sit with me so that he can see whatever I am doing. Blushed, he left quickly. Later the MFC managers told me that the onlooker was a hotel employee, merely a spectator.
The MFC managers have remained quite sensitive to the reporters’ requirements. But there have been certain instances that triggered some tension and a lot of heat. The outcome of control and rationing, a process that has historically triggered unfairness, it was quickly fixed.
Reporters are at the receiving end of the mess. As the crisis completed 100 days, the Srinagar based media organised a symbolic protest – second since August 5 – seeking restoration of the service. They said they are not seeking any freebees but the mere restoration of a service that is like electricity or the food supply – something one purchases to use. The continued blockade, one senior reporter said, is hitting journalists less but journalism more. Journalism, after all, is the key essence of democracy.
So, after 100 days of lockdown, the question still remains: can Kashmir media have access to the internet so that it can walk the talk of development and prosperity that, the government has maintained since August 5, was the key factor for undoing and binning the seven decades of Kashmir history?