Despite the turmoil and uncertain political climate of Kashmir, news dissemination has witnessed a boom, which is here to stay

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children refers to the day when clicking an image of a bridge would make one a suspect. The real world of the 1960s was perhaps more ‘ghostly’ in Kashmir. The barber’s shop beside Palladium Cinema at Lalchowk was a veritable centre of “news”. One needed the government’s license to have a medium wave transistor. Soon the Panchayat Ghars were equipped with community radio sets. People would religiously gather on a lawn and listen to the 7.30 pm news -- strictly from Radio Kashmir Srinagar. Listening to Radio Pakistan was a crime that would make the ‘delinquent’ liable to imprisonment and fine.

In the 1970s, the Kashmiris used to learn from BBC Urdu Service, two vernacular dailies -- Daily Aftab and Srinagar Times -- and the gossip tables of a Coffee House on Residency Road as to what was happening around.

Forty years later -- and that includes 23 years of a bloody turmoil -- a combination of democracy and technology has changed their world. Notwithstanding questions over the actual volume of the readership, sources of funding and financial viability, newspapers have flourished into an industry. Over 60 per cent of them defunct, the number of publications in J&K has reached 603 in 2013 -- as many as 264 in the Valley alone.

Mobile telephony, direct-to-home satellite television news and the Internet have remarkably contributed to the boom. The one-track reader of the 1960s and 1970s is survived by the ‘Generation-2’ and ‘Generation-3’ readership that has developed the habit of comparative study.

“Even if you are deeply committed to a particular political cause or ideology, you’ve got to be accurate and balanced,” Nasir Mirza, Professor at the University of Kashmir’s Media Education Research Centre [MERC] said. “Readers now make a comparative reading. They have free access to the world highway of news through Internet and over 300 news channels on their dish antenna.”

In the Valley, MERC itself has produced 700 postgraduates in Journalism and Mass Communication. Islamic University of Science and Technology, The Central University Kashmir, as also several colleges affiliated to the University of Kashmir, offer regular undergraduate and postgraduate courses in journalism.

Out of a total of 264 titles allotted by Registrar of Newspapers India, 140 are dailies -- 49 in English, 87 in Urdu and four in Kashmiri. There are also 35 weeklies in English, 64 in Urdu and two each in Kashmiri and Hindi. Twenty-one are fortnightlies, monthlies and quarterlies. Jammu division alone has 339 publications -- 87 dailies in English, 33 in Urdu, 25 in Hindi and one in Dogri.

The State’s influence on the industry could be gauged from the fact that out of the 603 publications, as many as 374 are enlisted and entitled to regular quota of the paid advertisements from the Department of Information -- 173 in Kashmir and 201 in Jammu.

The official statistics indicate that over 60 per cent of the Information Department’s annual advertisement budget of Rs 6 crore to Rs 9 crore goes to less than 10 publications. This excludes around Rs 15 crore that goes directly to selective publications from over 25 State-controlled corporations, banks, boards, commissions and universities. The Government circular itself proscribes this backdoor flow of the paid advertisements as “illegal and unauthorised.”

Irfan Ahmad, vice president of the JK Take One group, holding monopoly in the cable television operations, believes that the population of six million Kashmiris has direct access to about 300 satellite news channels through dish antenna. “There are 1,50,000 DTH units in Kashmir. One lakh of them are functional. Another one lakh subscribers watch these channels through cable,” Mr Irfan told The Hindu. Tata Sky, D2H Videocon, Airtel and Zee are the leading players.

According to Mr Irfan, Times Now, the most criticized in Kashmir’s media and social media, has surprisingly replaced NDTV 24x7 as the most watched satellite news channel. NDTV 24x7 and CNN-IBN are the runners up.

Interestingly again, Doordarshan’s 7.00 pm news slot, which had topped the Television Rating Points (TRPs) for decades, is now losing ground to Eenadu TV Urdu that runs a Kashmir-specific news programme parallel to DD’s evening show. Not authorised by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Pakistan’s private satellite news channels, Geo, Aaj, Nawai Waqat and Dawn News are also freely available through the local cable platforms but have few regular viewers.

Cable networks operated their own “news bulletins” until 2010, though they had no such authorisation under the 1995 law. Mostly handled by amateurs, these “bulletins” subscribed to an anarchical situation and were permanently shut in the thick of the street turbulence that year. The ban stretched to regulation of mobile telephony and bulk SMS circulation.

Police officials call the government’s control over Internet and social media as ‘majboori’ (compulsion), admitting candidly that despite the huge flow of Central funds from Delhi, authorities have neither technology nor the necessary legal authority for intercepting and scanning the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) traffic, widely used by militants and other “anti-national elements”.

“We sometimes manage the things illegally but none of the service providers cooperate with us,” said an official. He disclosed that so-called Cyber Crime Cell of J&K Police was deficient in capacity building as well as logistics. “Our much-hyped action against Facebook and YouTube users is just a part of the psychological operations. Our adversaries know it,” said a senior Police official. According to him, just around a hundred URLs had been shut after Afzal Guru’s execution. “Still, there are scores of blogs and news portals. Still, thousands of anti-national elements are carrying their campaigns through the social media.”

Chief General Manager R.K. Kaul revealed that the number of BSNL’s Broadband connections in Kashmir had risen to 17,500. This is in addition to nearly 100,000 GPRS users and equal number of data card users who access the Internet through mobile phones and computers. Broadband remains unaffected but all other services shut in extreme situations.

“Yes, I put the Valley under curfew, I shut the newspapers, the cell phone and the cable TV services; but only to prevent the strife from spreading and consuming more lives,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah admitted in Legislative Assembly recently.