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Access denied in Kashmir Valley

Journalists use Internet facilities sanctioned by the authorities, amid strict communications restrictions during a lockdown at a hotel in Srinagar on October 3, 2019.

Journalists use Internet facilities sanctioned by the authorities, amid strict communications restrictions during a lockdown at a hotel in Srinagar on October 3, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AFP

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How a scribe struggled to file stories amid blackout and police summons

The Centre’s move on Article 370, which also saw the imposition of unprecedented security measures, was a watershed moment for journalists. Reporters were denied access to their lifelines — from phones to the Internet. For almost one week starting August 5, journalists struggled to reach offices, contact colleagues or file reports. Officials remained tight-lipped. Rumours flew thick and fast. News got buried under handouts. The control was complete.

However, difficult times throw up both challenges and opportunities. Restless journalists resorted to new ways and means to tell stories. Many scribes started ‘smuggling’ news-loaded pen drives, headed for news desks located in New Delhi, to the Srinagar airport. I found one unique window to file my news reports: a VSAT link of a news channel’s OB van, through which I could send video versions of my stories to the channel’s Delhi office which, in turn, could forward the video to The Hindu’s office. The news desk would then transcribe the story to be published in print. However, I had no way of confirming whether a video got downloaded in time for the edition.

Watch | Tight curbs on Internet in J&K offices
 

Big brother is watching

Apart from the blacking out of communication means, there were also random summons to police stations, sending a terse message: the big brother is watching you.

 

On August 19, I received one such summon and was directed to report to Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh Police Station “as soon as possible to avoid any action”. The officer informed me that an inquiry had been set in motion following my report pertaining to a centralised police database on detentions across the Valley. I was probed for an hour and released. During the questioning, I was asked to reveal the name of the source, which I refused. This episode achieved what the big brother wanted. All police sources were subsequently put under the scanner and eventually barred from talking to me.

Facing criticism over its actions, the government decided to set up an ‘incubation centre’ for reporters in the Valley. The ‘Media Facilitation Centre’ (MFC) was, interestingly, housed in a fortified hotel, with round-the-clock surveillance monitoring the movements of journalists and others.

On most days, the MFC looked like a fish market. There used to be 10 people surrounding a journalist’s chair, as he accessed private office mails and filed reports. Scribes were barred from staying for over 15 minutes on a desktop. There was also rationing of the Internet. There was no scope to file an ‘exclusive’ story. All reports became public knowledge even before they were sent for print. Filing a story took up more time than gathering the information needed for it. The MFC became a ‘sub-jail’ for journalists, with the police listing the names of all those who entered the room. Employees of the State Information Department also policed the use of Wi-Fi. Any complaint on ‘stolen data’ was met with punishment — denial of access to the Net.

Last week, the Internet got a new home. All scribes and newspaper editors from Kashmir can now operate from the State Information Department’s office. The queues have grown shorter but there is still the growing anxiety over why the scribes and their offices have been Internet-less for over two-and-a-half months in the world’s largest democracy.

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Printable version | Dec 10, 2019 12:54:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/access-denied-in-kashmir-valley/article29789814.ece

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