Kashmiri journalists protest in Srinagar against the internet shutdown. Image Courtesy: The Print
Srinagar: One room, eight computers, six months and many dozens queuing up to send the Kashmir word out to the world. That's been the arithmetic of journalism in troubled times for media personnel in the Valley since August last year.
Braving rain, storm and bone-chilling cold, journalists in Kashmir spend hours on end each day outside the cramped makeshift media room set up by the administration.
On August 5, the Centre revoked Jammu and Kashmir's special status under Article 370 and bifurcated it into the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The night before, mobiles and the internet were suspended.
It has been six months to the day, but the communications lockdown is near total still.
Some local media houses can access internet lease lines, but it is an expensive affair with only two or three newspapers opting for it, and 2G mobile network has been restored.
The problem of many journalists -- most newspapers in the country have a representatives in the Valley -- and too few computers continues.
The result: all roads for journalists -- those visiting and those who live here, print, television and online -- lead to the media room next to Polo Ground on Maulana Azad Road.
"The situation has eased somewhat after internet lease lines were opened for local newspapers and the rush has come down since January 27, but our problems persist," said a senior journalist who refused to be quoted by name.
Journalists are wary about coming on record because they fear they will be barred from entering the media centre and be deprived of their only connect with the outside world.
A policeman, equipped with a hand-held body scanner, greets journalists at the entrance.
After the security check, they have to enter their details in a register and then access the room that opens at 10 a.m and goes on till about 9 p.m.
Some journalists have found a way to circumvent the waiting period.
They create hotspots on their laptops using LAN connections provided at the media centre, and share the wi-fi connection with others, thereby increasing the number of journalists accessing internet facility by four to five times at a go.
With the centre being a meeting point for journalists, the administration also used it to give out press releases on the reopening of schools, operations in hospital and traffic jams.
"The truth definitely has been a casualty and the claims of the government about normalcy cannot be challenged in such an environment of fear," said a senior journalist working with a national daily.
According to some journalists, the register kept outside the room to log in entry times became a source of showcasing achievements of the government.
The government last month came up with a press release claiming that more than 50,000 internet sessions were facilitated for scribes at the media centre after August 5.
There were several reports of journalists being harassed and even roughed up by security forces in the first couple of months of the lockdown in Kashmir but most said it was safer to not talk about it.
"It seems there is a knife on my neck when I write a story. If I write the truth, I fear a midnight knock by security agencies at my door," said a reporter working for an online portal.
The Kashmir Press Club, which has nearly a dozen journalist bodies' as its affiliates, was initially silent about the internet shutdown and harassment of the journalists.
In October last year, the executive body of the club finally held a meeting. It was decided to set up a committee to record incidents of high handedness by security forces and other difficulties faced by the media personnel in their line of work.
"We kept a window of 15 days for recording statements of those journalists who wished to highlight their plight and suffering during the lockdown period. However, no one came forward," said a member of the press club committee, adding that it was because of fear of the government.
Several applications, requesting restoration of internet facilities at the offices of accredited journalists or at least at the Kashmir Press Club, are pending before the district magistrate of Srinagar.
"We are yet to hear from the government," said a member of the club.
Though journalists from the Valley admit that there has been an improvement in their working conditions over the past few days compared with August 5, the day the Centre locked down on communications, normalcy is still a far cry.
Messages sent to Dr Syed Sehrish Asgar, head of publicity and information department, went unanswered.