Media

'Never Seen Such Terrible Times': Reporting From a Kashmir Under Lockdown

Journalists talk about how their work has been affected badly in the last 100 days.

Srinagar: It has now been more than 100 days since the Centre read down Article 370, while putting the Kashmir Valley under a communications blockade, detaining hundred of political party leaders and workers, and restricting movement.

The Wire spoke to journalists working in Kashmir about how the last 100 days have been, and whether they were able to do their jobs.

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‘I couldn’t even contact my office for a month’: Nazima Sidiq, Kashmir Reader reporter

I was able to travel around a bit and resume work only in the second week of August. I didn’t have a personal vehicle, which curtailed my movement as public transport was off the roads. I had some stories in mind which I couldn’t complete on time due to the communication blockade. Landlines were also not working. I couldn’t even contact my editors for about a month. At the end of the day, I had to reach home in old city, where there was stone pelting and tear gas shelling in the afternoon. Many times I narrowed escaped from being hit by a teargas shell.

Also read: Journalists Protest as Internet Gag Completes 100 Days in Valley

I had to sometimes walk on foot from my office all the way home in downtown Srinagar, as no public transport was available. As a women journalist, it was also difficult to travel for stories, given the restrictions in place in downtown Srinagar and other areas. The communications shutdown also crippled reporters like me. The continued internet shutdown also affected our work as there was no connectivity even at our newspaper office. I couldn’t search my previous stories online or regularly check my email. For that, we had to travel all the way to the only media centre in Srinagar, which provided brief internet access.

I couldn’t get details for stories from officials as phones were banned for more than two months. Even coming to the media centre every day was difficult for me. There too we had to wait in queues just to check our emails and read some news online.

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‘We couldn’t reach out to officials for stories’: A young female journalist in Srinagar who did not want to be named

There was no local transport on the roads. I was dependent on my brother to travel around for some stories and reach officials for their quotes since phones were also not working. I couldn’t do many stories because of transport issues. Also, when we would go to the media centre, there was only one computer for women journalists where we could browse the internet and check our emails. Many times I had to wait there since the only computer for women journalists would at times be used by male journalists.

We couldn’t even take official versions for our stories as they were either unreachable or unwilling to talk on the record. We had to call officials from landline phones when the network started working after more than a month. For many stories, I couldn’t take official versions because of the communications shutdown.

Since I would also cover the health beat, I would often approach doctors and other sources in the health department, but the officials and doctors would say that they had strict orders from the administration not to talk to the press. I was not able to get official versions and official figures for the stories. Many stories were either left incomplete for want of official data or official version or just abandoned. It’s very difficult to work as a reporter under such circumstances.

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‘There was no protection for journalists’: Shams Irfan, Associate Editor, Kashmir Life Weekly

For the first month, we were entirely cut off from our staff. We had no idea about the whereabouts of our district reporters and contributors. We had no idea where our staff was after August 5. We couldn’t reach them on the phone due to the total communications blockade. We couldn’t inform them to come to the office to resume work.

As a reporter, I also started moving out in the second week of August. I went to south Kashmir areas. Initially, people there were eager to talk. But with time, the fear grew and people got scared. It was very difficult to move around. People would tell us to leave the area as they said the armed forces would harass them. People would tell us that we would also be in danger if we stayed in the area for a longer time. We were in the same category as common people. There was no protection for journalists. We couldn’t even inform our people at home if we got stuck somewhere while travelling.

Also read: 100 Days and Counting: Glimpses of the Lockdown, Shutdown in Kashmir

It is difficult to get background information for our stories since the internet shutdown continues to this day. We would file stories from our memory. We were forced to use a government-owned media centre to access our emails and check the internet. Our privacy was compromised there. After the internet ban is lifted, the real stories we missed will come out. At least the administration should have allowed internet facilities in newspaper offices and at the press club for journalists and newspaper staff. It’s humiliating to go to the media centre every day for just a few minutes of internet access.

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‘No official was talking to us on record’: Junaid Bazaz, Kashmir-based reporter

The story I could do in one day earlier would take a week to complete due to the total communications shutdown imposed since August 5. It took me weeks to complete a story on the circulation of local newspapers and get all figures which I could otherwise complete in a few days. There was no phone and no internet.

There was also a subtle, unspoken pressure on journalists and editors. If anything was happening anywhere, and when we would go to the officials for their version of the events, they would just not talk to us on record. No official was coming on record about what was happening in the Valley. It was a tactic to stop the stories from going out. They would sometimes talk a lot off the record but didn’t want to come on record for our stories.

People were also reluctant to talk to the press in the initial months. The communication channels from which we could reach out to officials or other people were all cut. We had to physically go and find the officials and then they would not speak or come on record. We were also not able to do simple Google searches or check emails for getting some background information from our previous stories. Our work was badly affected in these 100 days.

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‘The officials would say not to quote them with name’: Zahoor Hussain Bhat, Kashmir correspondent of a national news agency

I have been working for more than five years as a reporter in Kashmir. I have never witnessed such a terrible situation for working journalists earlier. The main source of information was shut. After all communication lines were snapped, the media centre, which provided some internet access, was only opened in the second week of August. There was an information crisis that created an information blackout.

Even when landline phones were restored after more than a month, the officials we would call didn’t provide any information. They were reluctant to talk to the journalists. And even if some officials provided some information, they would say not to quote them with their names. Government officials seemed more scared than journalists. We also had to think twice before reporting anything that could land us in trouble.

Also read: Srinagar Media Facilitation Centre: Now, Freelancers, Web Journalists Not Allowed

For news agencies, social media was our biggest source of information. We would often quote official tweets or updates from social media. We would contact people who would post about some events in their areas on social media. But this time the entire social media has also been shut down. The communications shutdown also created a news crisis.

On many occasions, I couldn’t send my stories to my editors on time since there was either no internet or too much crowd at the media centre, which was the only place where we could get brief internet access. I also missed many stories. We couldn’t reach officials and affected people due to the communications shutdown. We couldn’t reach our sources since phones were not working.

Sometimes, we are required to update stories from the internet. But since we had no internet access outside the media centre, we couldn’t even get basic information which was otherwise a click away online. The administration should have lifted the internet ban long back. At least had they should have lifted the ban on broadband internet. That could have somewhat helped us in doing our work.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and writer based in Srinagar.

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