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Kashmir’s Crippling Communication Ban Took a Heavy Toll on My Job as a Journalist

"To breach the blackout, one of us would fly to Delhi and upload a couple of stories from there. We lived one story at a time—forever wondering if it would make it online."

by Yashraj Sharma
10 February 2020, 2:36pm

Yashraj Sharma at The Kashmir Walla office. Photo: Asif Hamid 

I wake up and like it has been a habit for most of my adult life, I switch on the WiFi on my phone to start a fresh work day—only to realise there is no internet. Like it has been for the last six months. A mail is miles away, and so is everything on the internet.

Along with 14 others, I work at Srinagar-based independent alternative media house, The Kashmir Walla, as the assistant editor and features writer. A website that has been functioning since February 2011, we also come out with a weekly newspaper. The idea of The Kashmir Walla has always been to tell the story of Kashmir to the world, from the people based in the most militarised zone in the world. International media tells this story differently and so does the rest of India but instead of parachute journalism, we’ve always looked at the life on the streets of Kashmir barricaded with intimidation from an insider’s perspective and surpassing the biases that everyone else approaches stories from this region with. That is, until the intervening night of August 4 and 5, 2019.

On the fateful night, we lost all means of communication. The Central government had stripped the region’s constitutional autonomy and broke down the state into two federally governed territories: Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh. Overnight, we went from receiving a traffic of more than 500,000 a month to seemingly zero, considering the website was inaccessible to those in Kashmir, and we had no way of checking its status. In the initial two weeks—in total communication blackout—we couldn’t even reach our printing press, and when we did, the printer was out of plates. This meant that we had to compromise on the size and quality of the newsprint, with even circulation cut by one-fourth.

Our lives had come to a standstill.

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On the left is the last issue of TKW before the clampdown whereas on the right is a much smaller version that came out after. Photo: Asif Hamid

The Valley was running into record losses. Private markets sunk. When there is no business, what would you advertise? If you aren’t updating the website, who will click on Google Ads? For an independent media house, the internet blackout and government clampdown barred all ways of revenue inflow. In its spill-over, salaries were slashed, a couple of staffers left, and everything else came crashing down. To breach the blackout, once in a couple of months, one of us would fly to Delhi and upload a couple of stories from there. We lived one story at a time—forever wondering if it would make it online. We also came close to losing our server several times, thanks to our server provider having emailed us warnings which we could not access. A loss of server would’ve meant the loss of content produced over nine years.

In the 2008 summer uprising, the government forces had shot dead more than 80 civilians in street protests against the government’s decision to transfer forest land. The ignorance and apathy of people in Delhi disturbed a young Kashmiri, Fahad Shah, then 20. The story of Kashmir had to be told, he thought. By February 2009, the frustration had started flowing in ink and he kickstarted a blog named The Kashmir Walla (TKW) from an internet café in Nizamuddin, New Delhi. By 2011, digital media was taking shape in third-world countries. Back in Kashmir and enrolled in a journalism college, it was the 2010 summer uprising that made Shah take his blog forward and convert it into a website. A friend from the United Kingdom offered to pay for the server rent and a website domain. By February 2011, the Valley had its first online multimedia magazine: TKW, designed on a GPRS-speed network. It’s had its share of setbacks as well—failing in 2014 and then again in 2015 to set up an office and hire a team because of a financial crunch. But the dream was resurrected in 2018, which is also when I joined the motley team of three. We grew to 14 over time, and on our way up, broke important stories of army harassment, taboos around sexuality and society, life in rural areas, and everything else that mainstream media would hesitate publishing.

The story of TKW and how it came into being has always been inspiring to all of us who have worked here over the years. In January 2020, the government restored restricted 2G internet. But only about 300 websites could be accessed, and ours wasn't one of them.

But today, a few days after the government whitelisted it in the revised list, and over the past six months, it’s turned into a story of exhaustion, humiliation, and intimidation.

Even though the website is back on, the government wants us to sign an undertaking for using internet, stating that we will not create Wi-Fi spots, use social media, upload encrypted photos or videos, that the connection will be tightly monitored, and that they can access all of our content and infrastructure whenever required by government’s security agencies. We haven't signed it yet.

So, back on VPN, the internet sucks.

The death of one of our contemporaries— Free Press Kashmir, another alternative media house—was alarming. When they called it quits, the regional scene was more messed up. The editor of The Kashmiriyat, a south Kashmir based outlet, was arrested a week before the clampdown for tweeting information about troops’ movement. He was among the hundreds booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) and remains in a jail outside the Valley.

Despite the threat of intimidation and uncertainty in Kashmir, the reporting goes on. Last year, one of my colleagues at office was beaten up ruthlessly by a Jammu and Kashmir police officer for wearing “funky attire” (which happened to be just an unbuttoned shirt). When I went to get him out, I was humiliated for my outfit too.

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Working with Anis Wani, editorial cartoonist at TKW. Photo: Asif Hamid

However, we’ve always clung to the aim of getting stories documented and out there. Slowly, we’ve adapted to changing realities. The aim of telling authentic grounded stories still walks with us. It is more important than ever to have an independent and unbiased voice from Kashmir. Today, as we start from scratch once again in a way, I do wonder how it would be to write about debts and depression, like the rest of India is. But I know that our stories need to be told. And a slow VPN connection cannot come in the middle of it.

Follow Yashraj Sharma on Twitter.

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