Srinagar: It's 11 am. Masrat Zahra, a female freelance photojournalist in Kashmir, is at the media facilitation centre. The ‘facility’ has been created by the government to provide internet access to journalists. Zahra has to send video files and photographs to the editor and the 2G internet service that was restored in the Valley on January 14 this year hasn’t helped her much. So she relies on the media centre to send her work.
On August 5, 2019, when the Centre scrapped the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and pushed the Valley into an information black hole, female journalists were on the ground, reporting the unreported.
Recalling the day when Article 370 was scrapped and Kashmir was placed under lockdown and all the communication channels were suspended, Zahra says she had an argument with her parents. “I had a verbal duel with my parents a couple of days before the abrogation of Article 370. My parents don’t support me in my journalism and want me to quit. They even hid my camera bag.”
An angry Zahra left her home in Hawal area of downtown Srinagar and went to her maternal uncle’s home. She started going to work from there. “A day before the abrogation of Article 370, I was in Lalchowk with friends. Rumours were making rounds that something is going to happen. So me and my friends were having, what we called the ‘Last Cup of Tea’ and discussed the ways of remaining in touch if something untoward happened,” says the 26-year-old.
On the midnight of August 4, Zahra woke up to check her phone. To her surprise, she found it dead. The government, which was anticipating a massive outrage after revoking the Article 370, had suspended all the communication networks in Kashmir.
“My uncle’s house is on the roadside, so I could hear people coming out from mosques and saying that there was a heavy deployment of police in the area. I sensed things are not well. I woke up in a jiffy and left to report. With phone lines being dead, my uncle and aunt were worried about my well-being, but I convinced them that I would be safe,” says Zahra who knew it is not going to be easy to leave for work.
When Zahra left home at 9.30am she found the otherwise bustling roads of the old city, deserted. The police were manning every corner of the road. “There were barricades all over. I had to plead with the police personnel more than once to let me go. I saw cops in lanes and by-lanes asking women to go inside and not to come out.”
“A security personnel was not letting me go ahead and said “No one is a journalist here”. To make him feel important, I addressed him as Major and asked him to let me do my job as he was doing his. And this I had to repeat many times till I reached Lal Chowk,” says Zahra who had no idea at that point what actually had happened and why there was a huge deployment on the roads.
At the Press Enclave, Zahra saw male photojournalists sitting on the shop sills and discussing how a senior photojournalist was harassed in the morning for clicking photos which made Zahra think that it was not a good decision to bring out her camera and start capturing visuals. But at the same time she wanted to document this all – the deployment, the uncertainty, and the sudden suspension of communication.
At the Press Club in Srinagar, Zahra along with her colleagues heard that the special status of the Jammu and Kashmir has been scrapped. Anticipating huge protests, Zahra picked up the camera.
“I was in a fix on how to send photos as there was no internet. Also, I was selected for a photo exhibition in New York. I had to send photos to them as well. Going to Delhi was the only option left, but then again I didn’t know how to book tickets in absence of internet,” says Zahra who freelances for national and international media outlets.
After struggling to send her work, Zahra came to know about the media facilitation centre set up by the government for journalists.
The centre, set up at the posh Sorvor Portico restaurant in Srinagar, was a nightmare. “There were four computers. One was for the information department, two for male journalists and one for female journalists. You had to wait in queues for your turn and after a long wait you would be given fifteen minutes to access the internet,” says Zahra.
She further said, “When I logged into my mail, it asked for two-step verification. Now the problem was the OTP would be sent on my phone and it was dead. I thought I will create a new e-mail address and when I tried, it took 15 minutes for the page to open. Then I thought if it takes 15 minutes for a page to load, it will take much longer for photos to be uploaded.”
Zahra packed her bags and went to Delhi along with her friends and started sending photos to her editors from there. “It was a great feeling that I was back to work, pitching ideas, sending photos to editors, but at the same time I was disconnected from my family. They didn’t know where I am, I couldn’t call them. The thought that they will be worried for me was making me uneasy,” she says.
Back home things were still the same – the long waits at the media centre, slow internet.
“Sometimes I would come to media centre at 9 in the morning and stay there till late till all the photos would be uploaded. I would put the pendrive in the computers and request the fellow journalists, who were waiting in the queue, not to close the page I was working on. Somehow the page would close and I would have to restart the entire process. It was frustrating, it still is,” Zahra says.
From the spacious room of the Sorvor portico the media centre was shifted to a small room at the government Information Department, which was far more uncomfortable than the latter one. With no privacy and facilities like washroom for women, the women journalists took to Twitter and wrote about the pathetic condition they were being forced to work in. It was only then they were given a separate room with a computer, six chairs, a washroom, AC and a heater.
Internet blackout spurs joblessness
Internet shutdown in Kashmir has rendered many people, including journalists, as jobless. Marouf Gazi who works as a journalist with a local online news website Free Press Kashmir has been home-bound since August 5 and has been exploring the freelance options.
On August 4, Gazi and her colleague were on the Zero Bridge in Srinagar discussing story ideas. “We were discussing what story should we work on, how to do them and were preparing a list of the story for the month,” says Gazi who lives in the volatile Batamaloo area of Srinagar.
But the next day when Centre scrapped the special status and imposed curfew in Kashmir, the 27-year-old had no option than to stay home.
“Since Batamaloo area is a bit volatile, I haven’t told anyone in the neighbourhood that I am a journalist. Sometimes you get into trouble for choosing that profession,” she says.
After remaining home for couple of weeks, Gazi managed to reach her office and found sticky notes pasted on the walls. Her colleagues who had been to office had left messages for each other informing about their safety since the phone lines were shut.
“I also wrote a note informing them that I had come to the office and I was safe. We even met one day, but after that I have been home all the time, waiting for an opportunity,” says Gazi, adding that she has been writing to national and international media organisations for a job opportunity, but hasn’t heard from them so far.
The internet blackout has shut news websites like Free Press Kashmir that were dependent on the internet for uploading their stories and circulating them on the social media.