Darjeeling, West Bengal: Blanket internet ban in Darjeeling to impair the communication and coordination of those agitating for a separate state, has also stifled reportage of the unrest from ground zero.
First, mobile internet was suspended on 18 June and two days later, broadband was also shut down. The ban is now extended till 25 July and two cellular operators have been served show-cause notices for not complying with the ban fully.
While reporting from the conflict zone is arduous as it is, the blanket ban on the internet has made it even more of an uphill task. Ashish Bantaba, a reporter for Hamro Prajashakti, a daily that is published from Sikkim and Assam, told Firstpost that during the initial days of the internet ban, he would travel 50-60 kilometre to Jorethang, a major town in south Sikkim, for internet connectivity to send his stories. But since travelling that far and back on a hilly terrain every day is not feasible, he said he now dictates the news to his desk over the phone and sends inputs through SMS. The cumbersome process of getting his story across has limited his reporting.
"News flow from this region is getting low day by day," he said.
Himalayan Darpan, a Nepalese newspaper published from Siliguri, is facing the same problem. It's running low on news content about the Gorkhaland movement as its reporters in Darjeeling are not able to send stories because of the internet ban. DarjeelingTimes.com, an e-paper published from Darjeeling, too has taken a hit but has found ways to bring readers the news.
"Earlier, we used to upload it from the town [Darjeeling]. Now, we have kept volunteers to upload feeds from New Delhi. We send information over the phone and the team in Delhi uploads it. But we are not being able to send feed like usual days," said Udhyan Rai, editor of the e-paper.
The embargo has discouraged some journalists so much that they have left Darjeeling for other assignments. Sanjay Biswas, the Darjeeling correspondent of Bengali daily Aaj Kaal, told Firstpost that after 20 June, the internet would work only in a few pockets of the town, like Chowrasta and Mall Road. Once the internet ban came into force in letter and spirit, he said most of the journalists who had come there from West Bengal and other parts of India have moved out.
Prodipto Bhattacharya from Kolkata, who reports for Press Trust of India, had checked into a hotel in the centre of Darjeeling to cover the Gorkhaland protests. After the hotel WiFi and his cell phone network stopped cooperating, he too would go to Chowrasta, three kilometres from the hotel, for internet connectivity to send news. But when the internet became absolutely inaccessible, he said he decided to return to Kolkata.
Passing chits to communicate
With the internet not available, journalists are cut off from the leader of the agitation, Bimal Gurung of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. He's gone underground and now the only way presspersons can communicate with him is by writing their question on a piece of paper unlike previously where Bimal would reply to emails. Reporters now go to Singamari, the epicentre of the protests, and wait till they see a GJM member. The party member takes the paper to his leader. Since it's not possible for him to reply instantly, journalists have to wait until a party member returns with the written reply.
"Bimal is a tech-savvy guy and used to respond to hundreds of emails every day from Gorkhas all over the country who are for Gorkhaland. Now we convey the message of the people through this system," said Prakash Gurung, president of Gorkha Janmukti Yuva Morcha.
"It’s a Kashmir-like situation here," he said. "We are not being able to use the internet for our revolution." At the same time, he asserted that the ban on the internet cannot stop a movement that has people's support.
Newspapers not reaching villages
While the ban on the internet has choked reporting, the ban on plying vehicles has crippled the dissemination of news. All the local newspapers in Darjeeling are printed either 70 km away in Siliguri or in Sikkim's capital Gangtok, 47 km away. The circulation of these newspapers has taken a beating. Himalayan Darpan, which prints 55,000 copies, now manages to sell only about 30,000.
“Papers reach the Darjeeling town about 7 am. But from there, transporting them to rural areas has become a huge problem with the ban on plying of vehicles. So, some people who walk 7-8 kilometre to join the rallies in demand of a separate state buy it from the town in bulk and later circulate them among their family and neighbours when they go back home in the evening. But this is possible only for people who live within a radius of 10 kilometre. People in other areas of Darjeeling have no access to news," said Ajay Chetri, circulation manager of Himalayan Darpan.
Censor on broadcast journalism
While it's the difficulty in communicating and sending articles that has affected reporting for print and online media, some local news channels in Darjeeling have had to stop reporting on the agitation after the district magistrate Joyoshi Das Gupta gave a verbal order to their editors in this regard. This order followed the death of three protesters on 17 June, when police opened fire at a procession led by the GJM.
"Darjeeling Television, ABN Channel, Darjeeling Siliguri TV and Himali Channel have stopped showing news of the ongoing protest completely after the editors were ordered verbally by the district magistrate. Now, these channels run only entertainment programmes. Freedom of the press has been suppressed by the administration. Though there is so much to cover and so many viewers are eagerly waiting to know about the movement, our hands are tied," said Aditya Raya, editor of Darjeeling Television.
Also, the West Bengal government has sued Darjeeling Times and Hamro Prajashakti on charges of publishing news that can "incite violence" said Udhyan Rai, editor of Darjeeling Times.
As practising free and fair journalism has become nigh impossible in the conflict zone, the Darjeeling Press Guild in the town's Chowk Bazaar area sports a dull look, lacking hustle. While journalists are keenly tracking day-to-day developments, they are now left with little enthusiasm to report them.
(Syeda Ambia Zahan is a Guwahati based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 17:45 PM