While internet ban was enforced in Darjeeling to impair the communication and coordination of those agitating for a separate state, it has also stifled reportage of the unrest from Ground Zero.
First, mobile internet was suspended on June 18 and two days later, broadband was also shut down. The clampdown has been extended till July 14 and two cellular operators have been served show-cause notices for not complying with the ban fully.
While reporting from conflict zone is arduous as it is, the blanket ban on internet has made it even more of an uphill task. Figuratively as well as literally, as Ashish Bantaba will attest. A reporter for Hamro Prajashakti, a daily that is published from Sikkim and Assam, he told 101Reporters that during the initial days of the internet ban, he would travel 50-60 kilometres 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 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 jouralists so much that they have left Darjeeling for other assignments. Sanjay Biswas, Darjeeling correspondent of Bengali daily Aaj Kaal, told First Post that after June 20, internet would work only in a few pockets of the town, like Chowrasta and Mall Road. Once the internet ban came in 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 in to a hotel in centre of Darjeeling to cover the Gorkhaland protests. After the hotel WiFi and his cellphone network stopped cooperating, he too would go to Chowrasta, three kilometres from the hotel, for internet connectivity to send news. But when internet became absolutely inaccessible, he said he decided to return to Kolkata.
Passing chits to communicate
With internet not available, journalists are cut off from the leader of the agitation, Bimal Gurung of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). 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 seea GJM member. The party member takes the paper to his leader. Since it's not possible for him to reply instantly, journalists have to keep on waiting and sometimes for long, till a party member comes to them with the written reply.
“Bimal is a tech-savvy guy and used to respond to hundreds of mails 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 internet for our revolution." At the same time, he asserted that the ban on internet cannot stop a movement that has people's support.
Newspapers not reaching villages
While ban on 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 vehicles. So, some people who walk seven-eight km 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 km. 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 June 17, 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 DM. Now, these channels run only entertainment programmes. Freedom of press has been suppressed by the administration tightly. 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 the charges of publishing news that can "incite violence" stated 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 Baazar 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.
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