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“Politics as a chronic stressor”: News about politics bums you out and can make you feel ill — but it also makes you take action
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Aug. 5, 2020, 10:35 a.m.
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One year after India cracked down on Kashmir, The Kashmir Walla turns to membership to survive

“People don’t just pay for the product and the content. People pay for the idea behind it and the credibility. There’s a good will among the people to support independent journalism in Kashmir.”

For Fahad Shah, getting questioned by the police in an effort to intimidate him for his work as a journalist has become routine.

Shah, the editor of the independent magazine The Kashmir Walla, lives in Srinagar, the capital of the region of Jammu and Kashmir, which is India’s only Muslim-majority state. On July 9, the Srinagar Police sent him a summons to question him again about his coverage of a gunfight in May that allegedly “defamed the police.”

Attacks by the police have become a reality for Kashmiri journalists. One year ago today, on August 5, 2019, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s partial independence, and split the region into two territories controlled by India. The government’s attitude toward the press in Kashmir has become increasingly hostile in the last year. India ranks at 142 in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index; that ranking, Reporters Without Borders notes, is “heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir where, after rescinding the state’s autonomy, the federal government shut down fixed line and mobile internet connections completely for several months, making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison.”

Journalist Toufiq Rashid provided some context in Nieman Reports last year:

Having covered Kashmir for almost nine years as bureau chief for the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English-language circulating dailies, I’ve reported on protests and conflicts in the region before. In previous crises, reporting was still possible. What’s different now is how thorough the crackdown has been. There is a near complete absence of reporting by local Kashmiri journalists working in the national media. And even some of the most prominent Indian reporters say their reports are being killed by reputable newspapers in Delhi, while television reporters are given limited air time.

“The amount of pressure we have, from commissioning to publishing, is enormous,” Shah said. “It’s very difficult to operate in Kashmir as a journalist.”

Shah first started The Kashmir Walla (which means “The Kashmir Guy”) as a personal blog in 2011. He felt that Kashmiris were misrepresented in Indian and international media during the 2008 and 2010 uprisings. The idea for it came to Shah when he was in Delhi in 2009 trying to break into journalism. Mayank Austen Soofi, a journalist who writes a blog called the Delhi Walla, interviewed him about being a young Kashmiri journalist in Delhi.

Shah was disheartened by the negative comments about Kashmiris on Soofi’s piece. Soofi encouraged him to write about it himself. Later, Shah reimagined The Kashmir Walla as a multimedia news magazine covering political, social, and cultural dissent to bring context to what daily life is like in Kashmir.

Dr. Danish Nabi, a media studies professor in Srinagar, conducted a content analysis of India’s leading newspapers, The Times of India and The Hindustan Times, in 2014 and concluded that “the national media chose to overlook the sentiments of people of the [Kashmir] Valley in whichever way it appeared, and selectively highlighted the developments that suited the official narrative. The fake encounters and human rights violations committed by the forces were ignored, but operations against militants were overplayed to justify the presence of military in Kashmir Valley.”

“Kashmir needs its own voice,” Shah said. “We need to tell our stories ourselves…We need to learn storytelling and we need to create a platform and the mediums to become the bridge between all the people and the rest of the world.”

Before August 5, 2019, The Kashmir Walla seemed to be on a path to profitability, though Shah had some false starts. Hiring staff was difficult. He rented an office and then lost it, and secured an investor in 2015 who later backed out. All of that contributed to Shah’s personal debt. He had to freelance to pay it off.

By 2018, though, things were looking up. Another investor came around in September 2018, allowing Shah to hire more staff and even fellows; today, The Kashmir Walla has a staff of 16 including fellows. A friend lent Shah the current office space. The Kashmir Walla started printing and distributing a weekly newspaper in June 2019, with comics and sections on business and travel. Shah projected that between the investor’s money and advertising, The Kashmir Walla would have been profitable by October 2019.

But “God had other plans,” Shah said.

“August 5 happened and everything changed,” he went on. “The internet was snapped, curfew was set in place. So nothing was functional, our website went defunct. We couldn’t publish anything [online] for several months. Our finances declined from 50% [advertising] revenue to 0.”

The Kashmir Walla’s online traffic went to zero overnight. Internet, mobile service, and landlines were suspended. Staff couldn’t get in touch with the printing company for days. Reporters were still reporting and writing, but couldn’t publish until printing resumed two weeks later, and that in a newspaper a fourth of its original size and on lower-quality paper. Still, it was important to keep the free press in Kashmir alive, Shah said.

The Kashmir Walla’s staff couldn’t get back into their office until November 2019, when the internet was still blacked out. By then, its debt had increased and Shah had to cut staff pay. This past January, he and another editor went to New Delhi for a month so that they could have internet access and devise a new business plan — one that included funding from advertising, grants, investors, and membership.

Meanwhile in Kashmir, 2G internet was restored in January, but without any access to social media. Shah’s plan was to slowly get back to online publishing in January and work with advertisers to restore some online advertising. On March 4, internet access was restored, though high-speed and 4G wasn’t. Two weeks later, Kashmir confirmed its first case of Covid-19, and advertising at The Kashmir Walla — as at news outlets around the world — suffered.

Shah now sees The Kashmir Walla’s membership program as its best bet at survival. For 2,999 Indian rupees (USD $40 at about 75 Indian rupees to the dollar), readers get a subscription to the print edition if they live in Jammu and Kashmir, plus full digital access. They can attend monthly roundtables and conference calls, receive the weekly newsletter and podcast, and get early invitations to events (though in-person events have paused for the time being). Residents of Jammu and Kashmir and India can also make one-time donations.

The Kashmir Walla now has more than 160 members. Shah said his goal is to hit 1,000 by next spring, and that if it does, The Kashmir Walla won’t have to worry about advertising money anymore.

“People don’t just pay for the product and the content. People pay for the idea behind it and the credibility,” Shah said. “Earlier in the winter, people didn’t pay as frequently as they do now. There’s a good will among the people to support independent journalism in Kashmir.”

Many Kashmiris still prefer physical newspapers, Shah said. But as the news there changes faster than anyone can keep up, the transition to digital is speeding up, too. More than 90 percent of The Kashmir Walla’s traffic comes from mobile (on 2G internet). The Kashmir Walla operates 12 WhatsApp groups, which have a total of about 2,500 members. As soon as a story is published, it’s shared in the groups. The Kashmir Walla now gets about a million pageviews a month.

In May, The Kashmir Walla secured a grant to help it through the next six months. With its finances firming up, The Kashmir Walla continues to push back on the government’s intimidation tactics every time Shah is summoned for questioning. The newsroom writes a story about it each time it happens, and every story (no matter the subject) includes a widget at the bottom of the page that explains how readers can support the Kashmir Walla’s journalism.

Ahead of the internet blackout’s one year anniversary, The Kashmir Walla’s editorial board wrote this week that “this relentless effort to enforce a silence, criminalize dissent, stop media, disallow any political and social activity on ground can only ensure peace of a graveyard. A silence enforced by the barrel of a gun and fear of jail can never be long lasting.”

Shah’s passion for writing, journalism, and telling the world about Kashmir is what keeps him going. But launching, operating, and sustaining a news organization through the uncertainty and trauma of years of violence, human rights violations, and now a global pandemic, is emotionally and mentally taxing, to say the least.

“In one day, 10 things happen in Kashmir. I just want to sleep for a week without knowing what’s going on in the world,” Shah said.

View of Dal Lake and the city of Srinagar from Shankaracharya Hill, from Wikimedia Commons.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2020, 10:35 a.m.
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