Sms ban partially lifted, Kashmir’s sms news services remain down

IN Media Freedom | 04/01/2011
During the months of unrest people missed SMS news service as a new medium to update them. Run by aspiring journalists operating from their localities, they used students, shopkeepers, newspaper vendors and government employees as news gatherers.
PEERZADA ARSHAD HAMID reports from Srinagar
Telecom companies on Dec 24, 2010 restored the  short messaging service (SMS) facility of post paid mobile phones in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) after a gap of around six months. The facility to sent text messages on the mobile phones was barred by telecom companies on the instructions of state government following the spate of public protests against civilian killings. The blanket ban on sending text messages came into force during the midnight of June 28.
 
 
During the day, the policemen and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel killed two youth in Wadoora (Sopore) and Delina villages of Baramulla district in northwest of Srinagar city. The killings took the death toll of civilians to eight since June 11. That day a teenager Tufail Matoo was killed after a tearsmoke shell fired by policemen hit him on head. Matoo according to family was returning from a tuition centre. The killing became a rallying point. The death toll would reach to 112 in the days to come.
 
 
The news related to Baramulla killings and protests was the last to be texted across cellphones. The step was seen as curtailing flow of information among the residents of state. But official stand to justify the ban was to stop what they termed spreading of “rumour mongering”.
 
 
By that time J&K had more than six SMS news services, flashing news to their subscribers about the incidents taking place in the state. No doubt the details about protests and killings were the major news then.
 
 
These SMS news services were run by aspiring journalists operating from their localities. The unorganized network had students, shopkeepers, newspaper vendors and government employees as its team. Though loose, however, such services had a proper hierarchy like that of an established media organization. The services had designated editors, executive editors and reporters. The news that they used to flash though was not written as per journalistic standards but nevertheless was informative.
 
 
The news service was fast and prompt. Most of the times minutes after an incident, the news was flashed on the screens of subscribers. Be it road accidents, grenade attacks, gunfights, traffic jam, suicides etc, the news used to come very fast.
 
 
The services were also highlighting local problems faced by residents in towns and remote villages. The news that often would found no mention in the daily newspapers would get flashed on the cellphone screens of its subscribers, which included not only the ordinary people but top officials in civil and police departments.
 
 
These news services were boating of even sending their texts to ministers, politicians, top bureaucrats, officers in civil administration, police, Army, BSF and CRPF.
 
In the state the known such services were QNS, Sach News Network, NNN, PBI, JKNN, INB, AIP, NBI etc. These services were flashing dozens of news headlines to thousands of their subscribers 24/7.
 
 
The ban on sending SMS suddenly put an end to these news services and also striped the mobile phone users of sending SMSs to each other. During the months of unrest people missed SMS news service as a means of new medium to update them.
 
 
The lifting of ban after six months is however a half hearted step as the ban on post paid bulk messages and SMS facility for pre-paid mobile phones remain in force across the state.
 
 
The SMS news services in the state are yet to resume their operations in the wake of the new order which does not allow them to reach pre-paid subscribers and restrict them from sending group messages. 
 
 
Last year in the month of April Ministry of Communications and IT in New Delhi directed its Department of Telecommunication and 12 other Cellular Mobile Telephone Service licensees (state owned BSNL and other private operators) to withdraw the facility of text messages to the subscribes in J&K.
 
 
Hours after, the ban was revoked on the intervention of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
 
 
In 2009 Home Ministry in New Delhi banned pre-paid mobile service in the state on security reasons citing reports that militants were availing the service in their activities.
banned pre-paid mobile service in the region on security reasons, citing reports that militants were availing the service in their activities.
 
 
The ban then affected more than 3.8 million users and threatened livelihood of 20,000 people in the state. However, the ban was lifted in beginning of 2010 following imposition of strict guidelines for identity verification of subscribers.
 
 
The cellular services and SMS facility have been banned in the state several times in past as well. During the 2008 agitation on the transfer of forest land to a Hindu shrine borad- Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (SASB), SMS facility was banned across in the state. The government then stated SMSes were spreading rumours and fuelling the tension.
 
 
The modus operandi followed by these SMS services was simple. Most of them had brought a BSNL SIM cards and subscribed to its Rs-725 plan. The plan does not charge anything for calls and texts between BSNL subscribers.  At times they were also using SIMs of other networks by subscribing to economical plans to text the messages.
 
 
These SMS services were also charging their subscribers a monthly fee of Rs 100 -150 for their service but government officials, policemen, senior journalists and VIPs used to get the news updates free of cost.
 
 
People associated with the SMS news services said response to their service was tremendous. 
 
 
“We had the reach and impact. The news that we were flashing was reaching the concerned officials in a jiffy. And there have been instances when officials in police and civil administration would call us to know the details. Even senior journalists were in a regular touch with us to know about the happenings,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad, a former editor with one such service.
 
 
Mobile services in the region were launched in 2003 after clearance from security agencies. At present rough estimates say the state has around five million mobile phone subscribers.
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