Stop press

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

Media organisations in Manipur face frequent interference from insurgent groups but they do not compromise on ethics.

in Imphal

THE media in the insurgency-affected States of the northeastern region are under constant pressure from proscribed underground organisations, which have been relentlessly trying to arm-twist them into becoming their propaganda machinery. The situation in the border State of Manipur in this regard is particularly appalling. Rival factions of militant organisations have time and again imposed regulations, actually improbable conditions, on the local media, kidnapped or killed mediapersons, planted bombs in media offices and issued threats forcing distraught mediapersons to strike work until the outfits backed out.

There have been several instances of merciless killing by insurgents. Rajkumar Sanatomba, editor of a regional language monthly, Kangla Lanpung, was gunned down; Thounaojam Brajamani, editor of The Manipur News, was shot dead at night while he was covering news; and H.A. Lalhrou, editor of The Shan, was killed when he was returning home with his wife and baby. While no organisation has owned responsibility for the killing of Brajamani, in the case of the other two the outfits concerned said they were killed for crimes not connected with their profession. L. Chingkhalian, editor of The Manipur Express, had a narrow escape when gunmen opened a fusillade of fire at his car. Television journalist Yambem Megha was whisked away from his home on the night of October 13, 2002, and frogmarched to a secluded place. He was blindfolded, handcuffed and subjected to piercing interrogation.

The Imphal correspondent of The Hindu was kidnapped by the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) on October 7, 2002, and detained for three days and nights in an inaccessible mountain village on the international border. On releasing him, the UKLF said that the journalist was kidnapped and detained in protest against the poor coverage of UKLF-related news in the local media. The organisation also threatened to kidnap other editors and journalists.

Some years before that, a Naga militant group gave the same correspondent a death sentence, in absentia, for the publication in a local newspaper in Assam of a press release issued by the military spokesman on the violent activities of the outfit in Manipur. The explanation by the journalist in the local media that he had nothing to do with the said publication and that he was not associated with the said newspaper fell on deaf ears. Since the militant group did not respond to the explanation, the Manipur government posted Manipur Rifles troopers to provide security to the journalist.

On July 31, 2007, some militants planted a powerful bomb in the offices of the Manipuri and English editions of The Sangai Express as a warning to all local newspapers as they had failed to publish a press release. Incidentally, the All-Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) had passed a resolution not to entertain press releases from the faction-ridden Peoples Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). Militants belonging to a faction in PREPAK telephoned the editors to say that if they did not publish the factions press releases all editors, journalists and other staff would be killed. The rival faction, for its part, informed the shocked editors that they would face dire consequences if they published the press releases.

Faced with these threats, the editors and journalists locked up the newspaper offices and decided to launch another cease-work agitation on August 1. They called off the strike five days later after the PREPAK faction withdrew the threat with the assurance that there would be no such threats in the future. This assurance was, however, forgotten in October. The editors were again threatened for the non-publication of a press release and, as a result, the newspapers went on strike from October 11 to 14.

On another occasion, one proscribed outfit asked the editors to cover the fracas between two rival groups in Manipur University in detail, failing which, it threatened, the newspapers would be closed down. Another outfit threatened to close down the newspapers if there was any coverage of the incident.

The AMWJU and the Editors Forum of Manipur have resolved at a number of meetings that the right to edit a news item should be left with the editors and issued a general appeal not to infringe on this right. The extremists are in no mood to listen. When Gopal Sharma, editor of The Poknapham, a language newspaper, edited out seditious portions of an underground press release, the extremists were not pleased. They arm-twisted him into publishing the full text the following day. More recently, he was forced to publish an apology for over a week on the front page of his newspaper. His crime was that he published an article that was not in consonance with the policy of banning Hindi films in Manipur.

Owing to security concerns the extremists leave the press release bundles at any one of the newspaper offices with a clear instruction that the copies should be distributed to other media organisations. Some editors appealed to them not to do so, but it was of no use. On one occasion, a woman extremist who was distributing press releases was overpowered by members of a rival group. She was kneecapped in the presence of reporters after a brief press conference. The late R.K. Ranbir, who was Chief Minister, had once said that the media could publish the news portions of the militants press releases. But the extremists insist on verbatim publication.

It is not the extremists alone who are trying to browbeat mediapersons. Almost all senior journalists and editors have been arrested on cooked-up charges. Defamation suits have been initiated by Ministers only to be forgotten once the journalist got the message. The extent of harassment by the government can be gauged from the way Naorem Birendrakumar, editor of The Paojel, was arrested for publishing a one-paragraph report on the hike in the price of rice.

During the cease-work strike in August, the State government tried to take advantage of the absence of the press. It issued a notification saying that newspapers should not publish any report, comment or write-up based on press handouts of extremists glamourising militancy or lionising dead militants. Besides, members of the public were banned from seeking assistance from extremists through advertisements eulogising them as good samaritans.

In Manipur it is quite common for aggrieved parties to insert advertisements in local newspapers seeking justice from militants. In most cases, be it rape, kidnapping or beatings, justice is meted out. People rarely go to police stations to register cases regarding such crimes.

Chief Minister Okhra Ibobi Singh, his colleagues and higher officials perhaps thought that in view of the ongoing cease-work the editors and journalists would welcome the government notification. However, they were disappointed since the editors and the journalists came out with a stinging statement saying that the notification was not acceptable and would not be tolerated as the task of editing or selecting news for publication should be left to the editors. The government did not react. It just waited for an opportune moment.

The opportunity came soon when mediapersons launched another strike in mid-October. This time the government issued a watered-down version of the previous notification. Even this was not acceptable to mediapersons. The local media continue to publish extremist-related news and press releases and the government cannot take any punitive action against them. From the sharp reactions from presspersons, the government seems to have learned a lesson. There is no further move to arrest any editor or journalist in order to halt further exposes.

There are over 500 editors and journalists in Manipur working for 23 daily newspapers brought out in English, Manipuri and some tribal dialects, nine periodicals, and two local cable television channels. Dare-devil reporters rush to the spot when encounters take place without bullet-proof jackets and without obtaining clearance from the police or the security forces engaged in the gunbattles. When a bomb is exploded or a convoy is ambushed, reporters manage to reach the scene of crime almost immediately. A number of them have been beaten up by the police and security personnel. This has often resulted in the boycott of government and Army functions.

At the same time, the government has been generous with grants whenever a journalist is ill or dies, or is injured or kidnapped. In recognition of the services of reporters, the government, in consultation with the AMWJU, opened a pension scheme for retired journalists. The relationship between the media and the government ends there. The Manipur press does not compromise on professional ethics and press freedom. When a person is found guilty of a serious crime by the kangaroo court of extremists, he is produced at press conferences during which he is given a chance to confess. Mercifully, he is punished long after the reporters leave the room. The en masse movement of reporters and photographers covering such a press conference has never been prevented.

The underground organisations depend solely on the local media for publicity; it is some splinter groups that try to muzzle the press.

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