Even bullets cannot silence Tongam Rina

IN Media Freedom | 14/07/2013
A year since the dastardly shooting, the main accused is still absconding, but I'm not giving up,
this spunky journalist from Arunachal Pradesh tells LAXMI MURTHY
“We are used to threats from the underground organisations, government and thousands of organisations operating in the region. It takes a lot of courage to withstand every kind of pressure that comes your way,” says Tongam Rina, Associate Editor of The Arunachal Times, for whom these threats are a harsh reality, and courage a way of life.

On July 15, 2012, unidentified gunmen waylaid her outside her office in Itanagar and pumped bullets into her stomach, grazing her spine. Although critically injured, Tongam Rina clung on to life and is today not only recuperating after multiple surgeries, but continuing to write in her inimitable hard-hitting style. Unfortunately, this intrepid journalist is neither the first nor the last in the Indian North East to be attacked for doing her job.

On June 10, almost one year after the attack, the police charge-sheeted three of the accused. While two of the accused are in judicial custody, the main conspirator Yumlanf Achung is absconding. According to a police press release, “The motive of the crime was that accused Yumlang Achung wanted to harm Tongam Rina for not highlighting him and his organization’s activities in her newspaper. He and his supporters had ransacked Arunachal Times office on several occasions prior to this incident.”
Over e.mail from Germany where she is currently working at the invitation of the Hamburg Foundation, Tongam Rina says, “Journalists in the North East region of India are the most courageous ones. With few exceptions, most are there because of the love of the job, considering the fact that they are one of the most lowly paid and also work under tremendous pressure.”
On July 12, Tongam Rina was honoured with the Leipzeg-based Media Foundation’s “Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media” 2013, along with four others, for journalists, publishers and institutions who show a strong personal commitment to the freedom and future of the media.
At the time of the murderous attack on her in July 2012, thirty-two-year old Tongam Rina, associate editor of the Arunachal Times, Itanagar, was accustomed to living and working in an atmosphere of threat and intimidation. Her reporting about militant activity in the border state, the corrupt bureaucracy and politicians, land and forest mafia, as well as development projects in Arunachal Pradesh, was outspoken and bold.
She was vehemently opposed to the 150 dam projects in the pipeline, critical of their potential for environmental damage. Tongam Rina made no secret of this opposition, which earned her enemies in the pro-dam lobby. She had even been offered money to stop writing against dams but she flatly refused and doggedly continued writing critical pieces in her column ‘Ringside View’. 

Co-option, threats and violence – no tactic was spared to silence her. In April 2012, her office was ransacked, and for months, she and her colleagues received death threats. As president of the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, she brought the matter to the notice of the authorities, but no action was taken. It now turns out that the two men who accosted her three months later and shot her point blank were connected with the April ransacking of her office.
If stern action had been taken against the ransackers, perhaps the shooting of Tongam Rina could have been prevented.
In protest against the shooting of Tongam Rina, the Arunachal Times in a never-before move, suspended publication on June 17 2012. Since then, the paper and its website carries a daily reminder of the number of days since Tongam Rina was shot, and highlights the fact that her assailants are yet to be brought to justice. The police investigation dragged on, and it was only in February 2013, after the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists and the Arunachal Press Club demanded a ‘white paper’ on the status of the inquiry, the police upped the reward for information about the attack from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. 

At a recent meeting in Shillong “Journalists Safety: Increasing Safety, Ending Impunity” organised by the South Asia Media Solidarity Network launched by the International Federation of Journalists, Taba Ajum, Tongam’s colleague at Arunachal Pradesh spoke about the daily threats and violent attempts to muzzle the press. So bad was the situation, he said, that journalists in the state have been granted licenses to carry guns. Many of them are also forced to hire bodyguards for their personal safety, he said.

Despite pitifully low salaries; precarious working conditions; no security of service or insurance cover, if young North Easterners are signing up to join a profession that is undoubtedly hazardous, it is probably due to gutsy role models like Tongam Rina. In order to nurture a climate of independent journalism, the state must perform its constitutional duty to protect the rights of journalists who are valiantly struggling to uphold freedom of the press against tremendous odds.

But as Tongam Rina says, “In Arunachal, even though facilities are abysmal and working conditions are atrocious, many young people are still choosing to join the profession, which is a good sign.”

(Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bangalore)
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