India bans TV channel in the Northeast

IN Media Freedom | 30/08/2004
A day before Indiaøs Independence Day, the Manipur government asked the Information Service Television Network (ISTN) to shut down transmission with immediate effect.

The organizations are the United Committee of Manipur (UCM), the Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity (MASS), the Northeast Coordination Committee of Human Rights (NECCHR), the Naga People`s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), and the Naga Students` Federation (NSF).

The UCM is a rights group in Manipur which came into the limelight in 2001 after it spearheaded a violent agitation to oppose the extension of the jurisdiction of a ceasefire by New Delhi with a Naga tribal separatist group in Nagaland state.

MASS, NECCHR and NPHMR are all rights groups in Assam and Nagaland, while the NSF is an influential students group in Nagaland.

The NGOs, of course, vehemently deny any truck with terrorists. "It is very easy for the government to dub us pro-militant. But the fact is that whoever raises the banner of revolt against the government invites New Delhi`s wrath and that is precisely what has happened to us," claims UCM leader S. Singh.

"We don`t have any links with militant groups. We have the support of the people and it was proved when the whole of Manipur was with us during the anti-ceasefire agitation in 2001," he adds.

The other NGOs have also lashed out at the government`s statement.

"It is nothing but an attempt to defame rights groups like us who always espouse the cause of innocent civilians who are tortured and harassed by security forces in the name of curbing militancy," declares NPMHR spokesman N. Krome.

The state governments in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland are tightlipped about New Delhi`s move to paint the five NGOs in militant colors.

"Perhaps the federal intelligence agencies may have given the Home Ministry some inputs and so the minister made such a statement," remarks a senior Nagaland police official.

"We are yet to get details of the home ministry report and so cannot comment on the charges. Unless we get specific reports it is difficult for us to act or take any action against the NGOs in question," says Nagaland home minister T. Lotha.

Similar views were echoed by the Assam and Manipur government`s on the federal home minister`s statement.

The drive against the NGOs followed pot shots at the media. On August 14, a day before India`s Independence Day, the Manipur government asked the Information Service Television Network (ISTN) to shut down transmission with immediate effect.

"The district magistrate issued an order prohibiting the transmission of ISTN under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, in the name of public interest," says a government spokesman.

ISTN is a popular - and the only independent - television network in Manipur, which borders Myanmar. The channel produces news bulletins in the local Metei dialect, besides the usual entertainment fare.

"We were showing the protests and the agitation in Manipur over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in our news bulletins like normal professionals. We did not exaggerate but were very objective in our reporting and showed events as they happened," says ISTN secretary Khagendro Singh.

"The order barring us from transmitting news and entertainment programs is nothing but an infringement on the freedom of expression and attempts at gagging the freedom of the press," he protests.

What seems to have angered the government are visual images of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the law and the subsequent incidents of the military firing rubber bullets at protestors and bursting teargas canisters to scatter the mobs.

"The authorities thought ISTN was the only channel viewed by the locals as we tried to come up with exclusive visuals of the developments. The government-run television network, Doordarshan, was showing nothing. So they tried to stop us," explains ISTN president T. Kulesho.

But ISTN wasn`t cowed down. The channel`s management hit back on August 18 by filing a petition in the high court and on Tuesday an interim order was passed where the court decided to "suspend" the government order barring the channel from transmission.

"The court says we can broadcast or transmit news as long as we do not disturb public tranquility," contends the channel`s legal counsel B.B. Sahu. "The court`s order vindicates our claim that we were airing news in an objective manner as the people of Manipur have the right to information."

Though ISTN has got a lifeline, the journalist fraternity isn`t mollified. The All Manipur Working Journalists Union has asked the state government to come up with an explanation for trying to gag the freedom of the press by banning ISTN.

Local journalists have for long complained about the dangers of being a media person in the insurgency-hit region. "Journalists in Manipur have always been at the receiving end from both the government and rebel armies," says a senior journalist.

At least half-a-dozen journalists were killed in the northeast by rebels during the past five years, while more than a dozen were arrested on charges of aiding and abetting militancy.

"Journalists in the northeast are always under tremendous pressure from both the state machinery and the underground groups," says Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Free Press, the leading English daily from Manipur`s capital, Imphal.

There are more than 30-odd rebel armies in India`s restive northeast with demands ranging from secession to greater autonomy and the right to self-determination. More than 50,000 people have lost their lives to insurgency in the region since India`s independence in 1947.

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