Media in Manipur: Walking the thin edge

IN Media Freedom | 04/01/2011
In the intense conflict between insurgent groups in Manipur, the media is constantly on edge,
and its current suspension of publication or broadcasts is its protest against attacks on its freedom, says IRENGBAM ARUN

Manipur is a conflict zone. And journalists are facing tremendous pressure from both state and non-state actors with little maneuvering space. However, the journalists’ community has been responsibly discharging its duty delicately balancing the spirit of the freedom of press with its commitment to the laws of the land and responsibility to the people.


In the last three days, newspapers were forced to stop publication and the local cable news service went off the air.


(The media was protesting the arrest of Ahongsangbam Mobi, editor of ‘Sanaleibak’, a local daily, on December 29. Mobi was reportedly charged under India's Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for alleged contacts with the banned insurgent group, the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP). Mobi is vice-president and spokesperson for AMWJU - FSH)


The pressure from non-state actors comes mostly from small factions in their bid to gain legitimacy through the media (seen by some of them as a notice board) for posting their threats and summons to their victims, and mud-slinging between these factions.


The long drawn conflict and repressive policies of the state had brought its share of rag-tag bands and faction ridden groups. Their brand of revolution is based on extortion, kidnapping for ransom, kangaroo courts, bomb blasts and terror tactics.


In October 2010, newspapers went off the stands for three days following a split in a faction of the proscribed Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP). The breakaway group wants to gain legitimacy as a group through the newspapers and the electronic media, while the original faction wants to stop the publication of the new group, both with threats, thereby resulting in a direct clash between the two groups and the media.


Genesis of present conflict


In June 2008, the state Chief Secretary along with the Head of Police pushed for censoring the publication of the handouts of the banned organizations with a threat that refusal might compel the state to approach the Registrar of Newspapers of India for cancellation of registration.


The government move came when the press community was grappling with a threat from a splinter group of the banned Kangleipak Communist Party for refusing to publish one of their press-notes. When the press had found itself in a similar predicament in 2007, the government proposed a memorandum restricting ‘liberal’ publication of underground press-notes, which they said might help in thwarting pressure from the underground. The All Manipur Working journalists Union (AMWJU) had refused then.


In June 2008, the AMWJU delegation challenged the government allegation that the local press was not adhering to the Press Council of India guidelines and call its bluff. The government had to back down with a threat that they will be closely monitoring the newspapers.


On 10 October 2008, the state Head of Police threatened the editors of three local dailies viz., Sangai Express, Poknapham and Naharolgi Thoudang, for publishing an expose of the nexus between the police and the urea smugglers active in the state. The news exposed the delivery of 13 truckloads of Urea that was reportedly smuggled from India to neighboring Myanmar.


On 17 November 2008, a young journalist Konsam Rishikanta Singh was found shot dead in a lonely road within the Greater Imphal area in the remote northeast Indian state of Manipur. The local press fraternity suspecting the hand of state forces put up a demand for a high level inquiry. Newspapers went off the stands for 13 days till the government came to senses by deciding to hand over the case to the New Delhi-based Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).


Twenty-two year old Rishikanta was a Junior Sub-Editor working for the Imphal Free Press. On November 17, he was supposed to report at his office for the night shift at around 5 pm. But at around 4.30 pm, an unidentified caller informed the editor about Rishikanta’s death.


The spot where Rishikanta was found had seen other ‘fake’ encounters taking place in the past and also happens to be a security zone where a person entering or departing from the area had to clear at least three security gates manned by state forces.


The All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) demanded a judicial inquiry, given the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the young journalist and in the backdrop of a spate of ‘silent killings’ by state and central security forces.


Recent cases of intimidation of the press are the storming of some media houses in Imphal by goons of chief minister Shree Okram Ibobi Singh’s home constituency of Thoubal, with the active support from the state police force on 25 September, 2009 and the threatening of two journalists returning home from duty at gun-point on the night of 10 October 2009.


On the night of 25 September 2009, ten busloads of supporters of the chief minister escorted by the state police force stormed some prominent media houses and threatened them with dire consequences if they did not publish their version of the statewide  protests against fake encounters.


On the night of October 10 2009, two journalists returning home from duty were singled out and waylaid at Bir Tikendrajit Road point of Imphal city by the infamous police commandos. Upon demands for identification, the two journalists produced their identity cards identifying themselves as members of the press. However, they were separated and questioned. One of them was kicked in the butt and threatened to be shot with a cocked gun. The police commandos threatened the journalist that he could always be shot and explained later on that he was killed in an encounter and nobody would care about it.


The AMWJU condemned the incident and demanded prompt action against the errant police commandos. However, the senior superintendent of police of Imphal West district issued a statement against the journalist community with wild allegations of drunken behavior and nexus with the insurgents.


(In 2010 alone, Manipur has witnessed several instances of attacks on journalists as well as protests from journalists about their precarious working conditions –FSH)


(Irengbam Arun is the editor of Ireibak daily, published from Imphal, Manipur. This was a situation report made before a meeting of the India chapter of the South Asia Media Commission hld in Delhi on December 27).   


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