Muzzling the Media in Manipur

Threats and counter threats from opposing groups within a militant outfit and directives from the state government have made life hell for the media here.

Thingnam Anjulika Samom

While pressure on the media from both state and non-state forces is not a new event in conflict-ridden Manipur, a new chapter of terror tactics was written on 31 July 2007.

Around 7 pm a few unidentified youths took a gift-wrapped package which appeared to be a Nokia mobile handset package and left it at the reception of The Sangai Express, the largest English daily in Manipur, saying that it was for the editor. The Sangai staff assumed it was a mobile and took it to the editor¿s table. After a while, one of the reporters suspected something was amiss and opened a small hole to peek inside, saw it contained a mortar bomb and alerted the police as well as the rest of the staff.

The same night more unidentified persons went to the offices of two vernacular dailies - Huyen Lanpao and Naharolgi Thoudang -- threatened the staff and ordered them to close their offices.

Two opposing groups within one of the many militant outfits operating in the state are believed to be behind the bomb planting and the threats. Both groups initially wanted to use the media for their press releases, which hurled accusations at each other.  The dilemma for the media was that while one group opposed publication and said any newspaper that published the releases would invite a death penalty, the other said that if the verbal duel was not published they would reward the media with their own  death penalty.

This is not the first time that such differing ideologies or verbal warfare between different militant outfits has affected the media in the state. Last year, six editors were kidnapped by an outlawed group - the ransom was publication of their press release. A senior journalist, Ratan Luwang, was shot at close range and was grievously injured. Another journalist, Labango Mangang, was also shot at. The past decade has seen two editors also gunned down.

Following last year¿s factional warfare within another militant group, which spilled over and made the media the scapegoat, the All Manipur Working Journalists¿ Union (AMWJU) and the Editors¿ Forum Manipur (EFM) had earlier resolved that they would not publish such releases by factional groups, and that all press releases should be properly verified.

This time round, too, the media community tried to stick by its resolutions and refrained from promoting the verbal warfare. However, with the warring groups threatening death in case of publication as well as non-publication, the media in the state have been left with little choice in the matter.

Following the 31 July incident, the beleaguered media community decided that all newspapers and cable TV news would cease publication and broadcast for an indefinite period.  The same night they also organised a protest rally which moved from the Press Club to the Chief Minister¿s office. A sit-in protest began the next day (1 August) in the Keishampat area of Imphal to condemn the incident. The protest was to continue until the militant outfits gave a written agreement that they would not interfere with the media freedom.

Both factions of the underground group have since tendered an apology and given assurances that that they would not act in the same way in the future. However, this is not first case of militant organisations issuing threats and then apologising or assuring better behaviour.  In the past many groups have gone back on their word.

Nevertheless, after the apology the media has returned to work and newspapers began publication again from Sunday onwards.

However, now the Manipur media have to contend with another source of pressure:  an order issued by the state government¿s home department on 2 August, prohibiting the publication of any news or other information related to militant organisations.  Once again the media in the state are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The text of the government order, signed by P.B..O Warjri, Principal Secretary (Home), Government of Manipur, says, ?In exercise of the powers conferred under Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the Governor of Manipur is pleased to order that any printed material, i.e., either newspapers or books and any document whether printed or in electronic form shall be referred to the State Government if they contain any material on the following:

i) All items directly attributed to Unlawful Organisations, organized gangs, organizations, terrorists and terrorists-related organisations considered to be subversive and a threat to the integrity of the state and the country.

ii) Obituary notices for ?Shradha,? ?Asti Sanchai,? cremation and burial ceremonies showing that the dead person is a martyr in the struggle for an independent and sovereign state and which may contain the names of known terrorists and terrorists related organizations or unlawful organizations or organized gangs as the sponsors of the advertisement.

iii) Publication of threats of any sort by terrorist organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs or by a person or group of persons to any person or class of persons.

iv) Publication of any code of behaviour, dress code or social practice decreed by terrorists or terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs.

v) Publication of any justification for killings, causing injury, assault, kidnapping, imposition of fines or warnings made by terrorists related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs or organisations.

vi) Publication of notices for payment to terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs in cash or kind.

vii) Publication of items in the form of invitation to the unlawful organisations, organised gangs and terrorist-related organisations to settle or solve disputes.?

Journalists in Manipur view this as an opportunistic move by the government that amounts to an attempt to muzzle the press, an insult to democracy and a violation of freedom of expression. The AMWJU has demanded that the order be withdrawn at the earliest and has handed over a memorandum on this matter to the Chief Minister. If the state government does not address their demand, the media community is all set to launch another series of agitations. 

N.B.  Members of the NWMI across the country condemn all attempts to throttle and threaten the media and extend their support and solidarity to media colleagues under pressure from various quarters in Manipur.

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