Anatomy of an ethnic clash---Part II

IN Media Practice | 18/06/2005
The Press decided to boycott the chief minister D D Lapang and the home minister Dr Mukul Sangma till they withdrew the cases and apologized.



Linda Chhakchhuak in Shillong




Can the press become a force multiplier of conflict? Over two weeks of the high octane ‘reporting’ spree marking the Meghalaya newspapers’ coverage of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council’s (KAAC) savage eviction of people from reserve forest areas came to a grinding halt when on June 10, 2005 the Meghalaya Government, in an unprecedented move, decided to play ‘super editor.’


‘Super editor’ slammed down hard on two editors of the city’s English dailies. The Executive editor of The Meghalaya Guardian, M A Venugopal and Editor of 60 year old daily, The Shillong Times, Manas Choudhury were literally read the Riot Act--- Section 153 (A) and 502 of the Indian Penal Code. Mr Choudhury is also an independent MLA. The government is also considering summons to editors of other vernacular newspapers, but has not yet done so.


Section 153 (A) says that under this, one can be booked for "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony" through any medium "by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, … etc." This was a clause which was bandied around during the Gujarat riots but only in relation to its chief minister Narendra Modi and Hindutva leaders like Ashoke Singhal though some newspapers of that state could have neatly fallen into this slot for their rabid reporting.


Predictably the Meghalaya’s government’s action raked up a controversy, but it helped to bring to the foreground many questions and issues regarding the role, responsibilities and (claimed) privileges of the Press in relation to reporting on conflicts between communities; the duties and responsibilities of an editor of a newspaper; and more urgently, whether the government has any right within a democratic structure or otherwise, under any circumstances at all, to play the role of ‘chief editor.’


The city Press corps has protested and condemned the government’s move as ‘gagging the fundamental right of free expression enshrined in the constitution of India" and warned that the "media in Shillong is informing its brethren media organizations and professionals in other parts of the country about the threats to its independent and fearless functioning." Media pundit, Sanjoy Hazarika who was roped in by the city scribes, ostensibly for his ‘heavyweight’ status as a north east expert was heard telling the state governor M M Jacob during the press delegation’s meeting with him, that he was afraid that the matter could easily snowball into a widespread campaign against the attempt to gag the fundamental freedom of expression.


The Press decided to boycott the chief minister D D Lapang and the home minister Dr Mukul Sangma till they withdrew the cases and apologized. It is to be noted that the Director General of Police W R Marbaniang when asked could not confirm whether such cases had been registered at all against these editors, making one wonder if the Meghalaya police were simply using the threat of the 153 (A) to rein in the dailies. The concentrated focus on the conflict between the Khasi-Karbi tribes was stirring up emotions which threatened to spill over into the streets in the form of anonymous hate crimes.


Another sore issue with the Press was the manner in which Mr Venugopal and Mr Choudhury were treated. At the meeting of scribes to discuss the matter on Saturday, Mr Choudhury explained his position saying: "They knocked at my door past midnight and asked me to go with them to the police headquarters as they wanted to know of a report in my paper. Why should the police do this? If they want to investigate anything they should come during the day. In any case how would I know what is in the news item. I did not write it…" he stressed.


He refused to go with the police but gave a written statement to the effect that he was ‘unaware of the details of the said report and could respond only after consulting his reporters.’ He sent his chief reporter, E M Jose to the police headquarters the next day. The editor of The Shillong Times, Mr Choudhury is this current year’s Padmashree awardee for excellence in journalism.


One is sorely tempted to quote from the "Code of Ethics for the Press in reporting andCommenting on communal incidents adopted by the All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference in 1968" and the "NORMS OF JOURNALISTIC CONDUCT adopted by the Press Council of India, August 1996." Mr Venugopal was also taken to the police headquarters where he was interrogated for four hours about the news items.


At a press conference a day before the two editors were interrogated, Dr Sangma who is also the deputy chief minister, harangued the assembled press persons about the manner in which the press reports had been selectively focused, thereby giving a communal slant to an issue which was in itself a case of ‘inhuman actions’ by the Assam Police and the KAAC. He particularly mentioned the fact that many of the newspapers including the widely read dailies like had unrestrainedly ‘reported’ about the alleged ‘burning of a Bible," a matter that could have added religious fuel to the burning ethnic tension. The newspapers also became an unwitting but direct vehicle for spreading fear and tension by being the mechanism through which the Meghalaya based NGOs under the banner of the JAAC got to serve their quit notice to one of the communities involved. He said that they had not printed any quit notice on their own. This is a point to be noted for reporters working in the difficult and highly sensitive conflict zones like the north east region.


The larger question also needs to be focused on the role of the government in dealing with flow of official information to the Press pertaining to an on-going snowballing conflict between two or more communities which has the potential of flaring up. into mass killings as is often the case in this region which has scores of ethnic groups and communities at loggerheads over various issues. Thousands of families have been displaced and hundreds killed in various community clashes in the region. A deep study of the events during these times would certainly throw light on some unpalatable roles played by the Press.


In the context of this particular case, both the Meghalaya and Assam Governments, as well as the KAAC totally failed in their duty to give accurate information about what its people were suffering. The Guwahati-based Press, meanwhile remained totally unconcerned about the major happening within their state in which thousands of poor families were/are being barbarously thrown out of their homes for allegedly encroaching into so called reserve forests. Perhaps, the current experience of journalists in Shillong should be taken more as introspection time for all. As D L Siangshai, Editor, popular Khasi daily Mawphor said, "This is a lesson for us all and we should learn from this."
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More