Perils of reporting in Manipur

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 03/02/2014
Journalists in Manipur say that it is the very growth of the media into a powerful platform that threatens press freedom now as both state and non-state actors try their best to control the flow of information.
GEETA SESHU reports.

The fresh summons issued to the editor of Naharolgi Thoudang Loya Thoudang by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) in a sedition case for publishing a picture of the banned People Liberation Army (PLA) two years ago has once again brought into sharp focus the perils of reporting on conflict and insurgency movements. 

The Imphal-based newspaper had published a on the front page on September 25, 2010, ostensibly a celebration of the 32nd ‘rising day’ of the PLA. Thereafter, the editor of the newspaper was issued a summons (u/s 91 of the Criminal Procedure Code) on August 8, 2013, to appear before the Deputy Superintendent of Police of the NIA in Guwahati, Assam on August 10, 2013 and to produce a copy of the photograph and the name and details of the reporter or individual who took the photograph. 

The second summons directed him to appear as a witness in the case. The editor has stayed away from the hearing on January 24, 2014, amidst protests by the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) on the issuance of the summons.  

However, he is unsure of his rights and whether he can be forced to disclose the source of his information. The case bears a string of sections (121, 121A, 117, 124A, 120 B of the Indian Penal Code and 16 and 20 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act), dealing with charges of sedition and for waging war against the state. 

Last August, a faction of an underground group (Military Defence Force (MDF) -Thouba Group) threatened newspaper hawkers, targeting them for the first time, for not publishing their press releases. Hawkers could not distribute newspapers and editors began selling the newspapers themselves.  

The AMWJU had lodged a protest with the Press Council’s sub-committee on safety of journalists. In a memorandum, the union said that a major propaganda war was on in the region and the media was caught between the state and the underground groups, putting freedom of expression at grave risk. 

Ratan Luwang, Vice-President of the AMWJU, told this writer that journalists in Manipur were taken aback by the second summons. “After we submitted the memo to the Press Council, we thought the matter would be taken up by higher authorities. But obviously, nothing happened.”  

Besides, other newspapers, including the Sangai Express, had also carried the news so AMWJU can’t figure out why only one media house, that too a small editor-proprietor owned newspaper, was being targeted. The picture itself seems harmless enough, showing a banner of the PLA in some indeterminate spot at night. 

Repeated attempts to speak to the NIA’s investigating officer in this matter came to nought. 

Media stuck between insurgents and the state 

Since 1993, the memorandum said, seven journalists have lost their lives in Manipur. Apart from the killings, there were numerous attacks and bombings, threats and pressure from underground groups. The memorandum adds:

In most cases, mediapersons respond with dharnas, suspension of publication, blank editorials, rallies and demands to the government for a safe atmosphere to work in. Each time, the threat is withdrawn but working conditions for journalists remain the same as most outfits believe it is their moral right and duty to pressurize newspapers into carrying their press releases the way they want them carried.

The state too has freely squeezed the media. During the 1950s, government actions such as seizing papers, imposing fines, closure of printing presses and imprisonment of editors were commonplace following any criticism of the government.   

During the 1970s, when the underground movements began to spread, the seizure of press material and arrests of journalists were routine. Two editors - Salam Bharatbhusan of Hueiyen Lanpao and Meinam Mithai of Matam - were even booked under the National Security Act and imprisoned for six months.   

In April 2000, N Biren Singh, currently a minister and formerly the editor of Naharlogi Thoudang, was arrested by the state police for publishing a speech by activist Th Iboyaima, on charges of it being 'seditious' and 'anti-national'.   

For over a week in July-August 2007, journalists were sitting in dharna in protest of a 'bomb gift' sent to the Sangai Express after it refused to publish an insurgent group's press release. Yet on 2 August, the state government passed an order against the publication of news items "directly attributed to unlawful organisations, organised gangs, organisations, terrorists and terrorist-related organisations considered to be subversive and a threat to the integrity of the state and the country." The order even included obituary notices. This created a dire situation for the integrity of the media.   

On December 23, 2012 Thangjam Dwijamani @ Nanao was killed in the police firing during an indefinite general strike imposed by various organizations protesting against the alleged molestation of a film actress by a self-styled Lt Col of NSCN-IM at a musical event on December 18. What was more significant about his death was that if not for the fact that his camera was rolling and caught his shooter in the face; his killing would have been passed off as a collateral damage or even worse, implicated him as a rioter, intent on causing communal violence. In fact his last minutes of tape saved his honour as a mediaperson who was killed in the line of duty.”  

Media growth worsens press freedom?   

Paradoxically, journalists in Manipur say that it is the very growth of the media into a powerful platform that threatens press freedom now as both state and non-state actors try their best to control the flow of information. Earlier, the underground groups used pamphlets to spread their messages but now use newspapers and news channels. As the memorandum adds, the state also takes the press on guided tours to areas cleared of insurgents, surrender ceremonies and the like. 

Now, with the two summonses to the Naharolgi Thoudang editor, first to produce the document and to disclose the source of the photograph, and the second to appear as a witness in the case, the journalists are a worried lot. Only last week, says Ratan, there were reports of an encounter killing near Imphal. “But we don’t know if we should go and cover it. Suppose we do, will we fall afoul of the law? But if we don’t cover it, won’t we be failing in our duty as journalists?” he asks.

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