Press clubs in a conflict zone

BY A correspondent| IN Regional Media | 19/07/2009
"It is ironical that we journalists speak up for everyone but there is nobody to fight for us." District press clubs in remote areas of Assam provide support to journalists caught between state and non state actors,
reports A CORRESPONDENT. Pix: journalists gathered at the Guwahati Press Club.

The Sonitpur district correspondent of The Assam Tribune, Shambhu Boro was picked up by the Officer in Charge (OC) of Tezpur Sadar Thana in the evening at around 5 pm on June 22, 2009. Boro was asked to name his friends. And then asked him if a particular National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) leader was his childhood friend. Boro answered that he cannot be blamed if his childhood friend has joined an insurgent group. He was questioned and mentally harassed for a few hours.


It was then that the members of the Sonitpur Press Club stepped in. They too confronted the OC and questioned him as to on what basis did he pick up their fellow journalist. The OC admitted his mistake and apologized and let him go. Boro feels that being a member of the press club instills a sense of security in the minds of the journalists who otherwise work amidst great odds and risk to life both from the state as well as non-state actors.


The district has over 15 press clubs which at local levels try to work for the betterment of the media fraternity in terms of security of the reporters and social awareness programmes. The journalists of Sonitpur Press Club also volunteer and donate blood whenever there is a bomb blast or incident of violence.


In another instance, when Subit Kumar Chettri, the Dibrugarh correspondent of the Assamese daily Janambhumi was recently threatened by members of the ceasefire group of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA for filing a news report against them, he got unprecedented support from the press fraternity. Members of the two press clubs in Dibrugarh town – Dibrugarh Press Club (DPC) and Greater Dibrugarh Press Club (GDPC) raised their voice and demanded an apology and clarification from the pro-talk group of ULFA


Pronib Das, a young photojournalist of Dibrugarh is a member of the GDPC whose members comprise of the younger lot. "We have a small office and a library. Its a reassuring feeling that we have an association of our own. We all join hands whenever there is any kind of atrocity against a member of our fraternity," he says.


Dibrugarh district itself has around 15 press clubs even in the remote sub-divisions and towns. Manjit Bora, joint secretary of GDPC says, "There is nobody to speak up for the journalists in times of crisis. Sometimes even their own establishment do not support them. Even in normal circumstances, even full-time journalists are low-paid. A press club is a platform which can be used to speak up for the rights of the journalists."


Press clubs are prolific decentralized local bodies in Assam having their own Constitution and regulations. Guwahati city, the gateway to Northeast India has a more bustling press club with a wide array of recreational activities and its members range from editors to proof readers. These clubs object to the nomenclature ¿Press Club of India¿ based in Delhi. Nava Thakuria, secretary of Guwahati Press Club (GPC) says, "It should have been Delhi Press Club. We are not affiliated to them."


Thakuria reiterates that it is only a recreation club, a space where journalists can unwind and share information and resources. "We render moral support to all other journalist organizations whenever there is any atrocity against a fellow journalist. We are the same people in the journalists association but we do not raise our voice under the GPC banner. They are free to use the infrastructure though," he says.


The GPC collaborates with other organizations and organizes events like field visits to neighbouring states and even health camps for journalists. They are also running a media fellowship and a Guest of the month programme and capacity building and intellectual enrichment of journalists. They even ask for waivers in hospital bills, considering the fact that journalists are poorly-paid. Journalists and photographers can also make use of the internet facility in the press club by paying a nominal amount.


Most press clubs try to accrue some kind of revenue from their available resources. The Sivasagar Press Club (SPC) located in Sivasagar town in upper Assam is perhaps the richest press club as they have their own market complex and conference hall which yields good revenue for them. They use the money to give financial support to needy and meritorious students, poor patients, organize book fairs, renovate childrens parks.


The club which was formed in 1993 have had their brush with conflict though. They organize a quiz contest in memory of Kamala Saikia, a journalist from Sivasagar who was shot dead by ULFA in 1991. They have also instituted cash award for meritorious students in the name of two of their journalist colleagues Alfarid Sazad and Jiten Chutia who were killed in a bomb blasts.


Inamul Hazarika, secretary of SPC says, "As journalists, we have to face the brunt of both the state and non-state actors. We need a platform to speak up for our rights and we can work together because we are organized in the form of a press club." The entire district has over 8 press clubs.


Press Club, Jorhat is a fairly recent set-up. It was set up in 2000 and they are now constructing their own office building which will have a media cell and a conference hall. Its secretary Ananta Narayan Borthakur feels that even the publishing houses do not speak up for their correspondents reporting from mofussil towns. This is where the vital role of the local press clubs come in – there are three more in the district, at Teok, Titabar and Mariani.


Nalbari district in lower Assam was once a ULFA stronghold. The journalists had to face the wrath of the state as well as the non-state actors. Manik Deka, a member of Nalbari Press Club says that there were times during the heyday of ULFA when journalists were directly picked up by the outfit whenever an adverse news item was published. It was a tricky situation for the press club then as they could not inform the district administration. It was then that they made discreet contact with the outfit and negotiated an amicable settlement. The outfit too gave importance when the matter was put up by the press club. The district has over 25 press clubs.


Another sensitive district Bongaigaon which was once a stronghold of the Bodo militants has been playing the role of a shield for journalists. Ranjit Bora, member of Greater Bongaigaon Press Club says that even while doing a development story, if they point out some corrupt practices, they might unknowingly antagonize some stakeholder. "Individual journalists are easy targets, specially when various elements are at contradiction with each other. In such troubled areas, press clubs emerge as an organized platform and works as a cushion," he adds.


Its twin district Kokrajhar is even more perilous for journalists. Here there are two kinds of terror -- various factions of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and NDFB are at loggerheads with each other and all these groups unleash a reign of terror on the common people. The district has witnessed incidents like burning and banning of newspapers by opposing groups. There has been times when the entire bundle of newspapers were picked up from the market by the aggrieved groups.


It was in such times that the press club rose in unison and even had a "Stop the Pen" campaign to teach these groups a lesson. Moloya Deka, president of Kokrajhar Press Club says that now the various groups have learnt to retaliate against mediapersons in a democratic and legal manner. "Now instead of using force they hold press meets and issue clarifications. All credit goes to the united efforts of the press club," she says.


For Khrwmshar Basumatary, executive president of Barama press club in Baksa district, a press club is an essential tool to combat adverse forces. He himself was victimized by members of a militant outfit for publishing a news item. He was beaten up by 10-12 armed cadres in full public view and his clothes torn up. "Now, we all go in a group as members of the press club," he says.


The president of Barama press club Bipuljyoti Rabha was once picked up by the police at 2:30 am after he published a news item on a public meeting protesting the killing of a youth. "We need to be united to speak up for the rights of the journalists. It is ironical that we journalists speak up for everyone but there is nobody to fight for us," he says.


In a conflict-torn state like Assam, a journalist¿s role is like walking a tightrope. In such a difficult situation it is not surprising that there has been a prolific growth of press clubs in remote and inaccessible areas. It is a united effort by journalists at the local levels to keep the fourth pillar of democracy alive.

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