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Manipur: The tussle and the compromise

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

Mediapersons in Manipur are caught between the diktats and threats of around 40 underground groups and the authoritarian directives of the state government which recently proscribed publication of a great deal of content from or about "unlawful organisations". How does Manipur's media cope with these pressures and still try to uphold the freedom of the press?

There are two visuals that best describe Manipur to the outside world. One is the dancing Manipuri girls in their colourful costumes and gentle dance gestures. The other is a group of old women, hair flying, aged breasts flapping on their chests, and a banner with blood-red letters daring the army to come and rape them.

These images -- of the exotic and the revolutionary -- are often taken up selectively to paint a picture of Manipur. On the one hand, Manipur is an exotic, inaccessible land with a backward yet colourful culture. On the other, it's a society full of gun-toting masked men who "threaten" Indian "nationhood" and must be "curbed" with excessive force, if necessary.

Yet for the people of Manipur, these two images are not solitary events, unrelated to each other. They are two sides of the same coin -- a coin which is our collective identity but which few take the trouble to understand. A collective identity that comprises a history, a culture and a tradition so unique and so different from the so-called "Indian" history, culture and tradition.

Twin threads: Conflict and the media

Manipur, situated on the Indo-Myanmar border, is home to as many as 33 listed scheduled tribes and a number of unspecified tribes, apart from the Meities, Meitei Pangals (Muslims) and scheduled castes. The 33 listed scheduled tribes are, again, broadly divided into the Naga and Chin-Kuki-Mizo groups. Among the Nagas, the most prominent ones are Tangkhul, Mao, Poumai, Rongmei, Lamkang, Zeme, Maring, Anal, Maram, Thangal and Liangmei, while Thadou, Simte, Gangte, Vaiphei, Paite, Hmar, Khongsai, Sitlou, etc, constitute the important Kuki tribes.

Thus, multiple histories, multiple cultures and multiple identities are spread out and struggling for recognition within a small geographical territory of 22,327 sq km.

An unfortunate by-product of these inherent complexities and certain insensitive governmental policies is that, today, there are more than 40 proscribed outfits operating within the state. While the main objective of each group is to organise the people's support and wage an armed struggle against the Government of India under various causes and ideologies, mostly right to self-determination, the history of each of these movements is, again, different.

While the Meitei outfits recall the shame of an autonomous princely kingdom being forcibly annexed to the British Empire in 1891 and later, after India's independence, merged with the Indian sub-continent in a dubious agreement, the Nagas still suffer the memory of a proud community forcibly divided by new geopolitical boundaries imposed by a foreign hand. Outfits belonging to other ethnic communities like the Kuki, Hmar, Manipuri Muslims and Zomi too uphold the history and wellbeing of their communities as their primary interest.

This situation is further aggravated by the militaristic response of the Centre and state government. On the one hand there are groups of people, armed and trained in warfare, that are ideologically against India's nationhood. On the other, the government, stating that the armed insurgencies are a law-and-order problem, installs counter-insurgency forces in the state to help the state government function smoothly. Laws such as the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 are enforced to help the security forces in their mission -- AFSPA has been in force in the hills since 1961 and in the valley (except for the Imphal municipality area) since 1980. Thus the conflict has been heightened instead of resolved.

Significantly, the first resistance movement in the state was a communist movement led by Hijam Irabat in the 1930s demanding, among other things, that the British quit Manipur, abolish the Manipur state durbar, and establish an elected government. (1) On August 14, 1947, the Naga people, through the Naga National Council (NNC), declared their independence from British rule, one day before India declared her independence. (2)

Interestingly, the first resistance movement of Hijam Irabat also gave birth to journalism in the state. The first recorded event in the history of the print media in Manipur is publication of the journal Meitei Chanu by Hijam Irabat in the mid-1920s. Hand-stencilled and cyclostyled by Irabat himself, the publication survived for only a few editions. During 1932-48, Hijam Irabat published pamphlets, journals and booklets with the main aim of spreading political philosophy to the masses.

During the 1930s and 1940s, a number of publications came out including Yakairol, Lalit Manjuri Patrika, Bheigyabati Patrika, Dainik Manipur, Manipur Matam, Manipur Paojel, Ngashi, Praja, Anouba Yug, and Meitei Leima, although most enjoyed only a short lifespan. These were followed, in the post-Independence era, by political papers like Prajatantra and Simanta Patrika.

Today, Manipur is considered a frontrunner among Indian states with regards to media presence. The eastern state boasts around 30 news dailies and journals, a large number of home cable networks such as Information Service Television (ISTV), Image Cable TV, Hornbill Cable Network, Laizan Cable Network and Tribal Cable Network, as well as numerous correspondents and stringers for various national and international news agencies, newspapers, magazines and electronic media houses. Most media houses in the state however are small private firms that function with a skeletal staff, on minimal wages.

Media and conflict: The tussle and the compromise

The low-intensity conflict in Manipur that's being simmering for almost 60 years has killed, widowed, displaced and orphaned thousands of its people. The impact of the conflict has not only been the killings, rapes and torture; from the young student who suffers a deep sense of fear and insecurity to the woman widowed by the gun, no one has been spared the effects of this long-standing conflict, including the media.

November 17 to December 2008 has been a significant fortnight in Manipuri history. On November 17, young Konsam Rishikanta, a junior sub-editor at the English language newspaper Imphal Free Press was blindfolded, gagged and shot dead by unknown gunmen. With his death, he became the sixth journalist to be killed in Manipur -- a paltry number if we go by the innumerable killings that have been going on in the state, but an appalling and significant number when we consider that even in full-fledged wars journalists enjoy a certain sanctity, freedom and impunity.

In Manipur -- home to around 40 underground groups and nearly 50,000 central security forces waging an armed war -- death by the gun is part of everyday lives.

The conflict makes headlines almost every day -- a killing, an arrest, a clarification. In fact, reporting on incidents related to militants and militancy in Manipur is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous for journalists.

Conflict reporting is a precarious and delicate task that requires a sense of balance. To give due credit to the media in Manipur, notable attempts at balanced reporting are being made. But factors like limited resources, inhospitable terrain, lack of good communication facilities and, above all, shortage of staff, make verification of all conflict-related cases that come to the attention of the media a formidable task.

Most conflict reporting done by the media is that of conflict-related killings and arrests. There have also been reports on the impact of the ongoing conflict -- displacement, impact on women and children, condition of conflict widows, etc.

While reports of arrests come from police and army sources and handouts, news of killings are usually given either by people at the place where the person/s have been shot, the police, the army, or a hospital. Or by the underground group involved. Verification of news of arrests or claims made regarding the person's involvement with an underground group is often not done.

In the case of killings, however, there is always an attempt at independent investigation to verify the claims -- visiting the house of the deceased, talking to family members and locals. However, given that an average of two people are gunned down everyday in Manipur, verifying each case becomes a huge task, especially if the killing occurs in a remote area of the state.

Added to this is pressure, from State and non-State forces. For the media this means that its work of disseminating information and opinion is a tight-rope walk between the devil and the deep sea.

Ironically, it is the growth and changing awareness of the media as a powerful platform that is threatening the freedom and sanctity of the independent media in Manipur. Underground insurgent groups operating in the state, which used to rely on pamphlets and word-of-mouth as a major means of spreading their ideas and diktats, are now turning to the newspapers and news cable networks to carry their statements to a wider audience.

This strategy is also being used by the army and the government through press tours and events to highlight achievements such as the display of arms captured during operations, and press tours of areas "cleared of insurgents".

Caught in between are small teams of underpaid, overworked and semi-skilled professionals trying to work towards the ideal of being society's watchdog, frequently at their own peril.

From 1993 till date, as many as six journalists have been shot dead in Manipur. There have been attempts on the lives of others and cases of physical and mental harassment.

Let me run through some of these incidents (4):

    • On June 30, 1993, unidentified gunmen shot dead the editor of Kangla Lanpung R K Sanatomba at his own gate.
    • In October 1999, Hmar Revolutionary Army (HRA) cadres gunned down the editor of a Hmar language newspaper Shan, A Lalrohlu Hmar.
    • Khupkholian Simte, editor of Lenlai magazine, was killed.
    • In 2000, Bijoy Koijam, now sitting MLA of Manipur, escaped an attempt on his life when he was working as a freelance photographer for United News of India (UNI).
    • On August 20, 2000, Thounaojam Brajamani Singh, editor of the English daily, Manipur News, and president of the Manipur State Journalists Association was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen.
    • In August 2000, unidentified persons blew up part of the Pan Manipur Youth League (PMYL) office. The PMYL published the monthly magazine Chingkei Hunba and was preparing to re-launch the popular monthly newsmagazine Lamyanba as a daily newspaper.
    • On October 14, 2002, three armed men abducted and killed NorthEast Vision special correspondent Yambem Megha, in Imphal.
    • On October 8, 2002, two Manipur-based correspondents -- Iboyaima Laithangbam of The Hindu and Y Arun of Eastern Panorama -- were kidnapped for two days as they were proceeding from Imphal to Moreh, by the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) that was dissatisfied with inadequate coverage of its statements.
    • On February 23, 2005, ESPN/Star Sports correspondent Obed Longvah was assaulted by unidentified armed persons at Litan in Ukhrul district of Manipur.
    • On June 14, 2005, the Manipur Hill Journalists Union suspended publication of all Churachandpur-based newspapers from June 16 to 19, 2005, in protest against "interference" and "pressure" from several armed opposition groups.
    • On September 7, 2005, the proscribed group KYKL imposed a ban on two local dailies Matamgi Yakairol and Mannaba and cable network ISTV for allegedly not "properly" reporting on the abduction of Manipur University Students Union president Ashok Kumar Singh.
    • In February 2006, an attempt was made on the life of Ratan Luwangcha when he was general secretary of the All-Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and bureau chief of the largest selling vernacular daily Poknapham. Ratan was grievously wounded and is still undergoing treatment.
    • On December 20, 2006, unidentified gunmen unsuccessfully tried to kill the editor and publisher of the evening newspaper Kangla Pao, Paonam Labango Mangang, in front of his office in Imphal.
    • In April 2006, a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) held six Imphal-based newspaper editors hostage through the night and forced them to publish a statement about the outfit's "raising day" celebration which the editors had previously ignored. The KCP faction also clamped a three-month ban on the Imphal Free Press for misquoting an earlier statement.
    • On July 31, 2007, a gift-wrapped Nokia mobile handset package containing a grenade and marked to the editor of The Sangai Express, the largest selling English daily in Manipur, was delivered to the office of the newspaper. The reason for the "gift"? One of two factions of a major underground insurgent outfit operating in the state wanted the statement of the other party dropped from publication.
    • On November 17, Konsam Rishikanta, junior sub-editor at Imphal Free Press was blindfolded, gagged and shot dead by unknown gunmen.

These are just a few cases. Almost every day there are threats over the phone, etc, from the proscribed outfits in Manipur. In most cases, mediapersons respond with dharnas, suspension of publication, blank editorials, 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 pressurise newspapers into carrying their press releases the way they want them carried.

To safeguard freedom of the press and to escape this form of pressure, the AMWJU resolved, in June 2005 (5), following threats to the Manipur Hill Journalists Union, that:

  • No claim made by unidentified sources/person(s) over the telephone would be entertained. In the event of identification, the editors would decide.
  • No press conference called by any individual or organisation without official invitation would be accepted.
  • Press releases by any organisation(s) have to be duly signed with the organisation's seal on the letterhead.
  • Press releases by any organisation(s) must be issued before 8 pm for morning dailies, 3 pm for eveningers, and 4 pm for cable news channels.
  • In the event of conflict/controversies between two or more parties, the views of all parties concerned would be given equal coverage.
  • If the arguments and counter-arguments become harmful to the state and could claim human lives, the AMWJU reserved the right to censor the news.
  • In the event of an organisation or individual wanting to withdraw a press release before it is printed, the same organisation or individual who signed the press release must approach the editor concerned.
  • If any individual/organisation has a grievance (except petty or small matters that may be resolved by the editor) against any newspaper, the concerned individual/organisation should first approach the AMWJU to address the problem.
  • All newspaper mediapersons will follow the norms of journalistic conduct as laid down by the Press Council of India (PCI).
  • Editors are advised to refrain from sensationalising any news report or indulging in sensationalism.
  • Editors will bear the responsibility for mistakes or omissions appearing in their newspaper.
  • All editors have the right to censor/delete partly or as a whole any news report or press release or interview or press conference which could create communal tension or lead to group clashes.
  • In case of violation of the code of conduct laid down by the AMWJU by any reporter/newspaper, the AMWJU will initiate punitive action against the reporter/newspaper.
  • It is the prerogative of an editor to publish or not to publish a news report or press release.
  • A newspaper report should not be contradicted by another newspaper in the form of a rejoinder, advertisement or news report. If the need does arise, the version of the newspaper concerned should be taken by the other newspaper before any such publication.
  • Press releases of any organisation should be made available to all offices of the press/newspaper/media organisation by the organisation on its own. No press/newspaper/media organisation should be given the responsibility of distributing a press release/s.
  • Editors will not entertain any diktat from any quarter to publish or not to publish a news report or press release.

However, these rules do not seem to have worked very well as the militants have their own tactics by which to get their press releases published, keeping the press constitution and rules intact.

Media pressure and government response

The response of the state government in this regard has been disheartening. Instead of attempting to sanitise the atmosphere, they have instead tried to curb the freedom of the press from time to time in the name of stamping out insurgency.

During 1950-60, government actions like seizing papers, imposing fines, closure of the press, and imprisonment of editors were common when publications like Ngasi, Loumi, Bhagyapati Patrika, Eikhoigi Patrika, Mother Manipur, etc, criticised the functioning of the government in their papers. (6) Later, in 1970-80, when insurgent movements flourished in the state, seizure of press material and arrests of journalists were routine. One of the most significant cases was the arrest of Hueiyen Lanpao editor Salam Bharatbhusan and editor of Matam, Meinam Mithai, who were booked under the National Security Act (NSA) and imprisoned for around six months. (7)

In the recent past, in April 2000, N Biren Singh, presently a minister and formerly 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".

Imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, in the state has also seriously impacted the media, with frequent harassment, physical abuse, obstruction of work, and arrests.

  • July 23, 2004: At the peak of the recent anti-AFSPA uprising in 2004, state security forces dispersing a group of women protestors barged into the house of Thiyam Ranjan, a senior reporter at Sanaleibak and beat him up even after he identified himself as a journalist.
  • August 14, 2004: The government clamped a ban on the local news cable network ISTV in the "public interest", apparently angered by images of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest against the AFSPA, 1958.
  • February 20, 2005: N Noren of The Sangai Express and W Lukhoi of Mannaba were brutally assaulted by personnel of the 130th Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) posted at Sajiwa jail, while covering an agitation by a Meitei revivalist group.
  • March 14, 2007: Personnel of the 38th Assam Rifles (AR) posted at Kotlien in Tamenglong district snatched away the cameras and beat up two journalists -- Ireibak's Th Brojen and ISTV's Gagaan -- while The Sangai Express' Samungou, ISTV's Gagaan and Naharolgi Thoudang's Bokul were detained while covering the rape of a girl by an AR jawan.

On August 2, 2007, while mediapersons were sitting in dharna protesting the "bomb gift" to The Sangai Express' editors, the state government passed the following order, which only served to further push the media in Manipur into a corner rather than help them. The order read:

    "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, ie 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:

  • All 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.
  • 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 terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs as the sponsors of the advertisement.
  • 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.
  • Publication of any code of behaviour, dress code or social practice decreed by terrorists or terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs.
  • Publication of any justification for killings, causing injury, assault, kidnapping, imposition of fines or warnings made by terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs or organisations.
  • Publication of notices for payment to terrorist-related organisations or unlawful organisations or organised gangs in cash or kind.
  • Publication of items in the form of an invitation to unlawful organisations, organised gangs and terrorist-related organisations to settle or solve disputes."

When the media community protested and urged the withdrawal of the order, the state Cabinet met on August 10, 2007, and, instead of a withdrawal, amended the first point with a clause: "Publication of seditious, subversive literature affecting the integrity of the nation."

In the Rishikanta killing case too, the state government displayed an authoritarian attitude and complete disregard for the sanctity of the media. From the time Rishikanta's body was found in a secluded spot in Imphal, on November 17, 2008, the media aired its suspicions about the involvement of the state police in the killing and demanded a CBI probe. There was no response from the state government. On November 19, after discussions at a general body meeting, journalists struck work in protest. They sat in dharna for 13 days; there was an information blackout throughout the state. On November 26, they took out a huge rally in the capital. Hundreds of representatives from the NGO, CSO and CBO sectors participated in the silent rally to express their solidarity.

In the meantime, the Editor's Guild of India, headed by Rajdeep Sardesai, met the prime minister and, during the meeting, the prime minister apparently called up the Manipur chief minister and instructed him to initiate a CBI inquiry. Still, the evening before the rally, the state government continued to remain a silent spectator. A group of ministers (including the state IPR minister) was sent to negotiate with the rally organisers. Their terms: Stop the rally and we will initiate an inquiry.

Undeterred and uncompromising, the journalists went ahead with the rally which was shown live on the local cable TV network, ISTV. Participants converged at a public ground, but when the first speaker began to talk about the killing and the government's response the network was forced to cut the programme.

On December 1, a special investigative team formed by journalists tabled its report. That same day, and at almost the same time, the state Cabinet discussed the matter and conceded the journalists' demands.

Conclusion

The ongoing armed conflict, job insecurity and precarious working conditions in Manipur are some of the factors that impact directly on press freedom and the quality of journalism in the state. Journalists continue to be poorly paid despite talks of implementing the R K Manisana Wage Board, for the simple reason that many newspaper houses are not in a position to generate the type of revenue that would enable payments and perks as stipulated by the Wage Board.

Despite this, however, the media community has been united in its stand that the sanctity of the profession must not be compromised. It goes without saying that the very nature of the job, which requires them to report in the midst of conflict, exposes them to the risks of being hit from both sides.

In its fifth annual press freedom report for South Asia, The Fight Goes On: Press Freedom Crises in South Asia (2006-2007), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) identified five key needs to be addressed. First, journalists must be trained to monitor violations of press freedom and journalists' rights. Systems should be set up to communicate and highlight such violations through alerts. Journalists in conflict areas must be provided safety training and professional skills development. Finally, they should receive training in union/association-building to help them present a stronger, united front and assert their rights to report objectively, free from pressure and harassment.

The All-Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) might have its flaws, but it has put up a united front when faced with any threat to the community. As for training, nothing can be better than the lived experience. There cannot be a one-coat-fits-all policy for facing the pressures of working in a conflict situation, for the simple reason that the cause and nature of conflict in various parts of the state, nation and the world are so different.

Finally, the government should try and bring about an amicable settlement to the current insurgency problem in Manipur. This would help alleviate the situation in the state. Until then, the media will continue to be tested.

Endnotes

1 Life and Works of Jananeta Irabat Singh, L Damodar Singh, Ningshing Chephong, 1996

2 An introduction to the Indo-Naga political conflict and the ongoing peace process. http://www.nscnonline.org/webpage/home.htm

3 The Imphal Free Press referred to here is the newspaper owned by Sapam Nishikanta. Later on, the editor, Pradip Phanjaoubam, left the organisation and took the name with him, which he now uses for his own paper. Meanwhile, Sapam Nishikanta's paper briefly ran as the Manipur Free Press and was later christened The Sangai Express

4 The cases described here have been randomly picked. In actuality, there are many more cases of assault and pressure by both State and non-State forces on the media

5 http://www.newswatch.in/newspaedia/m/102.html 6 'Struggle for Independence by the Manipur Journalist Society', Sanathong, October, 2001 7 Interview with Irengbam Arun, editor, Ireibak

References

'An introduction to the Indo-Naga political conflict and the ongoing peace process'. http://www.nscnonline.org/webpage/home.htm

Economic Survey Manipur, 2005-2006

International News Safety Institute, Geneva Declaration on Actions to Promote Safety and Security of Journalists and Media in Dangerous Situations. http://www.newssafety.com/stories/GenevaJournalistsSafety210904.pdf

Interview with Irengbam Arun, editor, Ireibak

Interview with veteran journalist K Madhumangol

L Damodar Singh, 1996. Life and Works of Jananeta Irabat Singh, Ningshing Chephong

Land use system in Manipur Hills, edited by N Lokendra Singh, Rajesh Publications, 2004

Newswatch.in, Manipur Journalists' Code of Conduct. http://www.newswatch.in/newspaedia/m/102.html

Reporters Without Borders, 'Declaration on the Safety of Journalists and Media Personnel in Situations Involving Armed Conflict'. http://www.reseau-damocles.org/article.php3?id_article=7879

'Struggle for Independence by the Manipur Journalist Society', Sanathong, October, 2001

South Asia Terrorism Portal. www.satp.org

'The Fight Goes On: Press Freedom Crises In South Asia (2006-2007)', International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), UNESCO fifth annual press freedom report for South Asia, 2006-07. http://www.ifj-asia.org/files/South_Asia_Report_2006_07.pdf

The Imphal Free Press, 2006, editorial, February 13

The Imphal Free Press, 2007, 'Shackled Media', editorial, August 6

The Sangai Express, 2002. Interview with Adinho Phizo, president of the NNC by IANS journalist S Baruah, October 19

The Sangai Express, 2007, 'Gagging Media', Editorial, August 9

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Medellin Declaration for Securing the Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity. http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=23875&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html,

(Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist and amateur filmmaker presently attached with the Hueiyan Lanpao group of publications in Imphal, Manipur.Her writings have been specially focused on conflict and gender.)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009