Gagging the ‘Fourth Estate’ in North-East India

“Freedom” is a beautiful word. No man on earth would like to be deprived of it. For every one, human kind has searched for personal and group freedom, and in the process, have fought and killed to secure it.

As tribes, communities and governments; human beings have gone to war to secure “free” space for themselves. Over the years its implication on the human race have also gone through changes with the ever-changing “world order”.

Often, personal freedom has to give way to secure collective freedom like in the erstwhile USSR. Sometimes, individual freedom is allowed to flourish to encourage collective growth like in the USA. The world is divided on the opinion, of which is the better system?

However, whichever way the argument goes, it is increasingly becoming clear that individual decisions and opinions play a crucial role. It is said, “Your freedom ends where the other’s nose begins”. But often it is the other’s nose beyond which your freedom lies also.

Indian NEP MediaIt is here the media comes in as a major player. Media had come long way since its inception. Its growth is different in the different parts of the world and in India as well.

Indian laws do not have a specific mention of the freedom of press. It does not give a special right to the press but lets it draw its freedom from within Article 19 which provides all citizens with the right to freedom of speech and expression. Dr Ambedkar explained the position as, “The press is merely way of stating an individual or citizen.

The press has no special rights, which are not to be given to, or which are not exercised by the citizen in his individual capacity.

The editors of a press or the manager are all citizen and therefore, when they choose to represent any news paper they are merely exercising their right of expressions and in my judgement no special mention is necessary of the freedom of press at all”.

Keeping in view, Indian authorities also like other countries have put reasonable restraints. Similarly, North-Eastern states; Assam, Nagaland and Manipur too has seen enough “reasonable restraints” being exercised on to the press.

The office memorandum of the government in these states was one amongst many. It effectively barred all government officials from speaking to the press even it may be of grave concern to public safety.

It was, however, removed on protest but it cannot be said it was not tried. But what is more crucial in case of the press in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur is its freedom of functioning within conflict zones.

Perpetual conflict atmosphere has meant an existence of several pressure prints. The pull and push of the pressures have taken a toll on the press in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Consequently the formation of strong unity amongst its practitioners has become a must.

The Editors’ Guild of India (EGI) and The All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union, the apex media bodies exists not so much as to fight for the wages of its reporters but to collectively meet all the challenges confronting the press in the states.

The challenges come from all angles; the governments, the miscreants, both state and non-state actors and even from NGOs and Clubs. Journalists in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur have been shot dead and not accounted for. They have been kidnapped and threatened.

Press units have been ransacked and closed down by armed insurgents, local mafias and so called ‘War Lords’. Press personnel have been threatened and beaten up by these ‘War Lords’ while on duty.

Press in North Eastern States are less free than elsewhere in India. Journalists working in this conflict ridden states are caught in a Catch 22 situation; they are often becoming the targets of state and non-state actors, leading to the gagging of press freedom.

The latest, in the series of attack on Journalists, unidentified gunmen killed – Jagajit Saikia (30) the district correspondent of the Assamese daily, ‘Aamar Ahom’ on 22nd Nov and Konsam Rishikanta in Imphal on 17 Nov 08.

Saikia was shot barely 300 meters away from police station in the heart of Kokrajhar town and Konsam Rishikanta, a trainee sub-editor in Imphal Free Press was shot at Longol in Imphal West. Rishikanta is the fifth journalist to be killed in Manipur by gunmen in the past few years.

No individual or group has made any claims regarding these killings so far. People gossip and say, these were the cases of personal animosity but few doubt it. The stark feeling is such media related killings are carried out by so called revolutionists who do not follow their diktat and time and again have been showing their muzzle power to these poor journalists.

Reporting conflict has become the greatest challenge for journalists in this part of India which has been reeling under the impact of insurgency for almost more than half a century.

There have been many glaring instances; murder of investigative journalists, ULFA’s threat to NE Television, UGs threat to the Sangai Express newspaper on Jul 31, 2007 in which the proscribed party kept a bomb at the newspaper office against the Daily’s denial to publish the organisation’s press release. Such professional hazards confront journalists of the region 24h a day.

There is an alarming scene and cause of concern when we look at the cumulative figures since 1997 to 2008 of the violations of the freedom of press in these North-Eastern states by non-state actors. Many of these violations are effective techniques to gag the Fourth Estate either not to reveal disturbing truths or to warn the journalists’ fraternity to follow the track- the pressure group opted for.

During the past few years, there were number of cases of murder, attempt-to-murder, more than 30 cases of arrests/detentions, 40 cases of threat/harassment to media persons and few cases of even taking hostage of newspaper and television news editors.

Media which is considered as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the democratic system along with the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, is by far the organisation working under pressure 24 hours a day vis-à-vis the other three.

To work as a journalist in this part of the country in such an unspeakable situation itself is playing a dangerous game but their contribution must be applauded by the public.

The aftermath of killing of Konsam Rishikanta is that the people of Manipur have not only condemned such killings but they are also unhappy for being deprived of their morning ‘khabar paper’ due to their closure of print and electronic media.

The author having mulled over the situation, expect from all sections of the society to support the freedom of voices raised by print and electronic media fraternity and ensure that this “Fourth Pillar” of the democratic system is not gagged.

[Source – northeastonline]

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