Guwahati: The media in India’s restive northeast is caught in a Catch-22 situation with journalists becoming targets of separatist groups, the state government, and the mafia, leading to an infringement of press freedom in at least two states, Manipur and Assam.
The figures are shocking – at least 25 journalists killed in the past two decades and over 30 arrested on charges of aiding and abetting terrorism, while separatists in states like Manipur literally held the media to ransom, forcing newspapers off stands for several days.
Of the 25 journalists killed, 20 were from Assam and five from Manipur – but not a single perpetrator was brought to book.
Not just separatists, the media is often harassed by the state too.
The Editors Guild of India last month expressed concern over the plight of journalists in Manipur and called for urgent remedial measures to bridge the growing gulf between the state government and security forces on one hand and the media on the other.
A two-member team of the Guild visited the state last month and discovered that the media was under pressure from the state government, police and ‘non-state underground players’.
“Unlike other states, in Manipur, the information and broadcasting minister does not interact with journalists,” the report submitted by veteran journalists Sumit Chakravarty and B.G. Verghese notes.
In Assam, the government has virtually blacked out information to the media since last year, with orders asking police and civil officials not to speak unauthorisedly to journalists.
Even senior police officials are scared to provide details of any rebel-related incidents to journalists.
“Please don’t quote me or else I will lose my job,” a district police chief told IANS when asked for some information relating to a gunbattle with militants.
“This is nothing but an attempt to conceal facts and the right to information. It has exposed the government’s wrong policies and blatant corruption in all spheres of life,” Dilip Saikia, general secretary of the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), told IANS.
The list of journalists killed in Assam dates back to 1987 with Punarmal Agarwala, a correspondent of the The Assam Tribune, shot dead by militants of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).
“In most cases, journalists who were killed in Assam were shot dead by militants or by mafias with business interests, taking revenge for exposing misdeeds of contractors, officials or anti-militant stories,” said Atanu Bhuyan, editor-in-chief of News Live, a leading satellite TV channel in Assam’s main city of Guwahati.
Bhuyan was himself arrested in 1992 under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (preventive) Act (TADA) on charges of aiding and abetting terrorism and was imprisoned for 15 days.
“The government failed to provide any evidence and the case was dismissed later. Journalists in Assam and other northeastern states are often victims of both the state and non-state actors. Dozens of journalists like me were arrested and harassed by the state on several occasions, at times when we write stories on ULFA and other groups,” Bhuyan said.
Eight of the 20 journalists in Assam were killed by militants, while timber smugglers and unidentified gunmen were involved in the remaining attacks.
The last victim was Anil Mazumdar, executive editor of the Assamese language daily Aji, killed by unidentified gunmen in March 2004 outside his residence in Guwahati.
No arrests were made and the motive behind Mazumdar’s killing was not known.
The scene is no better in Manipur, a state of 2.4 million people and home to over 20-odd rebel armies with demands ranging from independence to greater autonomy.
“The press in Manipur and other parts of the northeast is sandwiched between pressures from extremist groups and the high-handed attitude of the government. The media here is delicately balanced and functioning has become a matter of wits,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of English daily the Imphal Free Press.
The range of threats on the media in Manipur is something hard to believe – unidentified extremists blowing up a newspaper office in the heart of state capital Imphal, to asking newspaper editors to publish press releases verbatim or asking to spike a statement from a rival rebel group.
Journalists in Manipur also face the wrath and ire of the state.
N. Biren Singh, editor of vernacular daily Naharlogi Thoudang, was arrested a couple of years ago for publishing “seditious” and “anti-national” reports pertaining to some separatist groups.
“We have to think twice before anything is published. It is unfortunate that we have to face the wrath of both underground groups and the government,” a senior journalist in Manipur said on condition of anonymity.