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Conflict, Media & Development: The Case in India’s Northeast

Posted on June 12, 2008



India ’s Northeast does not lack media attention. But, the region finds mention in the media mostly for the wrong reasons. The eight northeastern states, with a population of 39 million and covering an area of 263,000 square kilometers, is known to the outside world as a land of rugged beauty and constant turmoil. This image is working at cross-purposes.

While the region’s image as an area of breathtaking natural beauty and a vibrant culture arouses interest and fascinates the rest of the country or the world, reports about insurgency, ethnic strife, and under-development that plagues the region abounds in the media. This holds back would be investors and visitors, as only the dark side of this vibrant area, wedged between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China’s Tibet region, gets projected.

While the government, developmental agencies and financial institutions are striving to make the region’s enormous potential known to the outside world, very little of such efforts is reflected in the mainstream as well as regional media. The media coverage of the region is violence driven. This unfortunately is the case in the media both within the region, at the national level as well as in the international media.

According to rough estimates, not even five per cent of editorial space is used by the print media in the Northeast on coverage of stories on development, or of individual success stories. This despite the fact that there is no dearth of newspapers and journals, the key vehicle to spread the desired message that violence aside, lot of positive developments are taking place in the region. Assam’s capital, Guwahati, for instance, has four mainstream English daily newspapers, besides about a dozen Assamese language dailies.

In these circumstances, the focus on pioneering developmental efforts has taken a backseat, and a mindset has been created and sustained to focus only on incidents of violence, and very little on the efforts to transform the region’s economy. A survey of the content in these newspapers would reveal that hardly any coverage is given to news concerning developments at the state, districts or village levels. This gives an impression outside that nothing is happening in the region other than violence by insurgents, like killings, kidnappings and extortions.

Given the fact that the media houses in the region have no journalists specifically and exclusively trained in ‘developmental journalism,’ it is difficult to imagine that the existing print media in the Northeast would ever be able to play the role of an effective medium to spread the good word regarding the efforts to transform the economy of the area through outside investment.

Having said this, I have no reason to dispute the established fact that the media can go a long way in dispelling myths and act as a force-multiplier in all ongoing efforts for peace and development. Most importantly, coverage of the immense potential for exploitation of the available resources and the region’s proximity to the emerging Asian Tigers in the right perspective could entice prospective investors to open shop in the Northeast.

Besides, if we agree—and fortunately people at the helm of affairs in Government-run development agencies do—that the ‘mindset’ of the people in the Northeast needs to be changed and made forward-looking, a sustained campaign needs to be carried out through the media, dedicated to the cause of development and progress. This campaign must reach the common man as well as policy makers or policy influencers who play a key role in matters concerning this region.

Let us take a look at the context in which the media has been operating in the region: The media is always a powerful component in a conflict situation as the one prevailing in the Northeast, one of South Asia’s hottest insurgency theatres. An ethnic minefield, where diverse communities seek to protect their distinct identities, innumerable ‘little wars’ continue to rage in the region.

Four of the northeastern states, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura, witness scales of conflict that can be categorized as low intensity wars, defined as conflicts in which fatalities are over 100 but less than 1000 per annum. Between 1992 and 2002, there have been 12,175 fatalities due to insurgency and other armed conflicts in the Northeast. A counter-insurgency response from the state is only natural. The media, more often than not, is drawn into the vortex of this conflict.

The media’s special relationship with conflict situations is primarily because of two reasons: First, conflict the world over is accepted as happenings with a major news value and, therefore, constitutes a major area of its operation. Secondly, it is a matter of utmost public importance and interest due to its security implications. Let us look at the pattern of conflict in the Northeast, which has been in the grip of separatist insurgencies since India’s independence, and ethnic strife thereafter (as listed by a researcher):

  • Movements for freedom from the Indian nation-state
  • Movements for full-fledged states within the Indian Union
  • Movement for autonomy within the Indian states
  • Movements for reservation or special protection within the autonomous structures
  • Strife between tribal population/groups for control over land or territorial supremacy
  • Movement against ‘outsiders’, foreign nationals etc

As the cat-and-mouse bush war goes on, both sides—the guerrilla groups and the government agencies—try to use the media as force multipliers. This is only natural in such a situation. The media in states like Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura is caught between pulls and counter-pulls. On one side there are these Kalashnikov-wielding rebels who say that they are waging an armed rebellion against the Indian state for allegedly ‘exploiting the region and its people’ and on the other hand there is the government and government agencies trying their best to ensure that the country’s unity and integrity is not shattered by these rebels.

Militant groups would force a newspaper editor or reporter to publish a certain statement and the government would then question the editor or the reporter as to why the statement by forces working against the Indian state should be published. It is indeed a devil and the deep-sea situation for the journalists working in the area.

The Army, police, the paramilitary and the civil administration in the insurgency-hit states have a propaganda machinery that always work overtime. Likewise, groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the NSCN, the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), the People’s Liberation Army or the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) also have very strong propaganda units. They bombard the media with written or telephonic statements and, at times, invite journalists for exclusive interviews in their numerous hideouts.

Militant groups in the Northeast appear to have understood, though belatedly, that the people in general have started disapproving armed dissent. Therefore, they have started looking towards the media more than ever before to put across their viewpoint and try and build up an acceptable image for themselves. They have also started monitoring the media more closely for writings on them. The result has been more sharp responses, both through written rebuttals or threats, either in person or otherwise.

If the government or government agencies try to tighten their noose around small or medium anti-establishment newspapers by denying them advertisement support, non-state actors use coercive tactics to try and make the media toe their line. In Manipur, non-state actors have killed and threatened a number of journalists.

There is another side to the issue: The very existence of conflicts in the region is sustaining quite a number of small and medium newspapers in the area. These can perhaps be called the radical press in the sense that they do not hesitate to publish in every detail the point of view of the militants. This is not to say that these publications totally ignore the government point of view but the order of priority is certainly not the official viewpoint. Such newspapers, mostly in the local language, are often widely read and have, therefore, set off intense competition, often forcing their rivals to adopt a similar editorial line. The result is that the prevailing conflict situation gets murkier.

In any conflict situation, there is this crucial issue of human rights. Now, it is often seen that the media is quick to harp on any human rights violations. While it is comparatively easy to talk about rights violations by the state agencies, it is found that hardly anybody writes on similar violations by the militants. There is a reason for this: rights abuse by rebel cadres (killings by militants is something extreme and does not fall in the category of rights abuse) is often not common knowledge and when government agencies feed journalists on such abuses, the media takes it with a pinch of salt for fear that they could be exaggerated inputs. Here, the casualty is objectivity and independent journalism.

All said and done, it is indeed a tightrope walk for the media in the northeast. The government and the counter-insurgency forces, needs to be sensitized on how the media works. A journalist having a nexus with a rebel group and a journalist having good contact or access with that rebel group for purely journalistic purposes are two different things. When such basic things are accepted, the situation can become a lot better and the media can be left alone. What is needed is someone to bell the cat and take the initiative.

I have gone into some detail on the dynamics of media operations in the Northeast because that, to my mind, is essential to establish the fact that the media in the region is violence-driven. Having said that, let us examine as to what we could do to get the media focus its attention to the region and look for things that are positive and that have the potential to highlight the hidden facets of progress and development in this far-eastern corner of India. I would like to submit the following observations:

  • NEED FOR PRO-ACTIVE PUBLIC RELATIONS SET UPS: Every State in the region, like elsewhere, besides front-ranking agencies as the NEC have their own public relations set up. I am saddened to say that in most cases, the NEC included, the output of these PR set ups have been reduced to nothing more than coming up with the occasional press releases, often poorly drafted. I must place on record that there are exceptions. The PR people must first of all be made to understand that they have a big role to play in so far as projecting the region’s image outside by reaching out to the media and not waiting for the media to come up to them with the odd request for information. Secondly, agencies like the NEC and DONER must take a fresh look into their house journals on which sizeable chunk of money is being spent. Who are these newsletters targeted at? What is the purpose of coming up with these journals, often with outdated information? Is it meant for their respective employees or colleagues in other government agencies? It is always necessary to fill up the pages with the boring statistics? In most cases, these PR people too, like most journalists working in the region, are not trained in what is called development writings, and therefore fail to see the good news that could be waiting to be picked up and written about just in their backyard. Lastly, is it really necessary for every agency to have their own house journal just for the sake of it. Another point that needs to be mentioned is that we at times find advertisements from these agencies in the Northeast splashed in so-called national dailies. We need to carry out audits as to what impact such inserts, often at huge costs, have made in the region or the concerned agency’s image building.
  • Instead of sitting rather clueless on how to proceed, agencies like DONER and the NEC can think of putting an end to their newsletters and come up with such activities as running training sessions for young journalists from the region on development writings. Besides, these agencies, at the national level, can launch a sustained campaign to educate editors and senior decision-taking journalists in the metros on the need to give importance to the periphery called the Northeast, and not just pontificate sitting in New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and so on. Whether such interactions succeed in achieving the desired result should not be a cause for worry. After all, even if correspondents were to put out stories other than violence, they may not see the light of the day unless their editors decide to publish them. After all, if any newspaper or news organization calls itself part of the so-called national media, then they cannot shirk some of their responsibilities in the greater national interest.
We in the Northeast, particularly those associated with media in the region, must learn to realize that there is actually nothing called the ‘national media.’ At best, there is something called the metropolitan press as most of these newspapers have separate pages for the Northeast which are not found in editions elsewhere. Therefore, the media in the Northeast, without bothering as to whether the region is focused by the media outside in a right manner, should itself get about undertaking this job, projecting the region in the right perspective, by making it clear through their content that there are much more happening in this area other than insurgency. If we ourselves cover the different aspects of life and development in the region in a vigorous manner, others from outside will follow suit. Let me ask you some very simple questions: how many newspapers from Assam have sent their reporters to cover the developments in Manipur? Has anybody sent any reporter exclusively on its own to try and understand the key factors behind the peace and relative calm in Mizoram? Has any newspaper in Nagaland done a detailed reportage of the self-help group movement that has brought about a revolution in self-employment in rural Assam? I hope we have found our answer and act accordingly, and invest in manpower development in the field of journalism in a bid to build up a core group of journalists specializing in development issues. In short, we need to build up the good-news writers!