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Manipur Media in Crisis


Pradip Phanjoubam

The media in Manipur was again through one of its worst crisis. A trainee sub-editor of the Imphal Free Press (the English daily I edit), Konsam Rishikanta, 22, was gunned down by unknown gunmen in capital Imphal on November 17, 2008. The circumstances in which he was murdered as well as the events that followed the crime were all quite unlike familiar patterns in such killings, raising the suspicion that there may have been more for the government to answer.

For this reason, the journalist fraternity in the state rose in protest in one voice demanding an independent probe of the crime. For full 11 days, under the banner of the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU), the media personnel went on a cease work strike until finally the government relented and decided to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after a decision by the state Cabinet on December 1, 2008.

No underground rebel organization has so far claimed responsibility, nor have the police forwarded any encounter statement as usual when they kill militant suspects. Surprisingly, in the two weeks or more that have elapsed since the murder of the journalist, the government has not offered even a single official word of condolence, much less condemnation. Whatever the AMWJU got the government to say or do in the matter, was in the literal sense, wrung out by an uncompromising resistance against official high-handedness and obduracy.

It is beyond understanding what took the government so long to respond appropriately. After all, the journalists were not asking for the moon. They only wanted the crime probed officially so that justice can be found, and in doing this, demonstrating that they still reposed faith in the establishment. But all’s well that ends well, and the media tussle with the government ended with an amicable resolution after the Ibobi Singh government’s decision to go for a CBI investigation.

Rishikanta is the fifth journalist in Manipur, killed by unknown assassins. Those who met his fate before him are

  • RK Sanatomba, editor Kangla Lanpung, a Manipuri language weekly published from Imphal who was killed in 1993
  • HT Lalrohou Hmar, editor Shan a Hmar vernacular journal published from Churachandpur who was killed in 1999
  • Thounaojam Brajamani, editor Manipur News, an English daily published from Imphal who was killed in 2000
  • Yambem Megha, correspondent Vision Northeast Electronic Media, a video news feature production organization based in Imphal who was killed in 2002.

Besides these who were assassinated, there have been many instances of death threats and intimidations served to the media. In 2006 for instance, Ratan Luwangcha, then a correspondent of a Manipuri vernacular daily Poknapham, was shot, but he survived. The following year, six editors of local dailies were kidnapped by militants and their newspapers forced to carry a statement from the group chiding one of its rival factions verbatim.

The government too has not lagged behind. In May this year, it had come out with a set of dos and don’ts for the local media to follow in publishing statements released by underground organizations.

In October 2008, the media was again subjected to humiliation when the state police chief, Y Joykumar, summoned some editors along with their reporters, who had reported an incident of fertilizer smuggling across the international border at Moreh, to his office and humiliated them by making them reveal their sources. This is the nature of the tightrope walk the media in Manipur have to be perpetually engaged in.

What is also disturbing is that “collateral damage”, a euphemism for “innocent victims” of the conflict, is constantly on the rise in Manipur’s killing fields. This is undesirable but expected. There is not a single day in the state today when there are no reports of gun violence, either perpetrated by militants or else by security forces.

For instance, during the 11 days the media in Manipur went off the stands, 23 people died of gun violence, according to media reports. Even if the more conservative figures reported by newspapers like the Imphal Free Press was to be taken, this would amount to an average of 2.09 people killed a day. In a year, this would amount to approximately 762.85 people. If there is anything as dark and cynical irony, the figures say it all.

To retranslate these figures into actual lived experiences, let it be reminded that for those directly exposed to the conflict, these figures are nightmares. They represent real threats, mental agonies, heartbreaks, terror, and emptiness left behind by irreparable losse. To those observing the phenomenon from an “objective” distance and with varying degrees of academic interests, it may look incredulous and beyond comprehension that all the media organizations in the state, those under the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union, as well those belonging to parallel unions in the hill districts, should resort to the extreme step of suspending publication indefinitely over the killing of a trainee journalist.

The simple answer is this: the gravity of the problem as perceived by those actually confronting it and those studying it as phenomena to confirm their pet theories on conflict, or else to use the observations as material to reformulate and realign their theories, is a world apart.

The other fact about the trend of the conflict in the state is the following: almost all of the “2.09 people” killed per day in the last 11 days, or the projected figure of 762.85 people who would end up being killed by the end of another year, have an alarmingly shared, distinctive personal profile. Nearly all of them would be male between the age of 18 and 35 years, with a greater number crowding around the lower age group of this scale.

As and when the conflict in Manipur draws to a conclusion, the foreseeable scenario is that of a devastated spiritual wasteland inhabited largely by a geriatric population and a generation or two of partner-less women. In this sense, the economic consequence of the conflict we are witnessing goes far beyond the immediate concerns of extortions and intimidations. It is also about the decimation of an invaluable productive energy.