Dialogue July-September, 2010, Volume 12 No.1
The State of the Media in the Northeast
Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah
When one is talking about the state of the media in the Northeast, statistics becomes less important than how the media is actually functioning. This is not to suggest that the statistics relating to the media in the Northeast are not impressive. On the contrary, considering the diverse and colourful ethnic composition of the region, the statistics is quite impressive at least in terms of the number of newspapers and periodicals published, even though the circulation of individual newspapers may be small. In other words, we have a large number of small newspapers. Assam, with a 164-year-old heritage that goes back to the publication of the Arunodoi in Assamese in 1846 by the American Baptist Mission, is clearly ahead of the other States of the region both in terms of the length of association with periodicals as well as the number of periodicals published. There are about 800 periodicals published from Assam with over 30 daily newspapers in Assamese, English, Hindi and Bengali. Of the dailies, The Assam Tribune is over 72 years old and is the highest circulated English daily published from the State. It is also one of the few newspapers that can perhaps afford to do without any government advertisements. Among the oldest Assamese daily newspapers is the Dainik Asam (in its 46th year) and the Dainik Janambhumi (in its 39th year) published from several centres like most of the important dailies of the State. Asamiya Pratidin, which started publication about two decades ago, is the largest circulated Assamese daily with quite a few satellite editions. It is another newspaper published from Assam that can afford to do without government advertisements. This is an important criterion for newspapers published from the Northeast that I shall revert to by and by. Like The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel, the two leading local English dailies, most of the Assamese dailies too have multi-city satellite editions.
Journalistic enterprises in Manipur started with the magazine Meitei Leina—handwritten and cyclostyled—in 1917. Today, Manipur has about 32 newspapers and journals officially registered in Manipur, with about ten in active publication. Of these ten, three—Imphal Free Press, Manipur Mail and Sangai Express—are in English and the others are in Meitei and other languages. Sangai Express also has a Meitei edition. The Meitei newspapers have a much larger circulation than the English ones. The three leading Meitei newspapers are Naharolgi Thoudang, Poknapham and Sangai Express.
Nagaland has about 25 newspapers and journals, five of them being English dailies. They are: Nagaland Post, Eastern Mirror, Morung Express, Nagaland Page and North East Herald.
Meghalaya has 32 newspapers and journals registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI) and six empanelled with the Directorate of Audio-Visual Publicity (DAVP). Prominent among them are the English dailies The Shillong Times and Meghalaya Guardian, the Khasi dailies Mawphor Daily, Rupang Daily and U Nongsain Hima and the Khasi weekly Dongmusa.
Arunachal Pradesh has ten newspapers and journals registered with the RNI. Of them Arunachal Times, Echo of Arunachal and Dawnlit Post are English dailies and the others are in the tribal languages of Arunachal Pradesh. Echo of Arunachal and Dawnlit Post are empanelled with the DAVP.
Mizoram has about 260 newspapers and journals registered with the NRI. This is not surprising for two reasons. First, Mizoram has the second highest literacy rate in India after Kerala. Second, the Mizoram Government has long recognized cyclostyled foolscap-size newspapers with very small circulations as registered newspapers and given them government advertisements. Of the 260 publications registered with the RNI, only 34 are registered with the State government and only about 13 are in actual uninterrupted publication. Of these, three are in English and ten in Mizo. Mizoram Post, published from Silchar claims to be the largest circulated daily with a circulation of over 58,000 copies. However, this is a claim disputed by most journalists and newspaper publishers.
Tripura has 133 publications registered with the RNI, though only 52 of them are registered with the State government. Of these, all except three are in Bengali. Of the three, two are in English and one in the Tripuri language, Kok Borok. Fifteen newspapers are empanelled with the DAVP, out of which four (all Bengali) have a circulation of well over 25,000 copies each—enough to qualify them as medium newspapers. In Tripura the real opinion-builders are the Bengali newspapers rather than the English newspapers that hold sway in the other States of the Northeast. In fact, even the bureaucrats are guided in their thinking and decisions more by the views expressed in the Bengali publications rather than the English ones.
As for the electronic media, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of television channels all over the country, and the Northeast has not lagged behind in this development. There are quite a few local TV channels in the north-eastern States, and cable TV service providers have proliferated all over the Northeast. As expected, the radio has taken a back seat in urban areas, but remains popular in the villages. One of the reasons for the decline of the radio’s appeal in the urban areas is a definite fall in the quality of programmes. There is no denying the marked fall in the standard of music, and the quality of Assamese radio plays is not a patch on what we had three or four decades ago. The radio, however, continues to provide useful inputs to farmers and this is one of the reasons for its continued popularity among the rural population. News telecasts are beginning to get more and more repetitive and irksome to a fairly large segment of urban viewers, and of late there has been a slight fall in the number of television viewers among urban adults. There is also a view that television has stoked unattainable ambitions and aspirations faster in the peripheral States than in mainland India.
While television has a way of stealing the show because of its more powerful visual impact, it is the print media that has taken remarkable strides in just three decades even in the less accessible States of the Northeast. This has been made possible by a swift acceptance of a sea change in printing technology. When The Sentinel was launched in 1983, all newspapers in the Northeast were printed on letterpress machines. The Assam Tribune was the only newspaper to use a letterpress rotary machine comparable to what the metropolitan dailies were using. The type-setting was hot-metal Linotype or Monotype. The Sentinel was the first daily newspaper in the Northeast that started off with a combination of photo-typesetting and web offset printing. Less than a year later, The Assam Tribune too switched to the combination of photo-typesetting and web offset printing. Within three or four years, the offset deluge started and very soon after that photo-typesetting was replaced by desktop typesetting on the computer which made even photo-typesetting obsolete. I remember being selected to go to the United States on a Indo-US Media Exchange Programme along with the late Sridharan, Editor of Veekshanam published from Kochy. We had the good fortune to see the working of several US newspapers including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. At the end of the guided tour of these two newspapers I was able to tell the executives who took us around that there was nothing at all in the production and printing process that was unfamiliar to me because we did everything the same way back home. The only difference was in the size and the degree of sophistication of the operations (The New York Times then had a circulation of less than three million copies—a fraction of the 15 million circulation of the Yomiuri Shimbun of Japan.) What I am trying to get at is that India (Assam included) had accepted and adapted to the fast-paced technological changes in newspaper printing very quickly.
However, the fact remains that true worthwhile service to the media is not achieved through technology alone. New hardware and software will doubtless take us a few steps forward much faster but none of it will take us very far. Proficiency in the language of one’s choice will take us quite a few more steps forward. However, even that is not enough. There is need for skill, aptitude, commitment to one’s society and country and above all a commitment to truth and objectivity. And none of this can be had by merely wishing for it. The quality of the media anywhere in the world will depend on how the publishers of newspapers and magazines and the CEOs of TV and radio channels treat those who serve the media. Quite often, a newspaper is unable to maintain its standard because it is unable to keep the people who made it a better newspaper. The real quality of a newspaper does not come from its machines or the technology it uses; it comes from the human resource that is behind the handling of the news and views.
It is important to look at the kind of human resource one can hope to secure for the kind of salaries that one is willing to pay. What is common about the media of the entire Northeast is that in all the States journalists are terribly underpaid. One talks about the commissions set up by the government to fix the salaries of journalists—like the Bachawat Commission and the Manisana Commission. By the time these commissions make their reports to the government, the inflation rate has already made the salary hikes quite meaningless. What is worse, however, is that many newspapers never pay the recommended wages. This is the tragedy of the journalists in all the north-eastern States. Journalists all over the Northeast are underpaid. So obviously newspaper owners cannot expect to attract the kind of talent that makes all the difference to a newspaper. After a brief stint with the local newspapers they generally move to metropolitan dailies. The number of journalists working outside the region in metropolitan dailies, magazines and news agencies is quite impressive. Some of them are making their presence felt in television as well. Unfortunately, this is happening at a time when the salaries of metropolitan journalists have increased by leaps and bounds. Our small local newspapers will have to think of more rational and just salaries, allowances and perquisites if they are to attract and retain better journalists more committed to their responsibilities. If machine men, layout artists and circulation managers deserve better salaries, so do journalists. Something that most newspaper owners do not stop to think about is that the better newspapers in their own city are manned by people who once worked with them but left them for better salaries. The equation is both simple and visible: One has to pay better salaries for those who do better jobs. What is saddening is that even in an age when the salaries of metropolitan journalists have become so handsome, journalists in the Northeast do not command even fair wages.
The other common feature shared by journalists of almost all the north-eastern States is that they work in hazardous conditions due to militant/terrorist activities in some of the north-eastern States. A journalist like Kamala Saikia was killed by terrorists at his doorstep 19 years ago. The State government has done nothing in 19 years to apprehend and punish his killers (their identities are known to the government as well as to his family). There are quite a few other journalists also gunned down by militants. This is the level of security a journalist has in a so-called welfare state. Naturally, threats and intimidations issued by terrorist and militant groups have to be taken seriously. In Manipur, the entire print media had to stop publication of newspapers on three different occasions in 2007 because of the diktats of militant/terrorist groups. Newspapers of Manipur have also felt obliged to carry blank editorial columns in the face of ‘impossible’ diktats from the government. This was a common practice of newspapers in Assam both during the Emergency of Indira Gandhi as well as during a part of the Assam Movement days when the government imposed pre-censorship on newspapers in the State. Quite a few newspapers responded by carrying blank editorial columns as a show of protest. One cannot expect the journalists to be martyrs every time. Understandably, compromises will continue to be made and journalistic ethics will continue to decline when no one is willing to ensure the security of brave journalists who refuse to compromise.
However, journalists of the Northeast are beginning to make other kinds of compromises as well on the lines of their counterparts in the rest of the country. One stems from the discovery that while it is the business of a journalist to provide news, it is often more lucrative to kill news. Journalists are learning the tricks to get paid by individuals for not reporting events and not doing stories. The converse of this also works. There are newspapers where news can get published only when one has paid for the publication of news. In short, we have arrived at an age when news is beginning to be sold. The epidemic seems to have spread rather fast from the metropolitan dailies. However, there is another kind of media corruption that involves the newspaper owners rather than the journalists. As stated in the beginning, there are far too many more periodicals registered with the RNI in every State than newspapers registered with the State government. When a periodical stops publication, quite often the owners never inform the RNI of the fact. There are also other weekly newspapers that are regularly irregular and publish only on those due dates when there are advertisements. Both categories of newspapers are frequently used in Manipur to help contractors and to take a share of the huge profits. A government officer empowered to publish an advertisement about a contract publishes it in a defunct or irregular newspaper which prints a few hundred copies with the tender advertisement concerned. No other contractor gets to know of the advertisement. Just one contractor sends in a tender with a highly inflated bid and gets the contract because there is no other bid. The three parties involved in the process all make hefty windfalls. These are called ‘black tenders’ in Manipur.
However, what is worrying the people of the Northeast is a far worse kind of aberration that is gradually eroding the truthfulness, honesty and courage of the Fourth Estate. It is the complete dependence of newspapers on government advertisements alone as the only source of income. When this happens, the newspaper concerned has completely forfeited its freedom and its courage to stand up against the government. The fear of losing government advertisements hangs like the sword of Damocles over the head of the newspaper owner. A whole lot of newspapers become the willy-nilly supporters of the government when the government can get them in this kind of a financial bind. When this happens, the people can expect nothing at all from the Fourth Estate regardless of how autocratic, repressive, lawless or anarchic the government becomes, since it has bought a sizeable section of the media, and that section must toe the government’s line. The stranglehold on the people is further compounded by ministers acquiring newspapers and television channels. In the Northeast, ministers and former ministers are known to own both. Likewise, terrorist outfits are known to support newspapers that in turn support them. In a region where the lack of development of conventional industries has turned terrorism itself into an industry, a media that turns its back on the people merely helps the bizarre and perverse process. Similarly, the siphoning of Central grants for development projects has been turned into a lucrative business in several north-eastern States. A lot of people are beginning to live as though there is no tomorrow.
However, the other pernicious attitude of the media that is spreading like an epidemic from the metropolitan dailies is the tendency of journalists and newspapers to behave as if the villages of India and the unorganized sector do not exist. This attitude, and the total neglect of all news relating to development—especially rural development—is a media epidemic that is spreading to the peripheral States from mainland India rather fast. These are attitudes that project the divide between India and Bharat in sharper relief. The second partition of India that is taking place is one that has been triggered off by mental attitudes, and the media has a rather prominent and unforgivable role in what is happening. The media of the Northeast is no different in the matter of pursuing fashions and fads that are irresponsible and irrational. These are unhealthy and puerile fads that television has been spreading far more decisively than the print media. But the print media is not far behind in stoking the process of the second diabolic partition of India that we seem to have embarked on. The sooner television channels, newspaper owners and journalists begin to realize this and make amends, the better for the nation and the Fourth Estate they seek to serve.
I am greatly indebted to Pradip Phanjoubam for all the help I have had in respect of details about newspapers of the Northeast from his article “NE Media Landscape”.
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