Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

Profiling Pressures on the Media in the North-East

Sanjoy Hazarika

The English language media in the North East is very young, by the standards of the rest of India and South Asia.  But one should point out that the dissemination of the Roman script by missionaries, the growth of English-style boarding schools and the presence of the British regime especially in Assam, eventually led to the establishment of this print media. Nowhere is this clearer than in Nagaland, where there are four English papers in the main towns of Dimapur and Kohima.  A good part of the reporting is about factional fights between the various underground groups as well of political developments.
    What is especially interesting is that the major insurgent groups use newspapers in Nagaland as platforms for their viewpoints, against each other and the Central and state governments. The op-ed page would invariably have a graphic chart of allegations and counter-allegations by one group or the other, in addition to letters to the editor, supporting one point of view or the other.  The papers are seen as platforms for venting political spleen and vendetta and they are expected to carry the statements in their entirely.  
    It is not surprising therefore that the media should come under such pressure from militant groups as well as governments and particularly security forces.  Both sides use information as propaganda or vice versa in the battleground for minds and hearts.  These have included arbitrary detentions and physical intimidation; often there are phone calls and requests to tone down a particular incident or event. In some cases, the administration and especially security forces blame journalists for appearing to support militant groups by reporting extensively on their activities and not covering the “positive” side of the State’s activities: health camps, road building, construction of sports stadiums,  cultural festivals and similar events.
    But often journalists find delays when they require quick responses from security officials especially after events take place in isolated situations. On the other hand, the insurgents and armed groups quick off the mark with a statement.  At times, delays in the official apparatus, caused by going up the official ladder for clearances, can press a response till past media deadline.  
    I am especially concerned about threats which have repeatedly been made to editors and media practitioners in Manipur where journalists have been killed in the line of duty. In the past months, editors and media leaders have spoken out strongly on this issue of intimidation but it is pathetic to see the failure of metro media and journalists across the country to support their brethren under pressure.  
    There have been cases in other states as well of threats issued to journalists and editors who do not publish pages and pages of poorly-drafted rhetoric. Several have been kidnapped by one group or the other (these proliferate so quickly that they are hard to keep track of) for not following their diktats.
    But as far as the assaults or abductions of the journalists in the North-east, the rest of the metro media could not have been bothered about them - it is as they did not exist.  When the media in Manipur went on strike to protest the killing of one of their fraternity, there was barely a report in the major English newspapers, forget about the language ones, except perhaps in the North East. There was not even the whisper of a protest, whether in Calcutta, Bombay or Delhi to express solidarity.  This shows the continuing gap between the region and the rest of India and it is reflected in media ignorance or callousness as much as anything else.  
    It is worth remembering that as in other conflict zones across the world, whether it is Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, Iraq or Latin America s well as closer home in Jammu and Kashmir, journalists in the North East often report on issues at considerable personal risk.  They do so at low salaries, no insurance and little if any training.  Here the periphery remains truly peripheral, the margins remain marginalized despite the presence of large networks and newspapers from metro centres in the region. This is a failure of the metro media - their failure to add value and develop a greater network of safety and responsibility for the less privileged media in the region.  It is not just a question of readership and expanding circulation, of better salaries and working conditions.  All these are important but they need to benefit a wider range of people in the media, especially those not employed by large metro media. There will be a number of problems along the route – a large number of local media may be unable or unwilling (or both) to pay the kind of salaries and benefits that the bigger media can and does.  
    But that does not mean that the larger media or media institutes cannot develop, for example, a special insurance scheme for journalists in conflict situations which should become the norm for all media employing journalists in such areas in the North East or elsewhere.  One is not asking for altruism but the initiation of such policies at the policy level among newspaper owner associations and those of editors and working journalists through discussions and debates, to start with.  The formalization of an overall policy with specific references to the north east and north west, where journalism is as much in the line of fire as any other profession, could follow from such bodies and then be presented to the Centre and the respective states for follow up as well insurance companies.

Manipur Media resists: the need for solidarity

One is reminded of the pressures and challenges which the Manipur media, for example, faces regularly in reporting conflict situations in that state.  Let me quote from a code of conduct that journalists there have developed in a stout defense of their rights in the face of intimidation from militant groups.  What is saddening is that virtually none of the media organizations at the metro level have thought it important enough to support them in their distant and difficult struggle.  This makes their job harder and lonelier and it is the task of journalists everywhere, and we should not expect corporates to do this job because they cannot and will not back them.  That is the nature of the corporate beast, on the whole with few exceptions.
    We carried the text of this statement in full in The North East Page of the Statesman as an expression of solidarity. The Code of Conduct was adopted at a special general body meeting of the Manipur Working Journalists’ Union in Imphal after persistent threats against professional journalists from various militant groups:

1.   No claim made by unidentified sources/person(s) over telephone will be entertained. In case of 
                identification, editors will decide.
2.   No press conference called by any individual or organizations without official invitation will be 
3.   All press releases of any organization have to be duly signed with the organizational seal on the 
4.   All press releases of any organisation(s) must be issued before 8 pm for morning dailies, 3 pm for 
                eveningers and 4 pm for cable news channels.
5.   In case of conflict/controversies between two or more parties, views of parties concerned will be 
                given equal coverage.
6.   If the arguments and counter arguments raised become harmful to the state and could claim human 
                lives, the AMWJU reserves the right to censor.
7.   In the event of an organization or individual desiring to withdraw any press-release before being 
                printed the same organization or individual who signed the press-release must approach the editor 
8.   If any individual/organizations have any grievances (except petty or small matters which can be 
                resolved by the editor) against any newspaper, the concerned should first approach the AMWJU to 
                address the problem.
9.   All newspapers media persons will follow the norms of journalistic conduct as laid down by the 
                Press Council of India (PCI).
10.   Editors are advised to refrain from sensationalizing any news report or indulging in sensationalism.
11.   Editors will bear the responsibility for mistake or omission and the commission appearing in their 
12.   All editors have the right to censor/delete partly or as a whole any news report or press-release or 
                interview or press conference which could create communal tension or group clashes.
13.   In case of violation of the CODE OF CONDUCT laid down by the AMWJU by any 
                reporter/newspaper, the AMWJU will initiate punitive action against the reporter/newspaper.
14.   It is the prerogative of an editor to publish or not to publish a news report or a press-release.
15.   A report of a newspaper should not be contradicted by another newspaper in the form of a 
                rejoinder or an advertisement or a news report. Even if necessity arises, the version of the 
                newspaper concerned be taken by the other newspaper before any such publication.
16.   Press releases of any organization should be made available to all offices of the 
                press/newspaper/media organization by the organization on its own. No press/newspaper/media 
                organization should be given the responsibility to distribute the press-release(s).
17.   Editors will not entertain any Diktat from any quarter to publish or not to publish a news report or 
                press release.
Media corporations need to develop a public stake in the areas they are reporting, especially if they are as complex and sensitive as the North East and Kashmir, to name just two regions.  Such a stake should include helping develop better working conditions for professional media - this will build capacity at the local level, tapping existing human resources and also in the short and long term develop better all-round professionals who can compete with others in different parts of the country.  
    But if they do not, should we continue to wait and watch the pressure of militants and security forces on the media?  Working journalists must organize themselves as allies of those in the North-east who work and continue to report the news under such difficult and troubling conditions. We cannot wait for the corporates to do this; it is our professional and personal responsibility.

Strategies for Changes

    There are some changes which are coming, albeit at a low-key level, but they are coming.  
    Ten years ago, there were but a handful of journalists from the region working in the New Delhi region. Today there are well over 70 and that number is growing: they are in television, radio and print as producers, reporters and editors.  This is a positive change that has been visible in a single decade.  It is not that they are reporting or working on issues of the North-east.  That would ghettoize their skills and capabilities: it is better to compete on “mainstream” issues and show that journalists from the region are as competent and competitive on issues of national, international and region concerns as any others. It represents a huge surge in terms of human resources. It also is a substantial presence in itself and the group now has an interactive email network (northeastjournos@yahoogroups.com), an initiative that a few of us started a few years ago.  There is a lot of information and many views which are shared and aired - not all of them are either useful or interesting and at times it’s got pretty personal and ugly.  But it’s out there, it seeks to be open and transparent and these are growing, teething troubles which will get over with sensitivity, learning and experience. The physical presence of the journalists is important for it sends a clear message to the rest of the Indian media that those from out there are also professional, competent, competitive and they’re here to stay.  
    It is this factor which is as important as anything else - that, given a break, those from an isolated and “underdeveloped” region as the North-east can compete with the best.     
    In the United States, there is a US-born Assamese reporter in the Washington Post and at least five others in US media at varying levels. An Assamese has been head of the programming unit of the BBC World Service in London.  
    The North-east and its media can no longer say they are just neglected or ignored or pushed around.  There is no more time for apportioning blame. They have to reach out to the rest of India and involve them in the stories and life of the region.
    In an effort to bridge the information gap between the North East and the rest of India, I conceived and launched the North East Media Exchange Program in 1996 (through the National Foundation for India), which awards scholarships to media persons from the region and other parts of the country to study and report on issues which they may not, in the normal course, get a chance to research and write about.  Thus in the past years, not less than 67 journalists (42 from the North East and 25 from other parts of India) have benefited from this effort to bridge the information and communication gap between the NER and the rest of India. Several of them now work for the metro media, telling the stories and problems of the North East in a graphic and sensitive manner. 
    In addition, the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research has launched a fellowship program for journalists (supported by the Assamese community in the United States) called the C-NES-Setu National Media Fellowship.  Its first winner was Nitin Sethi of Down to Earth magazine for his proposal to work on issues relating to bamboo development and improving incomes and livelihoods.  This followed the closure of the NFI program last year. There are two fellowships essentially: one for a journalist from outside the region to go into the NER and work on a specific issue or range of issues; the second is for a practicing media person from the NER to work on issues of concern in other parts of the country. A committee of eminent editors including Pradip Phanjoubam of the Imphal Free Press in Manipur and Dilip Chandan of the Asom Bani select the fellows. The fellowship to the Northeastern journalist will be in the area of local governance and the use of communications (particularly information technology) in states such as Andhra Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh.  The other fellowship will focus on development perspectives from the grassroots, especially local innovations, in the North East.
    This effort, we believe, will bring the region closer to the rest of the country, especially by making journalists and communicators better informed about issues and, in turn, informing readers and audiences. The effort through the fellowships is to widen this base of knowledge and understanding, to sensitize journalists and communicators to major issues. In addition, we propose to edit and publish the work of the fellows as monographs for distribution.  
    Rural reporting, regional reporting and regional reporters who work at the local, regional and national levels are here to stay.  They give insights, colour, ideas and add strength at all these levels.  They build networks, establish friendships, create professional and personal interests in their areas - rural, regional and otherwise. But they also must guard against being absorbed into the rat-race of metro media where everyone wants to become like someone else, dropping their own ideas, identities and realities. 
    Media Fellowships can be a major step in plugging the information gaps which exist and at developing a clearer, better informed image of the region which will help in a number of other ways - they can, for example, enable potential investors to take realistic decisions, based on facts, not government hype or rhetoric.  
    The media’s role in developing a correct image of our region and peoples is critical. The fellowships program is part of a process of enabling a better flow of information and changing both mindsets and prejudices: in the minds of journalists and editors as much as in the general public.  For if the media is misinformed, then can the public be blamed?  We have to tackle the problem at its roots. In addition, established journalists must commit themselves to helping young journalists from our area find better professional opportunities and space.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati