Militantly minding the media

The HOOT June 30, 2010

Barring editors and office bearers of the journalists’ union, not a single reporter has been spared the threat calls by unidentified persons in Manipur.

NINGLUN HANGHAL wonders who will tell the story of the story teller

There was no news from Manipur as newspaper publications had shut down. Even web based communications were not updated. This happens in this troubled north eastern state of India every alternate week.

When student leaders from Nagaland announced at a press meet in Delhi on June 14 that they were suspending their 60-days-long economic blockade of National Highways 39 and 53 following their ‘positive' meeting with the Prime Minister, I eagerly gave this news to the Editor of The Sangai Express, an Imphal daily.

While listening to the news that would bring relief to the beleaguered people of Manipur with excitement that matched mine, the editor also spoke of the media's on-going ‘confrontation' with an insurgent outfit that had even forced him to remove the press tag from his car.

In this strife-torn state the woes of the media seem to see no end. After the blockade they were accused of bias in reporting the Naga leaders' home visit. Newspapers have been forced to cut down on pages due to shortage of newsprint and most publications in the capital city of Imphal are being targeted by militant outfits once again.

On June 26th and 27th newspapers did not hit the stands again as journalists from print and electronic media held a sit-in demonstration to protest against the death threats issued to the Manipur Working Journalists Union spokesperson by a proscribed outfit. This threat was issued despite the dialogue initiated by the media with members of the outfit. ANI, a news agency, quoted an Imphal-based journalist who said that the threat had been issued after an initial apology by the militant faction. He said the sit-in protest was against the severity of the threat. The militants had warned of fatal consequences.

Barring editors and office bearers of the journalists' union, not a single reporter has been spared the threat calls by unidentified persons in Manipur. In November 2008 all publications had shut down for 10 days after a reporter with the Imphal Free Press was killed under suspicious circumstances. In 2004, ISTV - a local channel - was not allowed to telecast its programmes by the state government during the height of the protests against AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in the aftermath of an alleged rape and murder of a woman by personnel of Assam Rifles.

As if the flack that the media was facing from militant threats was not enough, news came via the Hindu of June 27 that the Defence Ministry had taken a serious view of what it perceived as the partisan publicity being given to militant handouts by the press in Manipur. The report said that the complaint had been forwarded to the Home Ministry alleging that the media was being used as a mouth piece by banned organisations.

What is surprising in this situation is that the civilian population at large seems to be quite blasé about the whole issue. Yet the media in Manipur is relentless in its endeavour to provide information and it will always bounce back with new vigour after every " Litmus test " as the editorial in The Sangai Express of June 27 says.In an embattled state like Manipur the media, seen as a soft target, has always been and will continue to be pressurized by the state and the militant organisations. The editorial adds that this was bound to be part and parcel of the profession further stating, that for a media to be taken seriously it has to be treated as such by each and every single pressure group.

As news writers stop writing and publishers shut down their publications, the general public is deprived of information. The irony is that there is no one to tell the story of the story teller and the media don't tell their own story either.

Are NGOs from the North East suspect for the media?

THE HOOT , Tuesday, Jun 08 : 2010

>At the end of the press conference one wondered-- had the two women been from so-called ‘ mainland India’ NGOs would the media have asked the same questions?

NINGLUN HANGHAL tries to decode the behaviour North Easterners encounter from journalists.

Two women representative of Impulse NGO network, Shillong (Meghalaya) and Human Rights Now, a Tokyo (Japan) base human rights group addressed the media at Press Club in Delhi on June 5, 2010. They presented their recently conducted fact finding report of child labour employed in the coal mines of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.
A good number of media personalities, both national and from the North East attended the press conference. Kazuko Ito the Secretary General of Human Rights Now briefed them on the 3 day investigation visit to Jaintia Hills' coal mine areas. She reported that children as young as 6 years of age were employed for mining. The team found that these children were working under extremely hazardous and dangerous conditions, while they were given half of what the adult labourers earn.

Sharing their experiences and work, the Impulse NGO network team leader Hasina Kharbhih said that since children were brought or trafficked from outside Meghalaya, most of them from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh at a very young age, they do not know where and how to find their way back home. And even if rescued for rehabilitation or for repatriation, they do not have parents or a place to call home. These children work in the risky underground round rat holes. In case of accidents, their deaths were never reported.

She further informed that a survey conducted by the organization estimated that over 70, 000 children were employed in these coal mines. It may be noted that these coal mines were not Government registered and are on privately owned lands. Therefore information was collected through informal interactions with the children and the employers.

Related issues, cross border perspectives, international human rights laws etc were presented by the two addressees. Thereafter the floor was open for questions from the media.

Pat came the question from the middle row directed to the Shillong base NGO representative, “why are you working with a ‘foreign' NGO? Do you work with any of an ‘Indian' organization?” To which the lady replied that Impulse NGO network collaborates and network with various national level organizations working on issues of child labour, trafficking, women and children, human rights etc, adding that the organization is a member of Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

Another young, enthusiastic reporter, probably a new recruit, asked on what the NGO does about issue like child labour in industries, slum children etc. Smiling, the NGO lady replied that they do not have the capacity to look into all issues, and that there are no such big Industries in North East India.

The grilling continued. A middle--aged journalist in the front who had been questioning the two ladies on varied topics inquired where and how do they get ‘funds'. Most of his questions were in Hindi. When Hasina, the representative of Impulse NGO, pulled herself together to answer, the journalist's mobile phone rang. The call seems to be important as he moved to the back of the conference hall answering, audible to everyone in the hall. Finally after the telephone conversation, he left.

At the end of the press conference, one wondered had the two women been from the so called ‘ mainland India' NGOs would the media asked the same questions? Was it because they looked so different that the issue they address had gone in another direction? Was it because they were from the North East and that the media just did not know what to ask? Or was suspicious of them?

Later, talking exclusively to some of the North East media persons , Hasina Kharbhih noted that information about Impulse NGO network is available in the organization website which include accounts and finances. !

It has often been said that North East does not make ‘news' in the national media.
Definitely the June 5th press conference of the fact finding team on child labour in the coal mines of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya did not make it to the front pages of the Delhi newspapers. Indeed it took quite some time to browse though the major daily papers; the Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, or Jansatta, Nai Duniya, Dainik Bhaskar in an attempt to find the report of the trafficked children enslaved in the far eastern state of Meghalaya. A write-up from its Shillong correspondent was published in the Hindustan Times, June 6th edition on the Variety page. The story carried pictures and a map too, probably to indicate where Meghalaya is!

Yet there has been quite a lot of media coverage in recent years. Some of the infamous stories from the national media are as follows. On March 2, 2008, the Times of India carried the headlines “Spa with a difference” with the lines ...“walk into a spa you will meet professional doctors rather than a Linda from North East”. The January 28, 2008 issue of Mail Today had a story “ drug lords prey north east girls” which said “.. the next time a cocaine addict in Delhi orders for a fix, standing at the door it'll probably be a North East girl...and for a few extra thousand she will put sex on offer ...”

As questions continue to linger in the minds of many a North Easterner, it may not be inaccurate to state that a certain amount of “otherness” remains as an important factor between the NE region and mainland India. Resulting in the national media's judgemental assumptions about the people of the North East, the women in particular.