There is an uncanny familiarity the media fraternity in Manipur would be sensing in the predicament their colleagues in Nagaland are facing today. Following a circular from the Inspector General, Assam Rifles addressed to five of the most prominent editors of newspapers in the state, reminding them that the faction of the NSCN led by S.S. Khaplang had been banned by the Government of India vide an order dated September 28, and that carrying statements of the organisation can attract penalty under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The immediate provocation for the reminder seems to be three articles published on October 17, 18 and 21, in which “you have published articles issued by MIP of NSCN (K) threatening senior law makers of the Nagaland Government and encouraging collection of funds by representative of NSCN (K).” The Assam Rifles circular also said “the intention of declaring the NSCN(K) an Unlawful Association under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 is to curb and prevent fresh recruitments, violent, terrorist & secessionist activities, collection of funds, etc.” The patronising presumption that the Nagaland editors would not be in the know of all this, is itself an insult.
As expected, the Nagaland editors responded with a polite but firm reply that they were never partisan to any party in the prolonged conflict situation in the state and that at no point did they cross the limits of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to the media by the Indian constitution. They also reminded the Assam Rifles that by publishing news of any given militant organisation, they were not abetting or assisting putative crimes the organisation may commit, but only informing the public of the reality of the political environment they all live in, however oppressive this portrayal may be, and this was done as per the mandate given to any news organisation. They also claimed that it was honest portrayal of the situation such as this, which actually shaped the strong public opinion in Nagaland opposing unwarranted “taxation” by various underground organisations. To press home their opposition to the Assam Rifles intrusion into their affairs and casting aspersion on their integrity as law abiding citizens, they also left their editorial spaces blank. What else is there for those of us in Manipur to say than that our solidarity goes out unreservedly to our colleagues in our neighbouring state.
We have not seen the three articles published by these newspapers, which according to the Assam Rifles amounted to threats issued to “senior law makers of the Nagaland Government and encouraging collection of funds by representative of the NSCN(K)”, therefore it would not be fair for us to be judgmental. However going by our own experience, the Manipur media can well imagine how thin and dangerous the line the Nagaland editors would be walking on. The moot question is, how do we as free media handle press releases from increasingly faction ridden underground organisations which often amount to threats issued to individuals to surrender before them, or else are veiled monetary demands made under the shadow of the gun on individuals and business establishments. Especially in a conflict situation deeply embedded in the social fabric itself, and with seemingly no conclusion likely for a long while, if at all, this is a difficult question to negotiate. On several occasions, the Manipur media too have had to resort to not just blank editorials but go off the stands for days to send out the message that the media should be allowed to exercise its own judgments on what is news and what is not without anybody, the government or its challengers, breathing down its neck. The resolution that the journalist fraternity here have adopted is to drop all press releases from any party which amount to threats to individuals or else are disguised extortion demands. It goes without saying this has not always been an easy resolution to keep.
We empathise with what the Nagaland media is going through today. We are also proud that their decision too has been similar to those of the Manipur media in similar situation – leave us alone in the discharge of our duties. We know what we are doing and we know the law. We also know what must be done in abnormal situations such as that we live in, and if you do not understand this, you do not know the place, and therefore cannot be the arbitrator.