By Md. Abdul Gaffar
The remarkable power of the media, particularly the electronic media, as a means of mass communication is unquestionable. The media power springs from the credibility of the information which the media person intends to pass over to the readers and the viewers. One expects the professional media person to be the source of information himself/herself without being dependent on the untested/untried ‘informers’, some of whom may be biased, revengeful, superficial and irresponsible. A successful media person is not a second-rate professional. A hallmark of the Fourth Estate should be its exemplary professionalism; this breed of media person delves into facts, treating the transmission of news, first and foremost as a transfer of hard and real news. That is how a good news report is born. Such media conditions the citizens’ mind in the right direction and with the right intent. An inquisitive, diligent and no-nonsense media men as they are, they also turn out to be good authors and commentators on public issues. Pradip phanjaobam, the editor of Imphal Free Press (The North East Question: Conflicts and Frontiers) is one such contemporary Manipur’s illustrious media persons.
Unfortunately, however, in Manipur, the cause of concern is the growing tendency of other brand of media persons who, in their exuberance, dish out utterly baseless, shocking and thoroughly ill-intentioned stories which are tantamount to character assassination of the person/community who is brought under their scanner. To this brand of media persons, moral principles and professional ethics are the relics of the dinosaurian age, quite out of tune with the Machiavellian world that they so meticulously create for themselves.
This is clearly evident from the recent communal incident at Lilong Nungei of Thoubal district, Manipur where the media houses has shamelessly reported news with a bias, often quite brazenly taking sides of one community against another. The incident in question is not from too far back. On December 13, 2016 at around 3.30pm, a person named Irungbam Dinesh from Pisumthong who married a girl from Lilong Nungei and lives with his wife’s family (yumgaraga leiba) shot at a bird (to kill it) using his double-barrel gun. A stray bullet hit at a young boy, who happened to be Muslim from the neighbourhood of Pangal. Eight year old Md. Aslam had been enjoying the sun in front of his house.
Angry elders from the family of the young boy rushed the home of Dinesh. The ensuing melee resulted in torching of some homes leading Dinesh and his friends retaliating with gunfire led to injure 9 more Muslims who have been hospitalised at Noor Hospital, Lilong. Some reports from the spot indicate that Dinesh has a history of committing petty and more serious crimes, which is the reason he has been ‘evicted’ from his native place and is not allowed to live in his village, Pisumthong.
The situation is turned more serious when the original incident was ignored in the rporting that followed. Sections of the media launched a determined attack on Pangals of Lilong Nungei and whipped up a communal frenzy in the area which eventually led to the burning down of two Muslim houses and six more Pangals being injured. For example, Poknapham, a Manipuri daily and The People’s Chronicle, a sister publication of ‘Poknapham’ reported on December 15, 2016, “some residents of Nungei Muslim village used loudspeakers to assemble people at around 4pm Wednesday and started attacking nearby Nungei village inhabited by another community using licensed double-barrel guns. The gun attack compelled Nungei villagers to flee their homes while the attacking party torched five houses and looted a grocery shop located at the intersection of the two villages”. Naharolgi Thoudang, a Manipuri daily on December 14 make the headline as “Gun fired at Nungei injured several, Meitei villagers flee their homes”. It further reported that the gun was also used to attack the house of Meitei which caused injury to some animals and led to violence. Another Manipuri daily, Sanaleipak, contrarily writes on December 14 that the injured person is a Meitei boy and attacks and firing were committed by Pangals.
Unfortunately this kind of sensational and unsubstantiated reporting has succeeded in suppressing facts that could otherwise have given the readers unbiased news about the incident that had occurred. These newspapers clearly give an impression that the community to which Dinesh belonged is the victimised one that was also assaulted. This fashion of reporting also gives a communal tinge to the incident from the outset and portrays it as an unprovoked assault from the neighbouring Pangals. If this had been the nature of the attacks by Pangals, there should have been some causality to neighbouring Meiteis too. However logic does not play a part in this kind of journalism that is not trained to be professional and questioning.
Such instances of ‘framed up news’ to ‘blame’ Pangals when such incidents take place serve as propaganda to increase communal tensions and, as consequence, often lead to loss of lives. Such a bias had prevented staff reporters from honest reporting on issues related to the Pangal community in the state.
Since mid-December when this incident took place, this kind of propaganda has spread so fast that conflicts have been brewing in the neighbouring Meitei localities: the feeling that Lilong Muslim has ill-treated Nungei Meiteis made some Meiteis assemble the day after the incident. This was followed by an incident when on the next day; some 30 unidentified people have beaten three Pangal youths who came back to their home in a Honda Activa (MN-01L-1855). Police and law enforcement personnel simply did not intervene. As a result, 148 Pangals have been compelled to vacate their homes (about 49 houses) over the past ten days and taken refuge at Lilong Haoreibi College, some 10 kms away from the spot area. A combination of media inspired crimes and complicity by security personnel’s allowed such an organised crime to take place.
How has this come to pass? All this obvious bias in news coverage about Pangals arises from the excessive control of media and other affairs by only the majority Meitei with their legacy of hatred against Pangals. There are about 35 daily newspapers and 4 local television channels in Manipur. With a total population of just over 27 lakh and a literacy rate that is about 76.94%, it should be obvious that 35 daily newspapers and the large number of weeklies would have to struggle very hard to be viable. This is the very fact that many of these newspapers survive solely on government advertisements or funded by some banned outfits takes away their precious independence and their sense of responsibility to the people and to their hopes and aspirations.
Unfortunately, when this happens, a newspaper abdicates its responsibilities to society and the people. Many of these newspapers have very poor readership or sometimes none at all. In an electoral democracy like ours, they are seen as no more than extensions of the government or the banned outfits to promote their sectarian objectives.
It is this situation that has pushed the weakest community of Manipur society—Pangals—into virtual oblivion. An increasingly anti-Pangal stance also exposes as hypocritical claims of pluralism and diversity within government or governance. Any objective study or analysis—and there is a dire need for such—would show an abject absence of impartiality and the active use of inflammatory techniques during small and larger conflicts that have the effect of provoking one side to retaliatory action against the other. These extremes are routinely visible within Manipur media. No conscious effort has been made by the media, barring a few notable exceptions, to bring the two prominent communities together. On the contrary, conflicts have always been highlighted and worse, projected in a one-sided fashion. The presentation of news and views by these newspapers is creating a sharp division between the Meiteis and Pangal leading to a situation where accusations are flung at each other in everyday life. So long as the media plays on and perpetuates this hostility, it will be very difficult to bridge the growing gulf between the two communities.
Besides the control of large sections of the media by the majority Meitei community, in Manipur, the depressing state of affairs urgently calls for the government, the media and the civil society to come together and assert their inclusive roles. The electronic media in particular need to have a relook at its recruitment policy. The services of the media persons who have respect for professional ethics should be utilised for the selection of the reporters and cameramen. A comprehensive code of conduct for these media persons should be formulated and vetted by the Press Council of India (PCI). Any media person who does not feel the prick of conscience while dishing out false, fabricated, motivated news item cannot be a member of the Fourth Estate. Television Channels or newspapers with a hidden, communal newspapers agenda need to be admonished by the PCI. Instead of observing the universally accepted journalistic ethics, these newspapers have been engaging for decades in writing ‘in blood and vitriol’. It spewed ‘venom every morning’ during the months in 1993 when the Meitei was killing Pangals. Their role in society is a blot on journalism. It is about time that professional bodies call them to account.
The article was originally published in IFP.