On November 17, 2008, Konsam Rishikanta, 22, a junior sub-editor with the Imphal Free Press (IFP), a daily newspaper published from Imphal, capital of the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, was found shot dead in the city.
Rishikanta had left home early that morning after informing his family that he would be reporting for work around midday. His first call that day was supposedly at a small desk-top publishing establishment he had worked in till September 3, where he was believed to be owed some back wages. An alarm went out when he failed to report for work at the appointed time. He was discovered, fatally shot, in the Langol area of Imphal that afternoon.
The media community in Manipur, led by the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU), declared a general closure of all newspapers in the state for six days from November 20 to protest Rishikanta’s murder. After six days, the strike was extended indefinitely. It was only after 11 days that local authorities conceded a key AMWJU demand – that the investigation into Rishikanta’s murder be entrusted to the police agency controlled by India’s Union Government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Manipur is among the smaller states of India, with a population of about 2.5 million. But it is among the most troubled, with an estimated 28 armed groups operating with impunity. Part of the reason for the AMWJU’s insistence on the investigation being handed over to the CBI was its belief that the state government often makes strategic use of one insurgent group to bring others to heel. If Rishikanta had been killed by one of the armed groups operating in Manipur, then the state government – and its police force – could conceivably have had a problem viewing all suspects with the strict neutrality required for a fair investigation.
Subsequent events have not quite borne out the early belief that the CBI would pursue the case with the required seriousness. First, it took till January 20 for the agency to acknowledge its willingness to take the case up and issue a communique to the Manipur Home Department to hand over all records and material evidence. The CBI has an office in Imphal, which is limited in its jurisdiction merely to cases of corruption. With the Imphal establishment of the CBI reporting that it was in no position to handle the case, the matter was entrusted to the Kolkata office, which is the hub of the agency for all of eastern and north-eastern India. The first investigating team inquiring into the Rishikanta murder visited Imphal in May.
Shortly after his first visit to Imphal, the CBI official in charge of the investigations spoke to a representative of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and mentioned important leads that had been gained. Essential evidence though was missing, he said. The bullet cartridges from the murder, which would have been necessary to do a ballistics match with the possible weapons used, were not in the possession of the state police since they had gone missing from the scene. The investigating officer, who is of the rank of a Deputy Superintendent in the CBI, said he suspected that media teams that reached the murder spot first may have taken the cartridges away. This, he warned, was a serious matter, since it amounted to tampering with evidence.
The IFJ has inquired with various media organisations and persons in Manipur about this allegation. All of them say they had no knowledge of such a suspicion on the part of the investigation agency.
Rishikanta’s body was found in a tightly guarded spot, which has four approaches, all protected by security pickets. Entering the area would have been easy, though anyone bearing arms would have been at risk of arrest under the special security laws that apply in the state. For someone to have made an exit from the area after shots had been heard, without encountering a security check, would be, in the judgment of most journalists, virtually impossible.
On the morning of his death, Rishikanta had visited a commercial establishment engaged in desktop publishing, where he had worked till two-and-a-half months before. Opinions are divided on the circumstances under which he left. Some among Manipur’s journalists tend to believe that the establishment could have been used for printing publicity material for some of Manipur’s underground groups. The official investigation is yet to arrive at any conclusions on this question. And most local journalists say that they would prefer not make any inference without definitive confirmation.
According to sources in the AMWJU, the police took an inordinately long time to question the owner of the publishing business where Rishikanta had worked. The business owner was also reported to be conspicuous by his absence from the crowds that gathered at Rishikanta’s home to offer condolences.
Investigators have put together a pattern of telephone threats that begin on September 6, just three days after Rishikanta left the desktop publishing shop to take up full-time assignment with the Imphal Free Press. Mobile phone records unearthed by the investigators reveal a number of calls made to Rishikanta, purportedly from a mobile phone that has been identified with elements of the banned insurgent outfit known as the KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kann Lup or Organisation to Save the Manipur Revolutionary Movement). Rishikanta’s own calls to this number are occasional, sporadic and short. The calls he receives from the same number are frequent and long in duration.
The day he was killed, phone records reveal Rishikanta received several calls from this number.
All this was known and widely talked about in journalistic circles at the time that the CBI team made its first visit to Imphal. But the investigations took a while gearing up. Finally, as reported in the Imphal Free Press, the CBI began the “intensive” phase of its investigations much later – on June 16, 2009, or close to seven months since the murder – with the interrogation of five members of the newspaper staff and Rishikanta’s immediate family. In all, the CBI, which was conducting its investigation from the local office in Imphal, intended recording the statements of 29 key persons with possible knowledge of the case by June 23, reported the newspaper.
On July 10, the Manipur police put out a press release which said that an arrested activist of the KYKL had confessed during interrogation that Rishikanta had been a key figure in the organisation and had recruited him to the cause. Individuals who knew Rishikanta have reacted with disbelief, since he showed little political inclination through all the months that he was working as a journalist. There are reasons to believe that the arrest and subsequent confession of the KYKL activist implicating Rishikanta was not procedurally sound. Rishikanta’s family, who have sought to meet the activist and query him, have been denied permission. But with Rishikanta now officially characterised as a political activist and possibly a militant belonging to a proscribed and much-dreaded insurgent group, public interest in ensuring that his killers are brought to justice, is expected to abate.
Within a few weeks, the Manipur Government was facing a fresh challenge, with the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka publishing a grisly sequence of photographs depicting an incident on July 23, when a young man was taken in by the elite commando corps of the state police, hustled into a commercial establishment in a busy thoroughfare in Imphal city, and shot dead with ample premeditation and little motive. Imphal city erupted in violent demonstrations against this enactment of summary justice, which occurred at a distance of less than half a kilometre from Manipur’s legislative assembly. The photo montage was reproduced in a leading newspaper in the national capital of Delhi, leading to worried queries from the Union Government.
Four policemen from the Manipur commando force were immediately suspended. But with public unrest refusing to ease, the state government announced a judicial commission of inquiry, close to a month after Tehelka featured the horrific tableau of death.
Under the force of these events, the Rishikanta murder was virtually forgotten. This would have been a circumstance of some convenience for the investigators. CBI investigations have often been seen, in situations where local authorities are either compromised or suspected of complicity in wrongdoing, as the best manner to ensure justice. Under India’s Constitution, state governments have exclusive jurisdiction over law and order. There are exceptional circumstances though, in which the Union Government’s resources, including the CBI, can be called in to investigate crimes, though this would require the consent of the state government. In recent times, this process has acquired a ritualistic quality and been reduced to a means of defusing serious tension at the state level, while not holding out any assurance of better results.
Assam: Most hazardous terrain for journalism in India
Even as the criminal investigations into the Rishikanta murder foundered, a cautionary tale was emerging from neighbouring Assam – the largest of the north-eastern Indian states – of how CBI investigations into the murder of journalists are often worthless. On July 29, a trial court in Guwahati, the largest city and capital of Assam in all but name, acquitted the sole accused in the murder of Parag Kumar Das, executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin, the largest circulated daily in the Assamese language. Das was a respected journalist and public intellectual, active in human rights campaigns and an outspoken critic of the security strategy adopted by the government authorities in the state, which often involved the covert use of underground elements to carry out targeted strikes. He was shot dead in May 1996, in broad daylight in a busy part of Guwahati as he fetched his son from school. It was by coincidence or otherwise the very day that a new government was being sworn into office in the state. At the time, the state government responded to widespread public outrage over its handling of the case by calling in the CBI.
Four persons, all surrendered militants of the separatist insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), were indicted for the crime in 2001. As an analyst has noted, the “surrendered ULFA” (or SULFA) formed the “core of the ‘secret killings’ strategy, comprising certain members of the security forces and surrendered militants, that created terror in Assam from 1996 to 2001”. Two of the accused were dead by the time the charge-sheet in the murder case was filed. Another was killed in an act of mob vengeance in 2003 while on bail. By the time the trial began in 2004, only one of the accused, Mridul Phukan, remained alive to face charges, and there were widespread concerns among journalists and the human rights community that several key witnesses had not been interviewed, that key evidence had been tampered with, and that the case had been constructed to ensure a guilty verdict was a remote possibility.
In rendering his 60-page judgment, the trial court judge reserved special words of censure for the investigating agency, pointing out numerous procedural lapses and a conspicuous failure of witness protection, which led several crucial witnesses to withhold evidence or turn hostile. Das’s family reacted with dismay and shock to the verdict, resolving to appeal before the Guwahati High Court. Various journalists’ bodies in Assam have also resolved to undertake a public campaign until there is greater seriousness shown in investigating the crime.
Where the hazards of journalism in India are concerned, Assam is ground zero. Das is one name among a grim catalogue of 20 journalists who have been murdered in the state since 1990. The two most recent cases bear close attention, since both involve journalists who walked a tight-rope between the state’s numerous insurgent outfits – those willing to talk terms with the government and those unwilling to do so, those that were allied in contingent fashion with state security agencies and those that were not. Both journalists seemingly worked beyond the border-line of journalistic ethics, though it remains to be established whether this was out of compulsion or choice.
Case of Jagajit Saikia
On November 22, 2008, Jagajit Saikia, a correspondent for the Assamese language daily Amar Asom, was shot dead outside his office in a busy commercial area of Kokrajhar, a district town in Assam. Police sources said that based on a preliminary examination of the used cartridges recovered from the spot, any one of the militant groups active in the area could be responsible for Saikia’s murder.
Kokrajhar was among five towns in Assam targeted by a series of bomb blasts on October 29, in which more than 80 people were killed. Security agencies took into custody several militant cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the principal armed outfit fighting for the political sovereignty of the Bodo tribal group in Assam, over territory north of the River Brahmaputra. India’s Government re-imposed a ban on the NDFB under a law covering “unlawful activities”. The NDFB, which entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government in 2005, denied involvement in the bombings.
Sources in Assam then informed the IFJ that Saikia maintained contacts with the NDFB as part of his professional work. When an IFJ representative met with top police officials in Assam state late in May 2009, they indicated a much deeper nexus between the journalist and the insurgent group. Saikia, they said, had been engaged in fundraising activities for the NDFB. Top officials in charge of law and order in Assam suggest that whatever his reputation elsewhere, Saikia was known in Kokrajhar as an extortionist and journalist in equal parts.
Following the October blasts in Assam, the NDFB went through an internal schism, culminating in the formal split of the organisation in January 2009. The faction that operates from within Assam denounced the founder and president of the organisation, believed to be based in Bangladesh, for his culpability in the bombings. Saikia may have fallen victim to this faction fight within the NDFB. An alternate theory that the police are working on, after taking into custody one person for the murder, is that the more moderate Bodo political group, the Bodoland Liberation Tigers, which disbanded in 2003 and entered into a territorial autonomy arrangement under the Indian constitution, may have been behind the crime.
Senior members of the Journalists’ Union of Assam, based in Guwahati, remain sceptical about the police account, since they had no basis to believe that Saikia was engaged in contacts with the NDFB that went beyond allowable professional limits. Even if true and as widely known in the local context as the police claim, the question arises about why the police and the management of the newspaper with which Saikia worked, chose to turn a blind eye to his alleged role in a proscribed organisation.
This points to a wider malady with the media in Assam and the north-east of India in general, which can be directly attributed to the abysmally low levels of compensation for journalists and their poor working conditions. These make journalists potential accomplices in the political and business agendas of those willing to provide them with the means for a basic level of material security and well-being. This is known to the civil and police authorities, as also to newspaper managements, who choose to do little about it. The malaise has become so deep rooted that journalists in recent times have been known to volunteer their unpaid labour in several of the more troubled districts of Assam, since the greater rewards lie in parlaying the identity of a media person into material gain.
Case of Anil Mozumdar
A host of issues, ethical and professional, are involved in the case of Anil Mozumdar, Executive Editor of the Assamese language daily Aaji, shot dead near his home in Guwahati, late on the night of March 24, 2009. Mozumdar bought Aaji from the Ramdhenu Prakashan group of publications in 2006 and functioned as its Executive Editor ever since. He was earlier the publisher and editor of the Natun Din daily and Saptahik Janamat weekly. He began his career as a local correspondent for Ajir Batori, an Assamese daily in the district town of Nalbari. Local sources who have spoken to the IFJ describe his rapid rise to being the owner and editor of a newspaper as being propelled in part by his willingness to wade into controversy and cut ethical corners in pursuit of business success.
Mozumdar was widely respected for the elegance of his writing in Assamese and the courage with which he often espoused causes that risked earning him the ire of state authorities, often winning him a place in official perceptions, within the league of sympathisers of the banned insurgent outfit, ULFA. He was also a prolific writer, who would not hesitate to lend the power of his prose to a cause that promised him material gain.
Through October and November 2008, Mozumdar featured a series of reports in his newspaper about a prominent Guwahati couple, Matang Sinh and his wife Manoranjana Sinh, whose bitter falling out over control of the NETV media network was a key business story in the region. Aaji took a clear side in this business dispute and marital spat, mixing into its coverage, salacious details of an alleged liaison that Manoranjana Sinh was carrying out with a top police official in Assam. Police officials interviewed by the IFJ were convinced that the coverage granted to this affair in Aaji was far out of proportion to its public interest value, indicating that there were clear pecuniary motives underlying Mozumdar’s editorial decision. In December 2008, the Guwahati High Court, acting on a petition by Manoranjana Singh, issued an injunction against Aaji, restraining it from publishing any further material about her.
A senior lawyer of the Guwahati High Court has disclosed in a media interview that Mozumdar reportedly received a threatening message from a senior police officer a few days before he was killed. But police investigators discount this claim, and have been working on the assumption that the murder had either a political or a business motivation. As the top police official of Assam claimed, Mozumdar’s involvement in activities outside journalism were so numerous that the investigation is unsure about which lead to follow. Assam’s Director-General of Police though is prepared to rule out the involvement of ULFA, since Mozumdar was very close to the insurgent outfit and had in fact once been arrested on precisely those charges. ULFA had been displeased with Mozumdar’s involvement in the Matang Sinh-Manoranjana Sinh spat, but nevertheless issued a strong statement about his murder and vowed to trace those responsible. Assam’s police investigators believe that ULFA’s publicly articulated interest in investigating the murder arises probably from its anxiety to recover the funds raised by Mozumdar, which have been intercepted and diverted since his killing.
Mozumdar’s newspaper was taken over by his brother and shortly afterwards carried an editorial announcement that it was launching its own investigation. The motive that it mentioned as the prime lead in its investigation was a purported conflict between Mozumdar and a big Guwahati based businessman over a land dispute, which is now pending decision in court.
The two most dangerous insurgencies in Assam are those of ULFA and the Bodo groups, which are known to cooperate in a contingent fashion, despite their sharply conflicting political and territorial agendas. Strife in the Bodo areas claimed the life of Badosa Narzary, owner the local channel BL TV in Kokrajhar in April 2008. A former activist of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), Narzary had taken up active media work after the insurgent group laid down arms to become a partner in a negotiated constitutional settlement. Under the settlement, a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was set up with a degree of self-governing autonomy in districts where Bodos have a major presence. It is believed that Narzary may have been murdered by militants who were not reconciled to the peace process of which he was a part.
Indra Mohan Hakasam, a reporter for the Amar Asom newspaper, went missing from his village in 2001, shortly after writing several reports on extortion and abduction allegedly involving ULFA elements. He has since been pronounced dead by the village headman, but his newspaper refuses to provide benefits to the bereaved family in the absence of a formal certification by State authorities.
A different set of factors is believed to have been at play in the murder of Prahlad Goala, Golaghat district correspondent for the daily Asomiya Khabar, in January 2006, shortly after he published a number of articles linking local forest officials to the illicit trade in timber products. A minor official of the state’s Forest Department is in custody for this murder, though a formal charge-sheet is yet to be filed.
Besides ULFA and the Bodo groups, Assam has a multiplicity of other militant groups and political movements with the potential to break out in insurgency. Most of these are constituted on ethnic lines, and allegiances shift frequently. An instance is the Koch Rajbongshi community, found on both banks of the Brahmaputra, which is now campaigning for a separate state of Kamatapura. A fortnightly newspaper that seeks to advance this cause, the Voice of Kamatapura, is supposedly printed in the distinctive language of the community, though it is in script, vocabulary and syntax, virtually identical to Assamese. In a pointed gesture designed to underline its distinctness, the newspaper prints a separate section in the Assamese language.
Ethnic separatism in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar cuts along multiple and divergent lines, creating unending tensions between the numerous tribes and linguistic communities that share this common living space. Reporting in these areas is a constant struggle since extortion, abduction, attacks on public infrastructure and murder, are common tactics of the various groups that are locked in contention. In May 2009 targeted attacks on a particular tribal grouping in the North Cachar hills district, led to a mass exodus of the community to the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Manipur. The state authorities then ordered an evacuation of a number of villages, corralling their inhabitants, estimated at some 50,000, into special security camps, to enable a more targeted attack on the insurgent groups.
These events taking place in the distant borders of India are not featured prominently in national media. And reporting from these districts is an unending battle against overt threats by the militant groups and the natural human tendency to take sides in a war that seemingly pits all against all.
Security and intelligence agencies are known often to make strategic use of the rivalries between insurgent groups for officially sanctioned ends. This has created a dangerous and volatile mix, with journalists often pressured by insurgent groups to suppress information about rival groups, or to portray them in an unfavourable light.
On the reverse side, government forces and the security and intelligence apparatus have been deployed to ensure that any mention of militant groups promptly attracts adverse attention, including possible punitive action. These measures are often used inconsistently, depending on the precise nature of the allegiances of the insurgent groups concerned at any given time. This makes the job of a journalist additionally difficult and hazardous.
The repercussions for the functioning of the media were evident in a cycle of events beginning July 31, 2007, with the delivery of a mortar shell, gift-wrapped, to a newspaper office in Imphal, as a warning to stay away from reportage on certain of the armed insurgent groups in the state. Various militant groups have been sending press releases to newspaper offices, demanding that they be published.
This was followed, within days, by an order from the Manipur State Government, imposing new restrictions on the local media, particularly on reporting the activities of armed insurgent groups in the state. In this manner, the armed confrontation between various militant groups was being played out in the newsrooms of the Manipur media.
Confronted with these multiple pressures, the entire media in Manipur ceased work. It was an unprecedented general strike by journalists and other media workers in the state, that went on for four days and was only called off following assurances from the highest level of the political leadership in the state. The next occasion when Manipur’s journalists had to resort to mass strike action was the aftermath of the Rishikanta murder in 2008.
Journalists in the hill districts of Manipur have constituted themselves into the Manipur Hill Journalists’ Union (MHJU), closely aligned with AMWJU in most actions. The media here, concentrated in the district town of Churachandpur, south of Imphal, is linguistically distinct. Most use the Roman script and publish in the Paithe language, which is spoken and read in these parts of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and the North Cachar and Karbi Anglong hill districts of Assam. Since they cater to a widely dispersed linguistic community in a very heterogeneous and volatile mix, these newspapers often face extreme pressures. For instance, the Lamka Post, one of the newspapers published from Churachandpur, was fined Rs 100,000 in December 2007 for carrying a report about the mass arrests of the cadre of one of the armed groups in the region. Since this sum of money is far beyond the capacity of the small newspapers in the district to mobilise, the owner of the newspaper had to borrow the amount at a monthly interest rate of 5 percent. At the moment of writing, he is still repaying that loan.
Journalists in Manipur’s hill districts report the same problems of unending harassment and threats and physical intimidation that their colleagues elsewhere in the state face. In 2005, factionalism broke out between one of the major armed groups in the region and all factions sought to impose their will on the press to ensure that other viewpoints were not heard. The Churachandpur press shut down for a week. Colleagues in Imphal joined them after two days.
With all the pressures they face, AMWJU and all its allied unions recently adopted a comprehensive code of conduct on how to utilise material pertaining to underground armed groups. This code, which enjoys wide endorsement among Manipur’s media community, prohibits the publication of personalised threats of violence against particular individuals. Material from the underground groups would only be published if it is clearly of a political nature, advancing a particular viewpoint or demand, without the advocacy of violence. It should also have a clearly identifiable source. Anonymous material will not be used and neither will anything issued by a group that has no clear political identity.
Elsewhere in the North-East
Aside from Manipur and Assam, the other north-eastern states of India have not seen much overt violence against journalists, although the situation in Tripura and Nagaland in particular is far from happy.
Physical intimidation and obstruction of journalists seeking to perform their duties is a common occurrence in India’s north-east.
In January 2008, two senior journalists were stopped on a public thoroughfare near the Hawaibari camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the State of Tripura. The CRPF has been deployed in most states of the north-east and assigned to special security duties and anti-insurgency operations. The two journalists were ordered out of their car at gunpoint. Despite presenting their press credentials, they were subjected to full-body searches in a rough and humiliating manner.
The bags of the two journalists and their vehicle were searched. Although nothing suspicious was found, the CRPF personnel insisted on the journalists and their driver being presented before their camp commandant. The commandant reportedly offered no explanation, other than a supposed intelligence report about an insurgent group using a car bearing the same licence number. He then ordered another search of the two journalists, their driver, and the vehicle.
In September 2007, journalists in Imphal received information that personnel of the Assam Rifles, another anti-insurgency troop detachment deployed in large numbers in the north-east, had committed a rape in a village in Senapati district of Manipur. Five journalists went to interview the victim. As they were returning to Imphal, they were assaulted by uniformed members of the Assam Rifles, who inflicted serious injuries on them and detained them for five hours. The AMWJU sought the intervention of the Public Relations Department of the local army command to secure their release. The Assam Rifles personnel involved have since been committed to trial, although there is little information on how the matter is proceeding.
Mass unrest broke out in Imphal and other parts of Manipur following the July 2009 publication of a grisly sequence of photographs depicting the killing of an unarmed youth in Imphal, ostensibly in an armed ”encounter”. In August, personnel of the Manipur Police commandos – the same force that was caught on film carrying out the killing – lobbed a teargas shell towards a group of journalists covering a protest demonstration in Imphal. Almost at the same time, police stopped a vehicle carrying journalists back from coverage of a protest demonstration elsewhere and questioned them at length at gunpoint.
State and non-state restrictions
Militant groups also often seek to impose “bans” and other means of denying the media its audience. In February 2008, a political party “banned” circulation of the Assamese daily newspaper, Asamiya Pratidin, in all areas within the jurisdiction of the BTC. Armed vigilantes belonging to the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) intercepted a delivery van belonging to the newspaper in Kokrajhar district of Assam, and destroyed its entire cargo of the day’s edition, before setting the van ablaze.
The BPF is a former insurgent group that now is the principal constituent of the BTC. It was allegedly reacting to a report that appeared in the February 24 edition of Asamiya Pratidin on an extravagant wedding ceremony held the previous day for the group’s leader.
Obtaining essential supplies for the media industry is also an unending battle. Newsprint for Manipur’s presses for instance, has to be purchased from distant Guwahati, from where it is transported in part by rail and then for a considerable length of time, by road. As it traverses the narrow and mountainous roads, the commodity is subject to a variety of levies by the numerous armed groups that operate in the terrain. The final price of a tonne of newsprint in Imphal is higher than at its source by close to Rupees 10,000.
Civil society organisations are also known to exert pressure on the media to ensure that certain approaches to social problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, are not questioned. Two organisations in Manipur are known to favour a policy of ostracism and stigmatisation of people found engaged in alcohol or drug abuse. They often seek to pressure the media into endorsing their approach.
With the proliferation in the region of militant outfits that seek to question the sovereignty of the Indian State, common folk are under diktat not to cooperate with even basic welfare activities of the Government of India. In a region of retarded development and endemic poverty, this means a violation of human rights. It also means that media coverage of human rights abuses is a risky proposition. It is common practice for militant organisations in the north-east to issue directives to the media to suppress certain aspects in their coverage and to highlight others.
The situation is rendered additionally complex by the large number of special security laws in force. These laws, including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, allow for summary detentions and denial of due process under certain broadly defined conditions. These conditions remain vague enough to allow virtual impunity to the security agencies. At this writing, the Act applies to all or part of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. Only Mizoram, among the north-eastern States, is not covered under the Act, although it remains on the statute and can be invoked at any time.
Although abuses of the Act have been reported, the media have to be especially cautious in documenting these cases, since the judiciary tends to give the armed forces wide latitude in implementing the law.
The situation for the media in India’s volatile north-east illustrates the common tendency displayed by parties locked in conflict to deny opposing sides a voice and to target journalists who may be suspected of harbouring contacts with rival groups, even if such contacts are of a professional nature. The outcome is to seriously impair one possible means through which the media could contribute to conflict resolution, by promoting a public dialogue between contending groups.
What can be done?
The IFJ believes that state security agencies and militant groups in India’s north-east should respect the right of journalists to access information from all sides of a conflict situation. This would require, above all, that the non-combatant status of journalists in zones of armed conflict and insurgency be treated as an inviolable principle, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1738 which obliges all parties to a conflict to protect journalists reporting in conflict areas.
Working conditions, including the prevalent standards in implementation of the Working Journalists’ Act and the statutory wage awards for media workers, remain an area of serious concern in India’s north-east. With the exception of one major newspaper group in Guwahati - the Assam Tribune, which publishes in both English and Assamese - and has a tradition of respecting journalists’ rights to fair compensation and a voice in business decisions, the north-east is a dismal place for journalism as a profession.
Few journalists are given letters of appointment or clearly defined terms of employment. Most are appointed on ad hoc retainers, subject to termination without notice. Many are paid in accordance with the volume of words they file which are deemed worthy of publication. Several get their monthly compensation by filling up receipts vouchers and some are obliged to obtain advertising for their publications on the understanding that they would be eligible for a fixed percentage of the revenue accruing.
The dangerous liaisons that journalists then develop with various militant groups, becomes an income source that they are forced to tap, because of their appallingly poor levels of compensation. A code of ethics for journalists dealing with complex insurgency situations is perhaps a survival imperative. But such a code would have little prospect for gaining wide traction, were the media houses not more attentive to the basic needs of their employees to a fair wage and decent working conditions.