Imphal— In Manipur, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and Editors Guild Manipur (EGM) have jointly condemned the incident in which joint troops of the 20th Jat Regiment and 5/4 GR prevented media personnel from covering the area on October 12. In a joint press release on the same day as the incident, AMWJU and EGM made serious allegations against the soldiers. Media personnel had gone to the Sabungkhok Khunou area to cover an incident of an attack on Sabungkhok Khunou village.
The joint press release alleges that soldiers of the Jat Regiment not only prevented a media team comprising journalists from ISTV, Impact TV, TOM TV, and ISCOM from covering the incident but also forced them to delete footage recorded on mobile phones, compelling them to do so.
Another media team, including TOM TV and Impact TV on the other side of the arena, was also initially prevented from capturing any footage of the incident.
AMWJU and EGM consider this a direct attack on freedom of expression. They stated, "This is an attempt to suppress the press," and AMWJU and EGM demand accountability.
The professional media association informed in the press release that "AMWJU and EGM will submit a memorandum each to the President of Unified Command, Kuldeep Singh (Security Advisor to the CM), and the Honorable Governor of Manipur Anusuiya Uike on please end the attacks on media from May 3, 2023. Watch the series and take appropriate action."
In a joint press release issued on October 12, AMWJU and Editors Guild Manipur wrote, "The media in Manipur has been working under extremely difficult circumstances since the beginning of the current crisis. We once again appeal to all security forces operating in the state not to target or prevent media persons from carrying out their legitimate duties."
Despite multiple attempts to reach Tamo Rupachandra, President of the Editors Guild Manipur, there was no response.
Against the backdrop of ongoing ethnic conflict, the Manipur government took a significant step on Wednesday, October 11, by prohibiting the dissemination of videos and images portraying acts of violence through social media platforms. The state government's rationale for this action stems from growing concerns over reports suggesting that these visuals were being shared with the alleged intention of inciting and organizing gatherings of agitators and protesters, with the potential to further deteriorate the law-and-order situation.
The government made it clear that there would be no exceptions for violators, emphasizing their commitment to booking and prosecuting anyone who defied the ban. Furthermore, they actively encouraged the general public to remain vigilant and report any individuals involved in sharing such content to the police.
Ginza Vualzong, leader and spokesperson of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), told The Mooknayak, "India is a democratic country, we have freedom of press under the freedom and expression of speech in Article 19(1)(a). It encourages independent journalism and promotes democracy by letting the people voice their opinions for or against the government’s actions. So, media and press must be allow to cover incidents."
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), established in the Kuki-dominated area Churachandpur, is a platform or organization of tribal leaders. It is created to represent the interests of indigenous or tribal communities and address issues related to their rights, land, culture, and socio-economic well-being.
In simple terms, it works to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Tribal peoples, protect their lands, and support their cultural heritage through advocacy, legal assistance, cultural preservation, and community development in their activities.
Uttar Pradesh Congress spokesperson Anshul Awasthi, in response to the incident of journalists being obstructed from their coverage in Manipur, voiced a passionate concern. He remarked, "The actions of the BJP government are undermining the fundamental rights of individuals in our democratic society. The media plays a pivotal role in upholding the voice of the people, and it, too, is now experiencing suppression. It is becoming increasingly apparent that these actions are carried out under the auspices of the BJP government, potentially as part of a larger strategy to keep certain matters concealed from the public eye."
Anshul Awasthi then delved into a historical perspective, highlighting that the task of integrating Manipur into the broader Indian nation was successfully accomplished during Congress-led governments. In contrast, he suggested that the current BJP administration is facing challenges in managing the country effectively, which has led to a growing sense of alienation and a weakening of the sense of unity among the population.
He concluded with a resolute tone, emphasizing, "We have been consistently raising our voices against the perceived conspiracy, indecency, and the suppression of journalists in Manipur, which appears to be orchestrated by the government. These incidents reinforce the notion that the freedom of the media in India is being compromised due to what can be seen as an increasingly authoritarian policy."
It is noteworthy here that, on World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), 3 May, the World Press Freedom Index 2023 was published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In this, India ranked 161st among 180 countries with a score of 36.62. Whereas, India's rank in 2022 was 150. This trend underscores a worrying pattern: the steady decline in India's press freedom ranking year after year. Such a trajectory poses a significant concern for the vibrancy and health of our democracy.
In August, The Mooknayak ventured into several violence-affected areas within Manipur, aiming to provide on-the-ground insights. During this endeavour, our team keenly observed how these areas were under close scrutiny by both the Manipur Police and Army personnel.
When The Mooknayak's team headed towards Churachandpur, a region predominantly inhabited by the Kuki community, they encountered a striking restriction. The team was denied the ability to capture any photographs or videos in the buffer zone near the PHOUGAKCHAO POLICE STATION. This was particularly intriguing given that the surroundings displayed signs of extensive violence, including charred homes and shops, with more than a dozen small and large checkpoints arranged in sequence.
Intriguingly, ordinary vehicle drivers were barred from proceeding beyond the buffer zone. Neither did these drivers possess the confidence to venture past this point, nor were they permitted to do so by the security forces. In simple terms, it seemed that the security forces required the vehicle's driver to either be a Muslim or a member of the Kuki community to continue further. In the quest for unbiased reporting, The Mooknayak had to enlist the assistance of a Kuki Bolero driver to access the Kuki-dominated area.
As the journey towards Churachandpur unfolded, it became evident that numerous security checkpoints had been established, causing disruption to regular movement. Curiously, a few of these checkpoints were managed by the Kuki community themselves. At these junctures, they halted passing vehicles and conducted inquiries into the individuals onboard, seeking to ascertain their identities and purpose for travel. Only upon receiving a satisfactory response were the travelers granted permission to proceed further.
At almost every checkpoint along the way, a common question echoed: "Are you a Meitei?" Following this query, government-issued identification cards were meticulously scrutinized, vehicle details were logged in checkpoint registers, and the driver's entry was officially recorded with their signature. This procedure was repeated several times throughout the journey, underscoring the intricate web of security and identity checks in place.
AMWJU is a dedicated organization that represents the interests of working journalists in the northeastern state of Manipur, India. Functioning as a professional union, its primary mission is to safeguard the rights and well-being of journalists and to champion the cause of press freedom. Given the myriad challenges faced by journalists in Manipur, including threats, violence, and censorship, AMWJU plays a pivotal role in advocating for their protection and ensuring their safety.
Moreover, the union actively promotes the principles of ethical journalism and endeavours to foster the professional growth of journalists across Manipur. Issues pertaining to media ethics, press freedom, and the overall elevation of journalistic standards in the region are also on AMWJU's agenda. Through activities such as organizing workshops, seminars, and conferences, AMWJU enhances the skills and knowledge of journalists, addressing shared concerns within the journalism community and playing a crucial part in maintaining a vibrant and responsible press in Manipur.
The Editors Guild Manipur (EGM) is an organization that stands as a collective voice for editors and media professionals operating in the Indian state of Manipur. While sharing similarities in function and purpose with journalists' associations, the EGM primarily focuses on the editorial aspects of the media industry. The Editors Guild Manipur is committed to advancing press freedom, upholding journalistic ethics, and fostering the professional development of editors and media practitioners in Manipur. Key functions and objectives of the Editors Guild Manipur encompass:
Advocacy for Freedom of the Press: The EGM actively works to protect and promote the freedom of the press in Manipur, ensuring the unfettered expression of ideas and the responsible functioning of the media.
Upholding Ethical Standards: The Guild establishes and maintains ethical and professional standards for journalism in the region, with a focus on promoting impartial and responsible reporting.
Professional Development: Through the organization of training programs, workshops, and seminars, the EGM keeps its members updated on evolving journalism practices, thus enhancing their skills and knowledge.
Addressing Common Concerns: Serving as a forum for editors and media professionals, the Guild provides a platform for discussions on shared issues and challenges encountered in the field, thereby fostering a sense of community among its members.
Public Awareness: The EGM may engage in public awareness campaigns on media-related topics, emphasizing the significance of a free press and responsible journalism.
The Editors Guild Manipur plays an instrumental role in advancing high-quality journalism, safeguarding the interests of editors, and ensuring that the media serves as an independent and responsible pillar of democracy within Manipur.