In yet another instance of what journalists are alleging is an assault on the freedom of speech by the Manipur government, the police arrested two editors of Frontier Manipur, an online web portal, on Sunday (January 17) on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy for carrying an article critiquing the armed revolutionary groups and civil societies in the state. The article incidentally had been published earlier by two other news publications.
Aribam Dhananjoy, the executive editor of the web portal who is popularly known as Paojel Chaoba in local journalistic circles, was detained at 11 am. Chaoba has been an outspoken critic of the BJP-led government in the state.
According to family members, a team from the Singjamei police station in Imphal West district arrived at around 7 am to pick him up from his residence. However, he chose to go to the police station on his own and was put under detention shortly after his arrival at the station.
Within a few hours of Chaoba’s arrest, Dhiren Sadokpam, the editor-in-chief of Frontier Manipur, was summoned to the police station for interrogation and was also placed under detention.
Inspector P Sanjoy Singh, the officer in charge of Singjamei police station, said in a statement that the article titled ‘Revolutionary journey in a mess’ “openly endorsed revolutionary ideologies and activities and expressed shock and dismay at the deteriorating character of the armed revolutionary leaders of Manipur in the last decade”.
In the First Information Report (FIR) lodged at the police station, the two editors along with Luwang were charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy and causing alarm to induce offence against the state, as well as supporting terror organisations under section 39 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The two were released on Monday (January 18) unconditionally by removing all the charges after Chaoba submitted a letter of undertaking to Imphal West SP K Meghachandra saying the article was an “oversight”. In a letter addressed to the SP of the Imphal West police station, he said the article’s “source was unverified” and uploading the article on the website was an “oversight”.
“There will be no such mistake which will not pass our scrutiny in future,” the undertaking said.
Representatives of the Editors Guild of Manipur and All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union also held talks with Chief Minister Nongthongbam Biren, a former journalist who also happens to be the state’s home minister, to secure the release of the two.
Meghachandra said: “We have dropped only some charges against the duo but there’s still a case pending against them. Investigation is still on to find out the identity of the author. Similar actions will be taken up against the two other publications that carried the article.”
Dubbing the arrests as a “malicious prosecution”, a senior journalist who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “It’s a direct assault on the freedom of speech. The opinion piece was not written by them and it was already published by two publications with RNI (Registrar of Newspapers for India) numbers. It was an analytical and reflective piece. Most editors allow some leeway to opinion pieces.”
He said the two journalists don’t merit the various charges slapped against them.
“This is a clear case of scuttling freedom of expression. Moreover, it’s a personal attack on Paojel Chaoba. Dhiren Sadokpam has also been arrested because of his collective responsibility as the editor (of the website). But, it’s an apparent attempt to scuttle Chaoba’s personal liberty,” he said.
The article critiques the armed revolutionary groups and civil societies in Manipur, highlighting their mistakes during 1990 to 2008. M Joy Luwang, its author, has indicted armed groups in the state for meddling in the government’s recruitment process and functioning like profit-driven companies by getting involved in contract and supply works.
The article originally appeared in a serialised form in Manipuri and was published in Kangla Pao, a vernacular local daily, in October last year. The English version was later published in Imphal Times, an eveninger, on January 2.
In the last three years, the BJP government in Manipur has arrested several individuals under the charge of sedition, including journalists, students and professors, for voicing their opinion against it.
In fact, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who is currently employed as an associate editor at Frontier Manipur has been arrested multiple times for criticising the government. Last year, he was sent to jail for two months for sharing the Facebook post of the estranged wife of a minister who defected from the Congress to the BJP.
Frontier Manipur was launched last year. While working with the Imphal Free Press earlier, Chaoba did many stories that damaged the credibility of the BJP-led government.