CAB protests: Journalists explain what press freedom means in Northeast

Updated 7:34 PM, 19 April, 2019
A protest march against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Dibrugarh, on February. 11. Photo: PTI/representational purpose

To say that being a journalist in India’s Northeast is not easy would be a gross understatement. It requires traversing a maze of unseen dangers, unpaid remuneration and unending uncertainty. As news spread about a home ministry ‘order’ asking the Assam government to act against three editors and a journalist-activist critical of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or CAB, anyone and everyone remotely related to the profession in the region started recalling their own individual stand on the contentious bill.

“This is nothing but a pressure tactic to gag the media. I’ll continue to do my job. After all, it was not the media but people across the region who came out in protest against the bill. Media reported that and all related developments. Such organisations and their tactics don’t deserve any attention,” Nitumoni Saikia, editor of Pratidin Time, told The Federal. Saikia is one of the four journalists named – the others are Manjit Mahanta, Ajit Kumar Bhuyan and Afrida Hussain.

The home ministry ‘order’ was issued on a complaint by Vinay Joshi, who heads the Maharashtra-based Legal Rights Observatory (LRO), against three editors, a journalist-activist and a TV channel. The LRO has accused the journalists of ‘exploiting’ the turmoil over the citizenship bill in the Northeast and ‘propagating militant ideology… to give fresh boost to ULFA.’

LRO is a legal collective that has been widely identified in the media as an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The Centre, however, has reportedly denied having ordered any inquiry against four senior journalists in Assam. An MHA spokesperson, according to the Assam Tribune, has said that a letter came to a public grievance portal of the central government some time ago and ‘as a normal procedure, it was routinely forwarded to the Assam government without making any comments,’ the Assam Tribune cited the unnamed spokesperson as saying.

When reporters reached out to Ashutosh Agnihotri, Assam Commissioner and Secretary (Home and Political), for his comment on April 18, he said he was he was yet to receive the official letter. A copy of the MHA letter was, however, posted on Facebook by the LRO.

“Whatever information we have so far is mostly from what is available on public domain, including a page of the MHA order posted by the LRO on its Facebook page. But the intent behind making the order public even before the Assam government received the official letter is clear… spread the fear,” says a Guwahati-based journalist who didn’t wish to be named.

Another editor named in the complaint, the only woman among the four, InsideNE’s Afrida Hussain said: “The protests against the bill received extensive coverage across the region by the media, including national news channels/websites/newspapers. This is an attempt to create a fear psychosis. Since I refused to bow down, they have come up with arm-twisting tactics to silence me.”

While Bhuyan, Mahanta and Saikia are well-known in the state and have been vocal critics of the Bill, Hussain told The Federal that InsideNE is a very small, barely one-year-old venture. “I’m surprised with the amount of hard work such organisations are doing to keep a tab on all big and small journalists. Media has to show the reaction of the public. How is it fair to accuse anybody questioning the government of having allegiance to insurgent groups? Anyhow, I’m ready to cooperate with the police and administration if any such probe is conducted,” Hussain said.

Many in the local media now suspect that with the ongoing elections, the urgency to trump up such allegations has increased among pro-citizenship bill voices.

“Political statements by national leaders given during election rallies have also created this fear among many that there will be a fresh wave of protests against the bill after the polls,” said a Shillong-based journalist who didn’t wish to be named.

Recently, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav at a rally in Silchar said by July NRC update work will be completed and the citizenship bill may also become a reality by then.

The Shillong-based journalist cited above said politicians don’t realise the kind of fear such statements create. “The BJP’s renewed push for the citizenship bill may see fresh protests across the region. Will you then blame the media for inciting protests or is it the government and its own leaders?” he added.

Guwahati-based journalist Jayanta Kumar Goswami of EastMojo said: “I agree that many a time, some of us cross the thin line between reporting and propagating but the problem is who draws the line and where?” According to Goswami, what amounts to sedition for one government, may not be true for another government. “Now, all media houses report about insurgency and the ‘edicts’ and press releases that insurgent outfits send out to various media organisations. Does that amount to sedition or propagating militant ideology? If yes, why has the government not stopped media organisations for the past so many years? Why demand UAPA or sedition charges out of the blue?”

If there is no regard for freedom of press and journalists are charged under such stringent laws at the drop of a hat, soon no one would want to report from the Northeast, he added.

According to the LRO Facebook post, it has sought “investigation of financial transactions and criminal activities under “Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and National Security Act” against the journalists.

The situation is particularly grave for those working in the remote areas. “Journalist reporting from insurgency-hit areas of the Northeast today find themselves caught between the devil and the deep sea. For instance in Manipur, after Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested under NSA for a Facebook post criticising the BJP government, journalists think twice before speaking up. However, I see a slow change,” says Imphal-based journalist David Mayum.

Talking about the change in how government used to respond to criticism by the media in the turbulent days of 1990s, a journalist who reported from Dimapur in Nagaland said the shift in attitude is not just discernible but disparaging as well.

“In those days, militant groups often used to send out a number of ‘diktats’, warning the media on a range of issues, including whether or not to call them insurgents or ultras. “But there was never really gagging of the media either by the government or the insurgent groups. The situation seems to have reversed. Now it’s most often than not the government taking umbrage against the media and slapping charges left, right and centre,” he said.

Another instance that most journalists from the time in Nagaland clearly recollect is when Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) president Angad Singh wrote an open letter in a local daily to the then chief minister SC Jamir and demanded his resignation, listing alleged failures of his government. However, after the letter was published, Singh was worried that Naga supporters of the CM might bash him up. Instead, the CM wrote back to him with a point-by-point rebuttal and the letter ended with best wishes to the young leader. Singh was so happy that the CM wrote to him personally, he requested the newspaper to publish the reply as well.

“Imagine someone questioning the powers that be today? Today’s Facebook, Twitter posts are equivalent to open letters in newspapers in those days. But now not just journalists but any netizen criticising the government has to be ready for stringent punishment,” said a former journalist from Tripura who told The Federal that he quit the profession three-months back, unable to cope with disillusionment.

“These recollections are important because somewhere the balance is lost. Today journalists are either cheerleaders of the government or bitterly anti-government. But what we need is for journalists to do their jobs without fear or favours. That is possible only when there is enough space and freedom,” said independent journalist Abdul Gani.

According to Gani, journalists like him are always struggling and running after stories and their due remunerations. While there is little demand for freelance reporters and their work in the local media industry, national and international media outlets often have irrational expectations. “Also, the money that they pay are often not even enough to cover the expenses incurred while running around for the story,” he said.

With very few and well-paying job opportunities available in the region most young journalists are either forced to relocate to cities outside the Northeast or slog and wallow in frustration. “There is a third option, which sadly, many journalists succumb to – become a government mouthpiece,” said Gani.