By Nava Thakuria*
Two major local media bodies of Manipur have challenged the Editors Guild of India (EGI) over its fact-finding report on the ongoing ethnic conflicts in the northeastern State. So much so that the EGI had to approach the Supreme Court of India for instant relief to its members, who were part of a fact-finding mission to Manipur and subsequently faced two police complaints. The team members, along with the EGI president, were extended interim protection from any coercive action for some days.
It may be mentioned that the EGI released a report on September 2, 2023, after its three-member team visited Manipur from August 7 to 10, 2023, to study media coverage of the ongoing conflicts between the majority Meiteis and Kuki-Chin-Zo community that has already snatched away the lives of over 150 individuals, wounded many more residents and also displaced thousands of families as their villages were under attacks since May 3, 2023.
The report slammed the internet ban and criticized the State authorities’ partisan role during the conflicts. The EGI observed that local media reporting was slightly inclined to the largely Vaishnav Meitei community, which constitutes over 50% Manipur population and primarily settles in Imphal Valley (the rest belongs to mostly Christian Kuki and Naga people living in surrounding hilly areas). There is a Meitei government, Meitei police and Meitei bureaucracy in Imphal and the tribal people have no faith in them, stated the EGI report, which invited strong reaction from the State government and also the local media fraternity terming it as ‘incorrect and false’.
Soon two police complaints were lodged against the EGI’s fact-finding team members (Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor) along with their president Seema Mustafa under various Indian Panel Code (IPC) sections for provoking enmity between different communities and deliberate attempts to flare up religious sentiments.
The FIRs were reportedly filed by Ngangom Sarat Singh (a retired government engineer turned social worker) and Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita, a resident of Imphal. Sangita even urged the government to request for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the case. She argued that only a high-level probe can unearth various elements associated with the process. The use of terms like Meitei police or Meitei media was very unfortunate and condemnable, she stated, adding that after the release of the EGI report situation turned more tense and it indirectly created more troubles in the State. Pointing out that the EGI team was crowdfunded, Sangita asserted that the people of Manipur should know who contributed money to the initiative. She stated that the EGI on July 26, 2023, asked for donations to organise the fact-finding mission to Manipur through its social media account.
The All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and Editors Guild of Manipur (EGM) also denounced the allegations floated by the EGI in its report, which was completed in a “mere four days”. They took a strong exception to the ‘half-baked’ report where the Imphal-based journalists were misrepresented.
Both the organizations, while releasing a joint media statement, urged the EGI to issue a clarification, otherwise, they had resolved to go for legal action against the EGI. A joint statement by the two influential media bodies of Manipur claimed that the EGI report had many contentions and wrong representations which were damaging to the reputation of the media fraternity of Manipur, especially the Imphal-based news outlets.
Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh also strongly condemned the EGI report on media coverage of the turmoil that gripped the State since May 3, 2023. He even questioned the neutrality and intellectual capacity of the EGI members and drew many fault lines while summarizing many issues abruptly. Condemning the incident where two women were physically attacked by a mob (a video of which went viral on social media), Singh claimed that a group of Meitei women rescued the victims and shifted to a safer place. Talking about some media reports that stated that one certain spokesperson of Kuki Inpi threatened Meiteis to avoid coming to Moreh without a permanent solution to the present crisis and many Tamil families in the border town insisted on paying illegal taxes for their survival, Singh warned that the government will not allow such activities. He also added that an FIR has been lodged against the concerned person.
There is a wide perception among the local media bodies in Manipur that the EGI team, which went to the troubled State to study the role of local media outlets in reporting ethnic conflicts, stepped beyond its mandate to analyze the causes of ethnic violence in the State. It even quoted an unidentified Kuki individual who alleged that the Imphal-based journalists took dictations from the chief minister’s office. Moreover, the EGI report criticized the Union government for not imposing President’s rule in Manipur after dismissing the Bhartiya Janata Party-led government.
Founded in 1978 with objectives to protect press freedom and raise the standard of editorial leadership for newspapers and periodicals in the largest democracy on Earth, the allegations against the EGI of possessing biased observation as well as flaring up turmoil in Manipur with its initiative do not augur well for the State, the local media organizations said.
*Senior journalist based in Guwahati