Imphal: Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media watchdog dedicated to safeguarding the freedom and rights of journalists, denounced the systematic repression of media persons in Manipur and called upon local authorities to stop intimidating reporters.
The Paris-based media advocacy group highlighted the ordeal of a female freelance reporter in Imphal during the last day of the recently-concluded assembly session.
RSF stated that Grace Jajo, who often covers debates in the state Legislative Assembly, had an entry pass for the press gallery. “On February 22, the security guards came to me, threatening to evict me by force,” RSF quoted Jajo saying, adding, “At one point, I was surrounded by armed guards on all sides…..I was totally shocked.”
After confiscating her pass and escorting her to the exit, RSF quoted Jajo saying, “they said they had an order to not let me in, and I asked to see the order, but the order never came.”
The next day, Jajo learned that the assembly secretariat was accusing her of intentionally trying to malign official procedure and breach of privilege, a charge inherited from the colonial era that is supposed to protect the legislature from a threat to its independence, said Reporters Without Borders.
While denouncing the incident, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard, said, “By using such methods to target journalists it doesn’t like, the assembly’s secretariat is behaving in an absolutely unacceptable manner for an institution that claims to safeguard democracy.”
Highlighting the issue, RSF said that the pretext was her Facebook post sharing an article published on February 20 by The Frontier Manipur. The local news portal exercised its right to respond to the accusations of “breach and privilege” and “contempt of the House” that the assembly’s secretariat had brought against the site in connection with one of its articles.
The article about Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s address to the assembly took all of its information from an official press release, it said.
The global agency further called on assembly speaker Yumnam Khemchand to immediately drop the ‘absurd proceedings’ against Grace Jajo and The Frontier Manipur.
RF also cautioned CM Biren Singh against any future violation of journalists’ rights and reminded the CM that he used to be a reporter before entering politics.
RSF said the day Jajo was notified of the charges, two other journalists in Manipur, namely Kirmil Soraisam, the director of the 7Salai news, and Rabi Takhellambam, one of his reporters, were arrested on a ‘fake news accusation’ over a small error in a story that was quickly corrected.
They were released on bail three days later, but are now accused of disturbing public order, criminal intimidation and defamation, it said.
RSF quoted Soraisam saying, “I wasn’t expecting anything of that sort given that we had already made the necessary corrections,” adding, “things are really very bad in Manipur right now. The government wants to muzzle all critical voices.”
RSF further highlighted that Paojel Chaoba, the executive editor of The Frontier Manipur, and editor-in-chief Dhiren Sadokpam, were arrested on January 17. They were held overnight after the publication published an op-ed about the armed revolutionary movement in Manipur.
To be released, they had to tell the police they did not know its author M Joy Luwang, and doubted the authenticity of his sources, said RSF.
Reporters Without Borders also mentioned the recent incident where a legal notice was served to the publisher/intermediary of ‘Khanesi Neinasi’ an online show which is co-produced by The Frontier Manipur and 7Salai news site on Facebook.
Manipur government thereby became the first in India to take advantage of a new federal code of conduct for online content that gives locals officials extensive powers to restrict press freedom, said RSF.
However, after a national outcry, Manipur’s authorities backed down and withdrew their prosecution threat, it said.
“What is happening in Manipur now is systemic state repression of the media,” RSF quoted as Chaoba of The Frontier Manipur saying.
RSF went on narrating the ordeals faced by the state media fraternity and stated that besides all these harassment cases, Manipur’s journalists were also shocked by a grenade attack on the Imphal headquarters of two local newspapers, Poknapham and People’s Chronicles, two weeks ago.
The attacked failed, but journalists went on strike for five days until the authorities appointed a team of investigators to find those responsible, added the media, advocacy group.