It pays to be early, and not every criticism is personal. These are perhaps the biggest lessons we have learnt in the past five days. We have received overwhelming support for our courageous coverage of the Manipur violence, just as hundreds if not thousands have said our coverage was biassed and favoured the Kuki narrative while completely ignoring the Meitei story.
But we will, to the best of our abilities, answer every question posed to us. We value the reputation we have built for ourselves over the years and will not let go of that.
“All your stories were from Churachandpur only.”
Ground reports, yes. Allow us to explain.
The metro media – the ones who visit Northeast as and when it suits them — realised Manipur is in turmoil in May. Several other media houses had already begun paying a lot of attention to Manipur, especially the events taking place 10 days ago in Churachandpur. On April 28, a mob set fire to the venue where Chief Minister N Biren Singh was scheduled to attend a programme at New Lamka in Churachandpur district. They also partially torched the newly set-up open gym at PT Sports complex at New Lamka, which the CM was slated to inaugurate.
We have one correspondent in Manipur and several contributors from the state; however, the editorial decided that what had happened in Churachandpur deserved attention. Before this also, the region had seen protests following the evictions carried out by the state authorities and later, the demand for ST status for Meiteis. Then, there was also the NRC demand. Our plan, when sending our video team head Kalyan Deb and principal video journalist Mukut Medhi to Manipur, was to complete our work on two documentaries: one on NRC, and one on the ST demand for Meiteis.
Our correspondent had done the initial legwork; our team had gone to polish the same with additional information and footage. When our team arrived on May 2, Imphal was exactly like Imphal was supposed to be: hot during the day and a little humid, but most importantly, it was calm. Deb and Medhi had lunch in Imphal and made their way to Churachandpur, to be in time for the “peace march” called by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) on May 3. That rally would give us crucial video content for our documentaries. Since Churachandpur is relatively close to Imphal (less than 120 km), the team would spend a day or two in Churachandpur, talk to stakeholders, then return to Imphal, talk to other stakeholders and then return to Guwahati.
With Churachandpur burning on May 3 itself, our first focus was to cover what we could, and stick to doing stories we were absolutely certain about. We know the damage fake news can cause to our region. We take pride in our journalistic rigour, ethics and integrity. Also, no journalist leaves a city to go somewhere else when the city they are currently in is burning. We were in Churachandpur, and we were reporting from there.
It also became clear the next day that it was near impossible for us to leave the city and go somewhere else: the vehicular movement had stopped, there were reports (fake and true) of vehicles being attacked, and people were targeted based on ethnic lines. Now, we could have risked our lives to go to Imphal, but we did not. Instead, we stayed put in the place where we were already working and continued doing so. As mainland media arrived in droves, it was also clear that no one was coming to Churachandpur. Most, if not all, were reporting from Imphal. So, those in Imphal stayed there, and those in Churachandpur, which was just us, stayed there.
But what about stories from Imphal? We had a correspondent there, right? Yes, we did. And that is where we also calculated that the risks associated with being on the ground were not worth the reward.
We were getting reports of mobs moving around in Imphal targeting people and sending Vangamla Salle, our Manipur correspondent, on the streets did not seem wise. She is a Tangkhul Naga and a mother to a two-year-old, and I am not going to jeopardise a mother’s life under any circumstances. By Friday, news emerged that people had been dragged out of their homes and killed by mobs. Was Salle threatened? Not directly, no. But she realised the danger to her family when nearly everyone around her, including fellow Nagas, started vacating their houses to go home. With just her laptop, and a few clothes for her child, she returned home to Ukhrul. We heaved a sigh of relief only once Salle and her baby were home safe.
Mind you, it was not as if we were not doing stories from Imphal. We were still putting out reports, and verified information. We were just not able to produce the kind of content from Imphal that we could do from Churachandpur. If we had more resources, a few more reporters and an additional cameraperson, sure, we could have. But sending a female correspondent out when the streets are on fire so that we can show what, let us be honest, several other media houses were showing anyway, was not worth the risk. By May 5, all forms of Internet were snapped. Even our contributors could not send us content. Despite that, we did stories and even interviewed the General Secretary of the Meitei ST Demand Committee.
In response to all the hate that we have received during this time, we want you to understand that during a conflict, we have every right to protect our correspondents and employees. Also, the news is not entertainment, and reporting is not, despite what some say, chasing TRP by doing ‘daredevil’ journalism. As the editor, it is my foremost priority to ensure the safety of my staff. We cannot show “two sides of the story” when we cannot travel, cannot use the Internet, and are practically immobile.
Then, there was the narrative that we were favouring one community over the other. Have you seen our video where we argued that Meiteis deserve the ST status? Did you read the column written by Dhiren Sadokpam, a Meitei and the editor-in-chief of The Frontier Manipur, where he explained the demand from a sociological point of view? Have you seen our stories during the run-up to the March 2022 elections? How many publications have constantly talked about the water crisis in Imphal like EastMojo, and how many publications documented the pre-poll violence tearing apart families (mostly Meitie)? Judge us on what we do every day, not by cherry-picking stories that go against “your” narrative.
When we did a story of how Kuki women formed a human chain to protect Meiteis in Churachandpur, we were called biased and peddlers of fake news. When we did a story on how Meitei women protected Kuki women from a mob at Manipur University, we were called biased again. Both news showed that several women did not fall to ethnic divisions and stayed united, and both were confirmed news. While the Churachandpur incident was shared first by us from the ground, the Manipur University news was shared online and corroborated by three people we spoke to and also by our reporter. We did not have a photo because, of course, no internet. Yet, for some, there is only one way to do a story: show our story and only our story or else you are biased.
My question to the ones who have been calling us anti-Meitei: how many media houses have shown the plight of Meiteis living in Churachandpur? Barring EastMojo, none. I am talking about ground reports, not what one wants to believe is true. Our first report from Churachandpur was in front of Meitei homes that were set on fire, even as gas cylinders were going off amid warnings that there were militants in the area. Kalyan Deb and Mukut Medhi risked their lives: they did not do the story because it was about one community, they did it because it was a story that needed to be told.
As I write this, we have not been warned, flagged or even alerted by any reputable fact-checking agency, Army, or the government for sharing even disputable information, let alone fake news. And we are doing this while having a fraction of the budget of the metro media.
One of our opinion columns, written by a passionate Kuki youth, also received negative feedback, with almost everyone calling it “one-sided”. And yes, that is accurate. It was definitely one-sided, but it was not a “story”. It was an opinion piece. Opinion pieces are precisely that: a person’s opinion. It does not, and never will, reflect EastMojo’s stance on the issue. Do I agree with all that a person writes in an opinion piece? Of course not. But does that mean I will stop them from writing? No.
We have reached out to several Meitei contributors and experts, and while some have said no to writing a column amidst these tough times, those who agreed have been unable to share their opinions because there is no internet in Manipur. If you think we have been biased and not done our job, feel free to write to and for us. We will publish it with minimal changes.
Over the past four years, EastMojo revolutionised the coverage of Northeast India through our sharp, impactful, and unbiased coverage. And we are not saying this: you, our readers, say so about us. Thanks to you, we have become Northeast India’s largest, independent, multimedia digital news platform.
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On Friday night, Deb and Medhi watched, stunned, as four people were shot to death in Churachandpur. The editorial got a call and as much as we wanted to release that information, we did not, because the duo were still there and had nowhere to go. Who knows what may have befallen them had this news been released the night it happened? We had to ensure their safety and the only way to do so was to wait till they had a way to leave Churachandpur.
These are tough times for all of us: the rallying call amid all this has been to unite as one. We started EastMojo with a dream; that information is above all, and ethics, diligence and honesty will always be valued over short-term gains. Today, Manipur needs its story told across all media and on all platforms. When conflicts arise, no one wins. And right now, no one is winning in Manipur. A state with so much promise and so much of untapped potential is witnessing its youths withering away to violence and hatred. Let us tell the story the way it is, not the way you want it to be told. When all this settles and Manipur returns to normalcy, we will still be there, telling your stories with the same diligence.
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