On September 20, television news reporter Santanu Bhowmik was killed by a mob while covering a clash between two political parties in Tripura. When I saw a photograph of his mother hugging his body, I was gripped by pain. It brought to the fore the fears I try hard to keep at bay every day. I telephoned my parents. As I struggled to calm down, one part of me remembered there was an edition to bring out.
Barely two months later, another journalist was killed in the same state by the keepers of the law. Sudip Datta Bhaumik was shot dead inside the Tripura State Rifles facility, allegedly by the security guard of a senior officer.
In the North East, where the law provides impunity to state-sponsored violence and a host of non-state actors live beyond the rule of law, journalism is perpetually under threat. Journalists here live with the fear of violence all the time.
According to media reports and data provided by non-profit groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, at least 31 journalists have been murdered in the region in the last 30 years. The Press Council of India said in a statement in 2014 that no one had been convicted for these murders. The knowledge of this impunity emboldens state and non-state actors to attack journalists.
For many journalists in the North East, intimidation, threat of physical harm and litigation for the sake of harassment is an everyday hazard. Only the degree of the problem varies from state to state.
A constant fear
My paper, The Arunachal Times, has suffered this first hand: our office has been vandalised, our journalists have been physically assaulted repeatedly, and there has even been an attempted murder. People make menacing calls and land up at our offices and homes to threaten us. I have also lost count of the times our paper has had to deal with people threatening to bury us in frivolous litigation.
Unlike in many other parts of the country, community and student organisations in the North East are firmly embedded in the region’s political and social fabric. The political heft they enjoy also means that journalists find it difficult to freely critique these organisations.
The social contract that allows journalists to critique society and the state is being negotiated every day in the face of violence and impunity for those who engage in it. It is a tough negotiation. But we are journalists writing and reporting on our homelands. We are not parachuting in to report from a troubled spot. The constant negotiation with the powers that be, even when the basic principles of engagement are not set, is our only option. Sometimes we do come together to win small battles that help us negotiate these terms for the better.
For example, in September, a community-based organisation banned the distribution of The Arunachal Times. It alleged the newspaper was biased while reporting on the government’s decision to create a new district based on community lines. No one questioned the government’s decision in the first place. Instead, the organisation directed its ire against the paper. In the face of this, media organisations such as the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, the Arunachal Press Club and the Arunachal Electronic Media Association decided not to give editorial space to organisations that arbitrarily ban newspapers. While it may seem like a harsh and unusual step, it shows that the media fraternity in the state with its 60-odd working journalists is tired of being pushed around. At the same time, the silence of other civil society groups and the government on this matter is appalling.
I noticed how media organisations in Tripura came together and published blank editorials on November 23 to protest the murder of Sudip Datta Bhaumik. News organisations in Manipur have also resorted to such collective protests to regain lost space in the face of threats.
Yet, we also have to make many compromises. In other parts of the world, journalists look forward to seeing their bylines on stories into which they have put their heart and minds. In this region, many journalists prefer to erase their names from powerful stories and go with generic bylines such as “staff reporter”. They fear for their lives.
Apart from physical harm, newspapers also face a constant threat on the business front. Media ventures in the North East are largely dependent on state government advertisements. The governments wield this to their advantage, using advertisements as a tool to put pressure on critical media outlets. In Arunachal Pradesh, a collective effort by media organisations forced the government to abandon this tactic to a certain extent. But there are days when many of our newspapers look like an extension of the government’s public relations machine.
I have immense respect for many from our fraternity who continue to persevere within the unique limitations in which this region cages our profession. It is incredible what they achieve despite being shackled by limited capacities, an unclear social contract with society and a direct physical threat to their lives. If one has to judge the quality of journalism emanating from the North East, one must assess it in the light of these circumstances.
I do not expect an overnight change in our situation. We journalists in our homelands have to strive for a better, safer space for our journalism. Our work must convince our societies to build this space. I see no other way. I want it no other way.
Tongam Rina is Associate Editor of The Arunachal Times,