For two days beginning on the evening of November 24, there was no news in Manipur – television channels went off air and newspapers ceased publication. There were no editions of any of the dailies published out of the state on November 25 and 26.
Editors say they took this drastic step in protest after they were caught between two warring factions of a banned militant group. “One side did not want us to publish the other side’s news and there were threats to that effect,” said Bijoy Kakchingtabam, president of the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union.
One group, two statements
It started out as a curiously bureaucratic tangle within the the United National Liberation Front, Manipur’s oldest secessionist Meitei outfit. On November 23, a statement issued by the group’s chairman went out to the local press. The contents of the statement were routine: a history of the group’s “revolution” and the ideology driving it, ahead of their “raising day” on November 24. The outfit had been founded that day in 1964.
What was unusual was the fact that the press statement was signed by the group’s chairperson. Usually, the United National Liberation Front’s press communiques are issued from the offices of its central committee. In fact, earlier on November 23, journalists in the state had received a statement on the same subject from the central committee.
The two overlapping statements were no mistake – the chairman, Khundongbam Pambei, and the rest of the central committee of the outfit were involved in a power tussle. The second statement, by the chairman, was him asserting his authority over the central committee, claimed the editor of an Imphal-based newspaper.
An editorial call
Then, suddenly, it was no longer about confusing paperwork. The two press statements were followed by calls to editors and veteran journalists. The general secretary’s faction wanted the editors to ignore the the chairman’s statement.
For the next morning’s paper, newspapers went with the central committee statement. Editors interviewed by Scroll.in said they were following convention – it was the central committee-issued statement that they published every year.
It is fairly common practice for the local media in North Eastern states to give space to press statements by banned groups, particularly on anniversaries of historically or politically significant days.
The next day, editors in Manipur convened to discuss the matter. According to an editor who attended the meeting, it was decided that the next day’s papers would carry the chairman’s statement. “If there are differences with them, we decided the chairman’s voice should be given space,” said the editor who requested anonymity. “We did not want to get into their internal politics.”
Word from the meeting seemed to have gone out quickly as phones of editors and senior journalists started buzzing again with what an editor described as “renewed threats” from the central committee faction. This time the threats were more blatant: publish at your own risk and there would be repercussions.
Not to be left behind, the chairman also activated his men, who allegedly visited the homes of two senior editors. That was when the editors decided they had had enough. It was decided that the state’s journalists would stop working indefinitely.
On Thursday, however, editors asked their staff to get back to work. “Our solution is that we will not publish any news about any of the two sides from now on,” said Khogendra Khongram, editor of Sangai Express (Manipuri) and head of the Manipur Editors Guild.
A hostile atmosphere
This is not the first time that newspapers in Manipur have stopped publication in the face of intimidation by militant groups. According to some estimates, Manipurhas arguably been the most violent state in the North East in recent times and has at least 10 active insurgent groups. In 2013, the state’s papers stopped publication for four days to protest against pressure from militant groups who wanted their press releases to be published without any editing. Before that, in 2010, there had been a similar hiatus that stretched for 10 days.
The news may be back in Manipur for now, but the pressures of journalism remain as intense as ever. Most editors Scroll.in spoke to refrained from even naming United National Liberation Front, referring to it only as an “underground group”. A joint press release issued by the All Manipur Working Journalist Union and Editors Guild Manipur on Wednesday also desists from naming the group.
Kakchingtabam said: “I don’t want to take their name, the threat perception is too high.”
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