The Manipur Police’s first information report against members of the Editors Guild of India for their report on media coverage of ethnic violence in the state amounts to an act of intimidation and shows the state government’s heavy-handed behaviour, journalists’ associations said on Monday.

The case has been filed against the authors of the report – Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor – and the president of the Editors Guild of India, Seema Mustafa.

In the past two days, press bodies such as the Mumbai Press Club, the Press Club of India, Digipub News India Foundation and Indian Women’s Press Corps called for the withdrawal of the police case.

The Mumbai Press Club said on Tuesday that while Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh may not agree with the conclusions of the fact-finding report, he had no right to intimidate and threaten its members with criminal action and jail.

“This is not only a violation of the freedom of expression and speech, guaranteed as fundamental rights under our Constitution, but a supreme example of the Manipur Government’s partisan and heavy-handed behaviour we have seen since May 2023,” the Mumbai Press Club said.

It added: “He [Singh] has the right to criticize the conclusions of the fact-finding team. But he has no right to suppress the right of the editors to investigate and derive conclusions about the government’s role.”

The Digipub News India Foundation, an association of eleven digital news organisations, on Monday urged the state government to refrain from shooting the messenger. Scroll is among the founding members of the Digipub News India Foundation

“We see the registration of the FIR as an act of intimidation, an attack on the freedom of the press, especially the usage of 66A of the IT Act, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India in 2015,” the foundation said.

The police had initially invoked Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act even though the provision had been struck down by the Supreme Court. However, a police officer told Scroll that the Section had been removed from the original FIR and that it was initially “hurriedly written” by officials.

Section 66A had empowered the government to arrest and imprison an individual for “offensive and menacing” online posts.

Digipub said that the report by the Editors Guild of India rightly noted that the internet ban in Manipur made it difficult for reporters to work.

The Press Club of India said that the Editors Guild had done a “commendable job” by sending a fact-finding team to check the ground situation and information that are being suppressed.

“This is a strong arm tactic by the state government which amounts to intimidation of the apex media body of the country,” it said. “At a time when violence-marred Manipur needs utmost attention of the government, such a move by the state government would only make the matters worse and would be seen as a deliberate attempt to suppress the truth.”

The Indian Women’s Press Corps on Tuesday also extended support to the Editors Guild, noting that it is a 45-year-old non-profit institution whose founding members were those who stood against the Emergency from 1975 to 1977.

“The registration of a FIR against such a body ill behoves the largest democracy in the world,” it said. The organisation urged the Manipur government to quash the case, particularly as the Editors Guild had removed an erroneous caption from the report.

The police complaint said that a photo in the report falsely claimed to show smoke rising from a Kuki home, when it was in fact the office of a forest official. The complaint said on this account itself, it was obvious that the report was false and was “sponsored by Kuki militants”.

On Sunday, the Editors Guild issued an apology for the error in the photo caption.

Human rights organisation People’s Union for Civil Liberties said that FIR was filed to intimidate the Editors Guild and other reporters from “exposing the truth” that they had found during their fact-finding exercise about the ethnic violence.

“The police action leaves no doubt that they intend not just to silence the findings of the Fact-finding Team of the Editors Guild on the violence in Manipur but also inhibit anyone else from daring to expose the complicity of the Biren Singh government and the role of some groups from amongst the majority community in Manipur from being exposed, to the rest of India,” the organisation said in a statement.

It said that it was “shocking that a government whose own constitutional and criminal complicity is being pointed” decided to “shoot the messenger”. The organisation said that if the government wanted to challenge the report, it could have released a statement or held a conference, stating the alternative facts.

“However instead of taking this constitutionally sanctioned path to challenge the findings of the Editor’s guild, the Manipur police seeks to shut the entire narrative down through criminal law,” it added. “By doing so the Manipur administration has again shown its utter contempt for the Constitution. The chief minister must take responsibility for this serious constitutional dereliction.”

On Monday, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum said that Meitei media outlets became “propaganda machines” during the conflict, and fully toed the line of Meitei militants and the chief minister.

“The radicalization and the hate that oozes from the Meitei populace show that they have been completely brainwashed into thinking all Kuki-Zo tribals are ‘foreigners’, ‘narco-terrorists’ and ‘militants’ trying to take over their land,” it said

However, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union had on Sunday termed the fact-finding report as half-baked.

“The report has many contentions and wrong representations which are damaging to the reputation of the journalist community in the state, especially Imphal-based news outlets,” it said. “The EGI report claims its terms of reference is not investigating the genesis of the problem, but they all the same do so in a seemingly motivated manner, but unfortunately for the EGI, as expected, it ends up committing many factual errors in the process.”

What did the report say?

The fact-finding report had said that journalists in Manipur wrote “one-sided reports” in their coverage of the ethnic conflict between the Kukis and the Meiteis in the northeastern state. It also flagged more than 10 instances where it found that the media had reported fake news and spread disinformation.

The report also said that ground reporting from Kuki-majority districts like Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal disappeared in the days after the clashes broke out.

However, a social worker who filed the police complaint, Ngangom Sarat Singh, alleged that the report was “false, fabricated [and] sponsored”.

On Monday, the police also received a second complaint against the Editors Guild from Imphal East resident Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita. Imphal East Superintendent of Police Maharabam Pradip Singh told Scroll that the complaint was being looked into.