- Deaths are down, but victims still need justice
Often described as a disturbed zone appearing in media headlines for its relentless troubles and violent incidents, India’s Northeast has shown signs of improvement in the journo-murder index. The northeastern part of India once used to lose working journalists to assailants frequently. But for many years now, except Tripura, the region has evaded incidents of journalists’ killing. Tripura reported the murder of five media persons in 2013 and 2017, whereas Assam (as well as Manipur) witnessed the last killing of media persons in 2012. The central Indian states, of course, continue pouring news related to the murder of journalists annually. However, it need not be mentioned that incidents of abuse, assault and attacks on scribes along with other northeastern media employees by the government forces, political goons, antisocial elements among others, are taking places unabated.
The Northeast, with a population of over 60 million, supports hundreds of newspapers, published in various languages like English, Assamese, Hindi, Bengali, Mizo, Bodo, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi and others to cater the need of dedicated readers. Most of the newspapers nowadays start websites to expand their visibility almost across the world. Some have also developed both portals as well as e-papers for the benefit of readers
taking advantage of cheaper internet access in the country.
The region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, hosts many privately-owned satellite news channels including News Live, DY365, Prag News, Pratidin Time, News18-AssamNE, NE Live, Assam Talks and 0thers along with a few entertainment-centric and localised cable news channels. Most of these channels, free-to-air in nature, beam news & other programmes mostly in Assamese, English, Hindi, Mizo, Meitei and other local languages.
2018 reported the murder of six journalists, keeping India as one of the most hazardous countries for media persons after Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia among others, where journalists were murdered on a regular basis with impunity to the perpetrators
Till recent times, the Northeast was a breeding ground for insurgents fighting against New Delhi with demands for self-rule to sovereignty. Manipur and Assam were affected by the militancy, where over 30 separatist armed outfits went on with disruptive activities including extortion, kidnapping, and killings. Even journalists were not spared by those so-called revolutionaries. Both States witnessed the killing of journalists (Dwijamani Nanao Singh from Imphal and Raihanul Nayum from Dhubri) in 2012 last.
Assam was the worst victim of journalist casualties as the State reported the murders of over 30 scribes in 25 years. The slaughter of media persons in Assam began with the murder of Punarmal Agarwala, a local correspondent of The Assam Tribune in Nagaon, allegedly by rebels belonging to the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) in 1987.
The same militant outfit targeted veteran freedom fighter-turned-journalist Kamala Saikia in 1991. The 65-year-old teacher was dragged out of his house in Sivasagar Melachawk on the night of 9 August 1991 and his body was recovered next morning with injury marks on the body. Ulfa leaders were angry with Saikia for a series of articles, published in various newspapers, which strongly condemned the outfit.
Saikia’s gruesome murder shocked the media fraternity of Assam and a crowded protest meeting was organised at Guwahati Press Club. It was followed by a silent procession on 11 August which was, in fact, the first public demonstration against Ulfa in the State. The media fraternity has recognised Saikia as the first martyr journalist of the region.
In 1995, Pabitra Narayan (of Northeast Times) was murdered by the timber mafia at Sonari. Dipak Swargiary of Goreswar also lost his life to assailants the same year. The daylight murder of human rights activist turned journalist Parag Kumar Das on 17 May 1996 inside Guwahati generated a huge public outcry. Executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin was targeted understandably by some surrendered militants, as he used to write articles criticising New Delhi for its exploitative attitude towards Assam.
The same year witnessed the murder of young reporter Manik Deuri in Diphu by suspected ethnic militants. Unidentified gunmen killed Panja Ali at Kokrajhar in 1997. Nagaon-based local journalist Nurul Haq was murdered in 1998. Ulfa militants had killed again Ratneswar Sarma Shastri at Barpeta in 1999. Two local correspondents, namely Dinesh Brahma and Indramohan Hakasam, were assassinated in 2003.
The timber mafia gunned down Prahlad Gowala at Golaghat in 2006. The next year witnessed the killing of Bodosa Narzary at Kokrajhar and it was followed by slaughtering of Mohammad Muslemuddin at Hojai and Jagajit Saikia at Kokrajhar. Alfarid Shazad, Jiten Chutiya, Jogesh Uzir, Girija Das, Monikan Das, Ranbir Roy, Bimala Prasad Talukder etc lost their lives to assailants on different occasions. The last sensational murder of journalists took place in Guwahati on 24 March 2009, when the editor of an Assamese daily, Anil Majumdar, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.
Tripura witnessed a gruesome incident relating to the murder of three media employees in their office, where Sujit Bhattacharya (proofreader), Ranjit Chowdhry (manager) and Balaram Ghosh (driver) lost their lives. They were working inside the office of the Agartala-based newspaper Dainik Ganadoot before getting stabbed together to death by miscreants. The year 2013 was depressing for the Indian media fraternity, as the country lost 11 media personnel to perpetrators. The same State added two casualties to the list of countrywide journo-victims in 2017, where India found itself in an awkward position with the annual statistic of 13 journalists either murdered or killed in suspicious circumstances.
The horrific murder of Kannada editor-journalist Ms Lankesh (5 September) at her Bangalore residence sparked massive protests across the country. The shooting down of Gauri Lankesh, Patrike’s publisher, by unidentified gunmen invited countrywide condemnation from the media fraternity along with international outcries by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans/Without Borders, International Federation of Journalists, International Press Institute, among others.
The then Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar was also influenced by the outcries and he personally joined in a protest rally at Agartala demanding justice over Ms Lankesh’s killing. But pathetic news was waiting for the Communist leader as a young television reporter from his State (Shantanu) fall prey to mob violence on 20 September. Later one more journalist’s murder (Sudip Datta on 21 November) by a policeman put Sarkar in an embarrassing situation.
2018 reported the murder of six journalists, keeping India as one of the most hazardous countries for media persons after Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia among others, where journalists were murdered on a regular basis with impunity to the perpetrators.
Till date, we have lost six journalists to assailants this year. Amazingly, the Northeast is in a better position. However, we must reiterate our demand for justice raised by various scribe’s bodies namely Assam Press Correspondents’ Union, Journalists’ Forum Assam, Electronic Media Forum Assam and others, for the victim families and also insist on a national action plan to safeguard the fraternity in the line of military, police, and physicians on duty.