India’s Editors Guild in an unusual pickle

More on Manipur mayhem

Though presumed as a national forum of editors, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) does not have representatives in all States. The ongoing Manipur conflicts reflect that the EGI has not nurtured members in many parts of the vast country. The controversy about a report by an EGI fact-finding team after visiting Manipur, attracts specific media attention as the working journalists abd editors of Manipur (mostly based in Imphal) have outrightly condemned the editor’s guild, which was founded in 1978 with objectives of protecting press freedom and raising the standard of editorial leadership for newspapers and periodicals in the world’s largest democracy.

Today the EGI faces allegations of making biased observations on ethnic conflicts in Manipur and even worsening the turmoil with its initiative. The EGI even had to approach the Supreme Court for instant relief to its members, who were the part of a fact-finding mission and subsequently faced two police complaints lodged in Manipur. The team members along with the EGI president were extended interim protection from any coercive action for some days.

The debate began as the EGI released a report on 2 September after its three-member team visited Manipur from 7 to 10 August to study media coverages of the ongoing conflicts between the majority Meiteis and the Kuki-Chin-Zo community that has already snatched away the lives of over 150 individuals, wounded many more residents and also displaced thousands of families, as their villages were under attack since 3 May. The report slammed the internet ban and criticized the State authorities’ partisan role during the conflict.

The EGI observed that local media reporting was slightly inclined to the largely Vaishnav Meitei community, which constitutes over 50 percent of Manipur’s population and is primarily settled in Imphal valley (the rest belongs to mostly Christian Kuki and Naga people living in surrounding hilly areas).

There is a Meitei government, Meitei police and Meitei bureaucracy in Imphal and the tribal people have no faith in them, stated the EGI report, which invited strong reaction from the State government and also the local media fraternity terming it ‘incorrect and false’.

Soon two police complaints were lodged against the EGI’s fact-finding team members (Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor) along with their president Seema Mustafa citing various IPC sections for provoking enmity between different communities and deliberate attempts to flare up religious sentiments.

The FIRs were reportedly filed by Ngangom Sarat Singh (a retired government engineer turned social worker) and Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita, a resident of Imphal. Ms Sangita even urged the government to request for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the case.

Questioning the neutrality and intellectual capacity of the EGI fact-finding team, Singh said they had no idea about the country’s forest laws and hence summarized many issues abruptly. He even wondered about how much knowledge the EGI team had about northeast India and Manipur’s history. Before reaching any conclusion, the EGI team should better understand different sensitive issues of the State. Otherwise, the visiting team can be accused of arriving in Manipur to only spread communal venom in the time of crisis

She argued that only a high level probe can unearth various elements associated with the process. The use of terms like Meitei police or Meitei media was very unfortunate and condemnable, stated Ms Sangita, adding that after release of the EGI report situation turned more tense and it indirectly created more troubles in the State. Pointing out that the EGI team was crowdfunded, Ms Sangita asserted that the people of Manipur should know who contributed money for the initiative. She stated that the EGI on 26 July asked for donations to organize the fact-finding mission to Manipur through its social media account.

Two major media bodies of Manipur also denounced the allegations floated by the EGI in its report, completed in four days All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and Editors Guild Manipur (EGM) took a strong exception to the ‘half-baked’ report where the Imphal-based journalists were misrepresented. Both the organizations, while releasing a joint media statement, urged the EGI to issue a clarification, otherwise they had resolved on legal actions against it.

“The report has many contentions and wrong representations which are damaging to the reputation of the Manipur media fraternity, especially Imphal-based news outlets. The EGI report claims that its terms of reference was not investigating the genesis of the problem, but they all the same do so in a seemingly motivated manner.

The EGI ended up committing many factual errors in the process,” said the joint statement, adding that the EGI’s team with no basic facts claimed that riots were initiated by the Meiteis on 3 May in Churachandpur locality.

“There is a SC appointed fact finding committee which is also looking for it, but not yet been able to do so even the committee started its mission on 7 August,” asserted the statement, adding the EGI report referred to a certain Hill Area Committee Act 1972, even though there was no such Act. The claim that the State government flouted the provisions of this Act to declare ‘reserved forest’ or ‘protected forest’ at its whim is false. There are no recently declared ‘reserved forest’ or ‘protected forest’ areas. The last reserved forest was declared in Manipur in 1990 according to forest department records, it added.

It also stated that these declarations were meant to evict only one community (read Kuki), but records of eviction by the State government available with the forest department show otherwise. From October 2015 to April 2023, the houses (altogether 413) evicted from those reserved and protected forest areas belonged to 59 Kuki, 143 Meitei, 137 Meitei Pangal (Muslim) 38 Naga, and 36 Nepali families. The EGI team did not even bother to confirm this data from the relevant authorities, alleged AMWJU and EGM.

The visiting team also reported that the government withdrew from the tripartite suspension of operations agreement with the Kukis. Although State chief minister N Biren declared this abrogation with reference to two (out of 25 Kuki militant organizations in the SoO group) outfits at the 10 March cabinet meeting on the claim that these two groups were foreign organizations, the decision was never pursued. Hence SoO agreements with all 25 groups are still intact. The EGI again did not bother to cross check it before making the allegation.

In reference to the outrageous video of Kuki women being paraded naked, the EGI team did not confirm if there were two or three women victims as their report stated two in some places and three in different occasions. It also claimed that a young woman was shown as raped in video, but the 26-second clip showed two women and no incident of rape was witnessed. Parading and groping of both theladies were bad enough to be condemned, but the EGI team preferred to dramatize the tragic episode to suit its motivated narrative.

Again, in regard to a photograph of a burning building, the EG I captioned it as belonging to a Kuki family, but in reality, the particular building was the office of the State forest department in Churachandpur. The EGI has lately corrected the mistake. The EGI report also claimed that many Kuki-Zo houses along with churches in Meitei dominated areas were destroyed on 3 May itself, but it was wrong as the riots spread to the Imphal valley only after some days.

It also claimed that most of the valley-based newspapers and news channels took dictations from the CM’s office, which is found highly objectionable by the office bearers of AMWJU and EGM.

Speaking to this writer from Imphal, Imphal Times editor Rinku Khumukcham clarified that the Manipur government has not lodged any FIR against the EGI members as widely reported by various media outlets and journalists’ organizations based in New Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai. He however admitted that CM Biren Singh during a press briefing on 4 September, after appealing to all residents to maintain peace and tranquility, strongly condemned the EGI report Singh mentioned Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s speech in Parliament highlighting the complexity of the present crisis of Manipur. Despite this, it is strongly condemned that some vested interest groups are sending their fact-finding teams which are issuing reports as if they have brought a conclusion to the issue and which could further fuel the crisis, he asserted. He opined the EGI was intervening in a sub-judice manner as the Supreme Court (as well as the Union government) was monitoring various probe committees to understand the root causes of troubles.

Questioning the neutrality and intellectual capacity of the EGI fact-finding team, Singh said they had no idea about the country’s forest laws and hence summarized many issues abruptly. He even wondered about how much knowledge the EGI team had about northeast India and Manipur’s history. Before reaching any conclusion, the EGI team should better understand different sensitive issues of the State. Otherwise, the visiting team can be accused of arriving in Manipur to only spread communal venom in the time of crisis.

Condemning the incident where two women were physically attacked by a mob (whose video went viral on social media), Singh added that a group of Meitei women rescued the victims and shifted them to a safer place. Talking about some media reports where it was described that aa spokesperson of the Kuki Inpi threatened Meiteis to avoid coming to Moreh without a permanent solution to the present crisis and how many Tamil families in the border town were made to pay illegal tax for their survival, Singh warned that the government will not allow such activities. He also added that an FIR has been lodged against the concerned person.

Even though the EGI expressed shock over the police complaints as well as Singh’s harsh reactions to their report, it’s understood that the EGI team went there to study the role of Manipur media outlets in reporting the ethnic conflict, but went beyond its mandate to analyze the causes of ethnic violence. It even quoted an unidentified Kuki individual who alleged that the Imphal-based journalists took dictations from the CM’s office. Moreover, the EGI report criticized the Union government for not imposing President’s rule in Manipur after dismissing the BJP-led government.

Nava Thakuria
Nava Thakuria
Nava Thakuria is an independent Indian journalist based in Kamrup, Assam

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