As in other conflict zones, the Northeast presents dilemmas at every step for the intrepid jourlist. Chronic insurgency continues to be the bane of this backward region ringed by four neighbouring countries. In their attempts to get all sides of the story, jourlists here are easy game for all quarters as well. The purported ‘gag order’ issued recently by the Assam Rifles to the media in galand is a case in point. Taking suo moto action, the Press Council has sought to know the reasons behind this notice dated October 25 last, which appears prima facie as having an ‘adverse bearing on the freedom of Press’. This comes after the Editors Guild of India denounced as ‘pernicious’ the notice by which the Assam Rifles ‘warned’ newspapers against carrying statements by insurgent outfits, especially the NSCN(K), as it has been banned as a terrorist organisation by the Centre under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. galand has been in ferment over the notice in the last few days with as many as five newspapers coming out without editorials. The ga Press Association (NPA) has voiced support to the editors, while the galand Tribes Council and other organisations have thrown their weight behind protests against the ‘high-handedness’ of Assam Rifles. Sentiments on the ground are already running high after Assam Rifles jawans recently gunned down four cadres of the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) faction under ceasefire, supposedly mistaking them to be NSCN(K) ultras. Questions are already being raised on the ham-handed use of AFSPA in a state where the NSCN(IM), NSCN(K-K) and other militant groups are talking peace with the Centre. In the midst of all this outcry comes the Assam Rifles’ alleged attempt to muzzle a beleaguered galand press.
The Assam Rifles on its part has denied any such sinister attempt, claiming that its advisory to media houses has been ‘misinterpreted’. The Assam Rifles has issues with media houses for ‘publishing extortion notices’ by a banned organisation against business establishments, tantamount to abetting such an organisation in collecting funds, which in turn will be used to carry out ‘subversive activities against the government agencies and security forces’. But the media houses can carry on with free reporting, publish any articles which would contribute to the peace process and air their opinion about the security forces and their conduct of operations — the Assam Rifles has sought to clarify. Referring to the clauses in the gazette notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs proscribing the NSCN(K), the Assam Rifles seems to be at pains to avoid any controversy by saying that offending media houses will have to answer to the Press Council. So the findings of the Press Council will be eagerly awaited here, but surely the Assam Rifles authority could have avoided such a public relations disaster after the unfortute shooting of the four ceasefire NSCN(K-K) cadres. Such suspected encounter deaths in other conflict zones like Kashmir would have drawn blaring headlines across the country. Efforts by the Centre to bring various ga militant groups to the table for peace talks need to be supplemented with sensitive and cautious handling by security forces on the ground.
The media in particular, needs careful and sympathetic treatment — with a Press Council member revealing last year that as many as 26 jourlists have been killed in the Northeast in the twelve years from 2002 to 2014. Sadly, not a single person has been convicted for the killing of any of these jourlists. Extremists are increasingly targeting jourlists for reporting against them and covering counter-insurgency operations by security forces, as shown by the torture and shooting of Prashanta Kumar, the Udalguri correspondent of a highly circulated Assamese daily, by NDFB(S) ultras this year. Fortutely, Kumar survived, but jourlists in rural areas, jungles and hills in this region run huge risks daily while reporting on sensitive issues. Running the gauntlet of militants and crimils here, the last thing jourlists need is security forces threatening them under draconian laws. A word of caution though, will not be misplaced here. With the courts pronouncing against bandhs, the media in Assam has noticeably toned down coverage of bandh calls. Some may call this self-censorship, but many others see it as welcome signs of the media taking responsibility. This is the way to go in the age of 24x7 breaking news. The continuous live coverage of security operations during the 2008 Mumbai attack reportedly provided Lashkar handlers in Pakistan valuable inputs to pass on to the terrorists in Mumbai, ebling them to shoot down several of our commandos. Compare this to the restrained media coverage of the 2005 London subway bombings and the Paris attack recently. The over-riding concern of such reporting, while stressing upon the factual and true picture — is not to idvertently hamper operations and endanger security personnel or civilians in any manner. A critical look at its own workings can only stand our media in good stead.