Will the Northeast media ever be independent?
The local media in the Northeast is typically caught between the government and the insurgents. Advocacy and fact-finding is often left to activists. But there are sporadic flashes of journalistic brilliance which need to be encouraged, says Dr.Ningthoujam Koiremba Singh.
Does the mainstream media – both print and broadcasting channels - still ignore the Northeast region of India as they used to before? Not really! And this is mainly thanks to the array of panel discussions and edit pages that have appeared in the prime channels and dailies in the last couple of years. But most of these issues discussed concerned the discrimination of the Northeasterners in the metros and other cities. Whereas, the real issues of the region like development, corruption, extortion by militant groups, human right violations and many others that are plaguing the society and the region at large, are yet to get the spot light.
A watchdog called social activism
Firstly, we have to appreciate the relentless efforts of the social workers and activists of the region. They have been vocal enough in taking some of the issues of the region to the ears and eyes of the citizens through the mainstream media. In fact, they have filled the void created by the incompetence of the vulnerable and ineffective local media. Today, the local media is growing, but mostly in numbers. If the people are habituated to blaming the mainstream media of neglecting their issues, they are equally habituated to ignoring the failure of the local media in representing issues of their respective states. But, it would be an injustice to solely blame the incompetence of the local media for the existing condition.
The media in the Northeast relies heavily on the government for its revenue. So, it follows, that they will find it difficult to be critical. In the past, whenever the media chose to be overtly critical, the government had its way of arm twisting them through the archaic Prevention of Seditious Meeting Act, 1911. As with the militant groups, the powerless local media becomes the soft target. Since 1991, 25 journalists have been killed in the region. Yet, their pitiable condition still continues. Then, there are the civil society organisations, for whom the media either has a soft corner, or have to face the threat of being boycotted or labeled as traitors of their community, if at all they criticise such organisations.
Even the security forces have their own way of keeping a good image through the media by doling out good lunches, liquor and some useful money at every press conference they conduct. So, most of the stories in the local news are mere representations of the press conferences and press releases of the government, militants, civil societies and security forces. But, in recent times, a few of them have raised questions regarding the lack of development in the region.
An urban-centric media
While the local media is incapable of wielding power to change policies at the centre or the state like some of the mainstream media do, there’s an obnoxious similarity between them when it comes to representing the issues of the people. The local media are as city-centric as the mainstream media. And in a region where divisions based on ethnic identities run deep, the sense of being neglected by the main media of the region only gives birth to a number of small media outlets representing the parochial viewpoint of one particular ethnicity. This has had a detrimental effect on the region. Having said that, such coverage has also focused on the issues and living conditions of the people in remote places, where diverse ethnic communities thrive.
For any report or news to be authentic, the access to information and verification of the story is vital. But it is often difficult for a common media person in the Northeast as there are too many players, vis-a-vis the government, the militants and the security forces. As a case in point, Gammon India, Valecha Engineering, TBL and Continental Engineering Corporation withdrew from a National Highway project in Assam in 2009. Extortion, killing and abduction of engineers made it impossible for them to continue the work. And the regional media remained a silent spectator, even though they filed a pro forma report of the case.
The issue of division on ethnic lines makes things all the more difficult for the media to verify claims when there is a clash between two communities. Like in 2006, when there was an alleged mass rape of women from Hmar community by militants, the media of Manipur had a hard time getting access to the region and verify the truth. Moreover, most of the reporters in the local media are untrained to, not only get access to information, but also to have a sense of news, other than filing verbatim, the press releases. On the other hand, reporters of the region are highly underpaid and hence this profession fails to attract the best of talents.
Emergence of online media
Today, we see many online media mushrooming in the region. And their approach is vastly different from that of the traditional media. In Manipur, for instance, there is a lot of spotlight online on the achievers from the region in the fields of art, culture, sports and so on. They have, either purposefully, or out of incapability, left the main issues untouched.
In such a scenario, the activists representing the region seem to be the only choice to take the issues of the region to the ears of the mainstream media. Many freelance journalists from the region have been anonymously working to provide a breakthrough for the mainstream reporters on some of the critical issues that need to be highlighted at the national level. In the infamous extrajudicial killing in Manipur in 2009, a freelance journalist captured on camera the killing of a young man and a woman by the state police. These photographs were sent to a correspondent of Tehelka magazine, and the report caught the attention of the national media.
In times to come, flashes of such journalistic brilliance might bring the issues of the Northeast into the limelight now and then. But for it to receive a constant media attention, a lot is still left to be done.
The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Law, Christ University, Bangalore.
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