India: RSF denounces “systemic repression” of Manipur’s media
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is zooming in today on Manipur, a small state in northeastern India where press freedom violations are on the rise and where journalists are increasingly being persecuted by the local government, parliament and judiciary. RSF calls on the local authorities to stop trying to intimidate reporters.
Grace Jajo is a freelance reporter who often covers debates in Manipur’s legislative assembly in the state’s capital, Imphal, and who had a pass for the press gallery. But, on 22 February, “the security guards came for me, threatening to evict me by force” she told RSF. “At one point, I was surrounded by armed guards on all sides (...) I was totally shocked.”
After confiscating her pass and escorting her to the exit, “they said they had an order to not let me in,” Jajo said, “I asked to see the order but the order never came. While I waited, they treated me very badly, insulted me and finally asked me to vacate the entrance.”
The next day, Jajo learned that the assembly’s secretariat was accusing her of “intentionally trying to malign the official procedure” and “breach of privilege” – a charge inherited from the colonial era that is supposed to protect the legislature from a threat to its independence.
The independent journalist Grace Jajo (RSF)
The pretext was her Facebook post sharing an article that a local news website, The Frontier Manipur, had published on 20 February, in which it exercised its right to respond to the accusations of “breach of privilege” and “contempt of the House” that the assembly’s secretariat had brought against the site in connection with one of its articles. The article, about an address that Manipur chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh had delivered to the assembly, took all of its information from an official press release.
“Grace Jajo was humiliated despite having all the necessary journalistic credentials,” The Frontier Manipur executive editor Paojel Chaoba told RSF. “She was not given any explanation for not being allowed to enter the assembly. It was a shoot-first-ask-questions-later situation.”
“By using such methods to target journalists it doesn’t like, the assembly’s secretariat is behaving in an absolutely unacceptable manner for an institution that claims to safeguard democracy,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on assembly speaker Yumnam Khemchand Singh to immediately drop the absurd proceedings against Grace Jajo and The Frontier Manipur. And more generally, in the light of the steady decline in press freedom in Manipur, we caution chief minister N. Biren Singh against any future violation of journalists’ rights and we remind him that he used to be a reporter before he entered politics.”
On the day that Jajo was notified of the charges against her, 23 February, two other journalists, Kirmil Soraisam, the director of the 7Salai news site, and Rabi Takhellambam, one of his reporters, were arrested on a “fake news” accusation over a small error in a story that had been quickly corrected. They were released on bail three days later but are now charged with disturbing public order, criminal intimidation and defamation.
Kirmil Soraisam, the director of the 7Salai News site (RSF)
“I wasn’t expecting anything of that sort given that we had already made the necessary corrections,” Soraisam told RSF after being bailed. “Things are really very bad in [Manipur] right now. The government wants to muzzle all critical voices.”
Chaoba and one of his editors, Dhiran Sadokpam, were themselves arrested a month before, on 17 January, and were held overnight after The Frontier Manipur published an op-ed about the “armed revolutionary movement” in Manipur. In order to be released, they had to tell the police they did not know its author, M Joy Luwang, and doubted the authenticity of his sources.
In a press release on 1 December, RSF defended another target of the judicial harassment to which The Frontier Manipur is being subjected. It was one of its journalists, video presenter Kishorechandra Wangkem, who had been held for the past two months. He was freed on bail ten days later but continues to be the target of constant judicial harassment. He has repeatedly been arrested since 2018, when he criticized Manipur’s chief minister and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at national and state level.
Even talking about press freedom is becoming problematic. After Wangkem dedicated the “Khanesi Neinasi” programme on 16 February to freedom of expression, it was threatened with judicial proceedings on 1 March. Manipur’s state government thereby became the first in India to take advantage of a new federal code of conduct for online content that gives local officials extensive powers to restrict press freedom. After a national outcry, Manipur’s authorities backed down and withdrew their threat of prosecution.
“What is happening in Manipur now is systemic state repression of the media,” Chaoba told RSF. “The government wants to gag the media and repress civil society as a whole. This is in keeping with the larger trend in India. A journalist working in this state is constantly under threat as it is. With the government now coming down heavily on critical voices in a very arbitrary manner, it is getting increasingly difficult to do journalism.”
As well as all of these harassment cases, Manipur’s journalists were also shocked by a grenade attack on the Imphal headquarters of two local newspapers, Poknapham and People’s Chronicle, two weeks ago. The attack failed but journalists went on strike for five days until the authorities appointed a team of investigators to find those responsible.
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.