Internet Ban a Mistake, During Conflict Manipur Media Was 'Meitei Media': EGI Report

The fact-finding report said that thanks to the breakdown of communication due to the net ban, journalists effectively had to follow the government narrative, which under Biren Singh "became a narrow ethnic one playing up to the biases of the majority Meitei community."

New Delhi: A fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India which visited Manipur to examine the media reportage in the state, has released a report in which it has noted that “one-sided” reports were published during the course of the ethnic violence and that the internet ban made “matters worse”.

A three-member team comprising Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor were in the state from August 7 to 10.

Their 24-page ‘Report of the fact-finding mission on media’s reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur’ also notes how certain media practices led to the vilification of the security forces.

For instance, in its recommendations, it noted: “Meitei media became a party to the vilification of the security forces, especially the Assam Rifles. It failed in its duty by constant propaganda against the Assam Rifles claiming that it was only purveying the views of the public. It failed to verify the facts, weigh them and then use them in its reportage.”

The report said that the state government also tacitly supported this vilication by allowing Manipur Police to file an FIR against the Assam Rifles, “suggesting that one hand of the state did not know what the other what the other was doing or this was deliberate action.”

The conflict between the country’s oldest paramilitary forces, the Assam Rifles, and Manipur police has been unprecedented. The Manipur Police’s FIR against it was ostensibly for “allowing Kuki Militants to flee”.  The director general of Assam Rifles, Lt General P.C. Nair, on September 1, said that the situation in Manipur was unprecedented.

Internet ban and bias

The report took a straightforward view of the role of the internet ban in affecting cross-checking and monitoring of news, calling it a straight “mistake” and a surefire way of allowing rumours to float.

Internet was first cut off in the state on May 3. Several government orders had since then called for its continuation, until restricted use was permitted in late June.

It also said that thanks to this breakdown of communication, journalists effectively had to follow the government narrative, which under N. Biren Singh “became a narrow ethnic one playing up to the biases of the majority Meitei community.”

“Communication blockade by the government had a deleterious effect on journalism as it directly impacted the ability of journalists to communicate with each other, their editors and their sources. It also affected the media because local news gathered without any communication links was not sufficient to give a balanced view of the situation and often, even that was not enough to fill their pages or meet their news requirement,” the report said.

If an internet ban becomes absolutely necessary, the report said, then news platforms should be exempted from the ban and a committee comprising the media representatives, civil society organisations and government representatives should monitor the ban and its duration, the report said.

“In no circumstances should the state government go against the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin case,” it stressed.

Notably, the report said that during the conflict, Manipur media had effectively become Meitei media.

“Meitei media, for that is what Manipur media seemed to have become during the conflict, acted collectively with editors consulting each other and agreeing on a common narrative e.g., agreeing on common language to report an incident, referring to certain use of language or even not reporting an event. This the EGI team was told was because they did not want to inflame the already volatile situation further.”

The report noted that this practice apparently originated from the days when insurgent groups were active in the Valley and threatened newspaper editors for any adverse reporting. “However, the downside of such an approach during ethnic violence is that it can easily slip into forging a common ethnic narrative and lead to a collective downslide of journalistic principles by deciding what to report and what to censor. This seems to have happened to some extent during the present cycle of ethnic violence between the Meiteis and the Kukis,” the report noted.

The team also said that there are “clear indications that the leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict,” highlighting it as a failure of performing its duty as a democratic government.

“There is a Meitei government, Meitei police and Meitei bureaucracy in Imphal and the tribal people living in the Hills have no faith in them,” it said.

Find the full report below.

Report of the fact-finding mission on media’s reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur by The Wire on Scribd