What It's Like to Be a Journalist in India's Northeast

While the journalists have continued to do their job amid widespread threats, national journalists’ associations have failed to take up their cases as vociferously as those in other conflict-ridden areas.

New Delhi: On March 10, graphic photographs of injuries on a young TV reporter from Mizoram were floating around on social, online and traditional media. The injuries were allegedly incurred from a brutal attack by Assam Police personnel at a protest rally on the Assam-Mizoram border, which lead to many journalists’ associations from within and outside the Northeast to condemn the assault.

“I was beaten up even though I kept saying I am a reporter. I never faced such an experience before,” said Emmy Ci Lawbei, a correspondent for the News18 network in Mizoram.

Lawbei is lucky to have escaped with injuries that would soon heal. Though reports of attacks on journalists in Mizoram are relatively lesser, that March morning though, she joined a number of journalists from across the Northeast who have had to face intimidation, threat, job loss, physical assault, knifing and gunshots, just for doing their job.

Lawbei is one of the two or three female reporters in Mizoram, who, she says “are respected not just by the state administration for their job but also by male colleagues.”

Emmy C. Lawbei shows her injuries in a Facebook post.

Emmy C. Lawbei shows her injuries in a Facebook post.

“Women journalists in Mizoram have mostly been working at the desk. There are just 2-3 of us on the field. Typically, in a group of 20 journalists in an event, there would be just one woman reporter. At times, government officials are pleasantly surprised at seeing us,” Lawbei told The Wire.

This novelty factor, however, hasn’t stopped state or non-state actors from going after women journalists in most of the other northeastern states. Overtly or covertly, on that count too, Lawbei and her women colleagues are among the lucky few.

Surviving in Assam

Much before India’s ratings in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index dipped to 138 (five notches below Palestine and 21 below Afghanistan) – primarily triggered by cases like the murder of a woman editor Gauri Lankesh last September – the Northeast saw bullets pumped into the stomach of Arunachal Times editor Tongam Rina in 2012.

In recent times, Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim too was attacked.

Tongam Rina, the editor of Arunachal Times.

Both Mukhim and Rina are fortunate to have survived to tell their tales. And of course, continue being editors. However, many of their male colleagues haven’t. From editors down to the rank of reporters and camerapersons, the number of the dead male journalists makes a long list. Statistics exist for Assam – 32 deaths since 1987, as per government records. None of these cases has seen any meaningful probe leading to a conviction of the accused, even though a nexus to those in power was evident.

On a sunny December morning in 2017, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal organised a ceremony in Guwahati where he handed over a one-time financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh to each of their families. While the gesture was appreciated, the journalists felt there still was a long way to go before justice could be done.

Lack of justice delivery for such killings is not unique to Assam. Look at conflict-ridden Manipur. There have been cases where reporters were shot in the legs by non-state actors alleging that they were government stooges, grenades and bombs sent to editors as warnings, powerful bureaucrats and politicians threatening ‘action’. And at least six recorded targeted deaths in the last three decades in that state.

“Last year, the brutal murder of Tripura journalist Santanu Bhowmik was widely condemned across the country and rightly so. But I would say it created big news in New Delhi simply because it was during the run-up to an election in that state where the BJP was at loggerheads with the Left like never before. Santanu’s and later Sudip Datta Bhowmik’s killings were a part of that narrative. In 2012, a similar case like Santanu’s happened in Manipur. Nobody in Delhi noticed,” said a reporter from one of the largest circulated newspapers in Manipur on the condition of anonymity.

Santanu Bhowmik. Credit: Facebook

The reporter was referring to Prime News cameraperson Bwizamani Singh who was allegedly killed by police while filming a protest that turned violent in an Imphal locality. Before Singh lost consciousness, he handed over his tape to a friend for safekeeping. However, media reports then said the friend was arrested and the tape went missing. 

“Eventually, it was handed over to representatives of the state’s journalists’ forum. Though it could have been an important piece of evidence to nail the culprit behind killing a journalist on duty, the case never progressed to its logical end,” he rued.

“Personally, I have got support from media persons and organisations within and outside the country but not many are as lucky as I am,” said Rina.

In 2008, in yet another locality of Imphal, Konsam Rishikanta, a sub-editor with Imphal Free Press, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. No reason was cited. In 2002, Yambem Megha, a correspondent with Vision North East, was gunned down. So was the editor of the then popular English newspaper The Manipur News (in 2000). In 1999, it was the turn of H.A. Laroha, editor of a journal in a tribal dialect; in 1993, it was R. K. Santomba, editor of Kangla Lampung.

The list is longer if you also add the names of those who survived such attacks. Following Rishikanta’s murder, the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union, in a statement, appealed to the militant outfits to give the journalists a chance to explain their point of view if their writing was not acceptable to them.

In 2013, the Union’s general secretary Ratan Luwangcha was shot at his residence. He survived.

Like in Assam, none of these cases in Manipur has seen any conviction yet. Same is the case in Arunachal Pradesh. Following then chief minister Nabam Tuki’s statement to the press that the police would do its best to solve the case, the main accused in Rina’s case was arrested in 2013. But conviction is yet to happen.

Rina told this correspondent, “I have no clue about the progress of the case. I was summoned twice, first in 2013. I couldn’t appear since I was travelling. The second time was in 2014, I reached the court but the hearing couldn’t take place because the main accused didn’t turn up.”

Following the attack on Lawbei, like often seen after attacks on journalists in the rest of the northeastern states, the Mizoram Journalists’ Association too resorted to a dharna. The Asian Centre for Human Rights filed a complaint against the attack at the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. On March 22, the NHRC issued notices to Assam and Mizoram director generals of police seeking a detailed report of the incident within four weeks. “I am not in Aizawl, have no idea whether the state governments have sent any report to the NHRC yet,” said Lawbei.

One of the rare cases of assaults on journalists where some prompt government action was seen was in the case when Arunachal Times’ associate editor Ranjit Sinha was attacked in July 2017. “There was prompt action from the police and administration. One of the government employees who was part of the attack was sacked from his job,” related Rina. She also pointed out another rarity. “The Arunachal Times management is extremely helpful, right from hiring lawyers to looking into the medical expenses of the reporters.”

No management support

However, it is not always that reporters are backed by the management. In most instances, the management is not often forthcoming. They have, instead, preferred to not renew the job contracts of reporters and editors coming under attack or discouraged them to report on ‘sensitive cases.’ This has led many to avoid doing several important stories, particularly the investigative ones involving powerful ministers and bureaucrats and security forces.

“Though, it is now not as overt as it was, at least in Assam, during the time when insurgency and army operations were at a peak. What editors like Ajit Bhuyan went through then for journalism doesn’t happen anymore, but yes, you can lose your job anytime for writing against a powerful politician or the government and its senior bureaucrats. So, many do just routine press conference reporting. After all, everyone needs a job,” said a reporter from a popular Assamese news channel.

Since “a powerful minister in the present government is opposed” to his employers, he said, “Me and my colleagues are often singled out by him in press meets and targeted. At times, we are refused a bite while others are given one on important issues. We are reconciled to it now.”

Unjust imprisonment

In 1991, Bhuyan, then the editor of an Assamese daily, was arrested under the National Security Act (NSA), 1980 on some vague charges, only to be withdrawn a day before the Gauhati high court was to pass an order. In 1994, he was again arrested under the infamous Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) on charges of abetting the kidnapping of the then commissioner of taxes in Assam. With no evidence against him, a TADA court released him on bail.

In 1997, Bhuyan, then the editor of the popular newspaper Sadin, was booked yet again under NSA, allegedly for unearthing the Rs 200 crore Letter of Credit scam involving powerful names starting at the top of the administration. He was later released. A year before, his friend and editor of Asomiya Pratidin, Parag Das, one of the state’s most admired journalists, was assassinated while returning home after picking his son from school.

Bhuyan came under attack in 1998 too, allegedly by security forces. Around 20 armed men in civilian clothes surrounded his house on a June night, and ransacked his three-storey building, which also housed the newspaper he ran then, Natun Samay. Though the army later denied any involvement, Bhuyan told reporters that he was targeted because of his newspaper’s criticism of the army’s operations in Assam. It led the Committee to Protect Journalists to write a letter to then Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee to make an “immediate intervention” and launch an investigation into it.

Some tribal journalists/editors, particularly in Nagaland, also often complain of politicians and armed groups making use of influential tribal bodies to pressurise them to fall in line. “Our job as a journalist is to speak truth to power, ask uncomfortable questions. But saying it is easier than following it for many in a conflict situation. It has many unpleasant consequences. Also, several just fall to corrupt ways, considering the salaries etc are dismally low. The temptation to accept bribes etc from both the state and non-state actors is high,” said Paojel Chaoba, a senior reporter with Imphal Free Press.

Chaoba has been a rare journalist, not just in Manipur but in most parts of the Northeast, for doing investigative journalism, including bringing to light the ‘killer cop’ Thounaojam Herojit and recently the confession of an army subedar about fake encounters in Manipur. 

In states like Assam and Manipur, where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gives the security forces blanket powers to not just control information but also intimidate journalists for reporting stories, particularly related to rights violations by security forces, these are examples of journalism of courage.

“But the appreciation for it, particularly from fellow journalists at home is very little. There is no follow up done by local journalists on such important matters pertaining to the state, even though, at times, the New Delhi and international media notices,” he said.

But his bigger disappointment is with the civil society organisations and even the judiciary. “The civil society organisations often fail to respond well to important reportage. The judiciary can take suo moto cognisance of some such stories to deliver justice. But I don’t see that happening in Manipur,” he said.

In Assam, some reporters have been able to follow up on important cases of corruption, such as the multi-crore Louis Berger scam allegedly involving politicians and bureaucrats, only because of some vigilant civil society groups and RTI activists pushing for action.

But Chaoba is lucky to be working for a newspaper in the Northeast that publishes his stories, however uncomfortable they may be to the powerful. Shillong-based freelance journalist Linda Chhakchhuak couldn’t. After failing to get her stories published or not getting the treatment they deserved, and to offer a platform to those facing the issue, Linda, along with fellow journalist Sanat Chakraborty, started Grassroots Options, a magazine on people, environment and development of Northeast India.

A harsh industry 

“It was based on the concept of freedom of expression, much appreciated by many readers. It was run with our own (little) money as we continued to work for other newspapers (to make a living). But we soon ran out of finances. So we went online. It was hacked twice (for the stories they published) and we are still trying to get it back running,” Chhakchhuak told The Wire.

In 2002, Chhakchhuak carried out the northeastern part of the study brought out by the Press Institute of India (PII) on the status of women journalists in the country. Among many important points, she also flagged this, “Journalists are underpaid and most of the time, work on undignified terms and condition. They can be fired at the whim and fancy of the proprietor. In some of the ‘better’ newspaper houses, journalists work on a one-year contract basis, ‘temporary permanent’, while in most others they are not even issued proper appointment letters outlining their job, pay scale etc.”

One case from Assam that the PII report mentioned was about Chayamoni Bhuyan, a reporter at a Guwahati-based Assamese daily. After having returned from a fellowship to cover the September 11 anniversary from the US, she was sacked from the three-year-old job on the ground that she was “absent” from work.

“Nothing has changed since. Forget freelancers like me who anyway continue without proper remuneration, security or anything just for the sheer love for journalism. Even journalists in organisations hardly have any job security. The organisations are breaking every rule of the labour laws. Only the top dogs are well cared for but even they have to tow the line. Many editors (in the Northeast) have been shunted out when they clashed with the owners,” she said.

The common thread in these states is a sense of disappointment at national journalists’ associations for not taking up their cases as vociferously as those in other conflict-ridden areas, such as Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. During the widespread protests by reporters in major Indian cities condemning Gauri Lankesh’s murder, several correspondents from the region shared their ire about it in public platforms.

Some of that wrath is also seen directed at the Press Council of India, which, many editors feel, at times gives in to pressure, political or otherwise. Said Rina, “Whenever Arunachal Times is targeted, we get letters from the PCI. I don’t know what they do after getting the updates from us. So I think it is a waste of my time to engage with them. So, we have not responded the last time we were targeted.”