As Manipur and Nagaland get locked on a collision course, how much does the mainstream know of the issues involved to cover it sensitively and intelligently? Not much, going by the coverage…
The action is in Manipur and on the border, the angst is in Nagaland. The stand-off between the NSCN (I-M) and the Manipur government which has led to a continuing blockade of goods going to Manipur is a challenge for the media on both sides. What stand does the media within a state take on a conflict with another state? Should it be objective or parochial? The media in Nagaland can hardly ignore the extraordinary human situation that has developed in the neighbouring state, and has written on it, but the newspapers here have learned to be careful when they deal with the demands of Naga groups. An editor spoke off the record of the gross human rights violation that the blockade constituted of the people of Manipur, but said writing about it in those terms was difficult, so papers in the state were sticking for the most part to publishing press releases.
In Manipur, the media has been accused by the United Naga Council of misrepresenting the cause of the death of two Naga students at Mao Gate on May 6, and of blacking out the extent of the attack launched on Naga protesters by the Manipur Police and the Indian Reserve Battalion. But local papers in Imphal have carried that criticism. It arose from a news agency report attributing the deaths to a stampede. A Kohima-based journalist counters that there was enough TV footage on Doordarshan and there were enough still photographs used by newspapers to show that the young men were indeed killed by firing.
And what of the media in the rest of the country? Does it even begin to explain the issues sparked by the Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in the tribal areas of Manipur, which led to the blockade in the first place? Should it just focus on the human story caused by a really prolonged blockade? For a change, thanks to the impasse, there have been full page feature stories in some of the mainstream dailies, and occasional TV coverage of Manipur.
Back in April the Imphal Free Presshad also been critical of the Ibobo government's decision to hold the ADC elections in tribal areas which are seen as taking away rights of the Naga tribes in Manipur. Particularly when the elections were being so vigorously opposed by the local hill people. But Naga civil society organisations represented by the Coordination Committee of Naga Civil Society launched last fortnight an effort to get the media outside the two states to see the demands behind the blockade from their point of view. They want journalists to come to Nagaland and understand the issues that prompted the economic blockade in April.
Challenges for the media
There are two problems in covering this issue. One, the complexities of the Naga demands are a challenge for the press outside the state, so it is easier to leave out the details creating the impression of an unreasonable demand which affects other states and is not likely to be conceded. Secondly, in the face of a blockade which even the Central Government is seen as doing nothing to end, the time is hardly right for the the NSCN IM or Naga civil society groups to expect to garner sympathy for their cause.
The prolonged stand off between Manipur and Nagaland has raised a bunch of media issues. How much does the media in the rest of the country simplify the issues involved in a bid to give the impasse some coverage? And when the aggrieved people imposing an economic blockade are the Nagas, a divided community themselves, how representative of all Nagas can the media outside Nagaland take their grievances to be? A journalist in Dimapur asserts that the so called Apex bodies are not necessarily representative of all tribes.
Nagaland generates more news all year round than some sleepier states but a Kohima or Dimapur dateline in Indian newspapers is rare. Manipur, by contrast, has been far more in the news over the last year, with Imphal datelines. The blockade which began in April has been enough of a human story to merit even a couple of full page stories in the bigger mainstream papers, and some 10 months before, the killing of a young man in the heart of Imphal by Manipur commandos also led to some continuing coverage. But nowhere near what it might have been if such stories had not been located in the Northeast.
Last week, against the backdrop of the turmoil, talks were held in Kohima on Naga demands. It was billed as the first ever talks held on Naga soil, between the representative of the Government of India and the NSCN (I-M) headed by Muivah himself. But the Times of India, the Indian Express and The Hindu covered it from Guwahati, and the Hindustan Times did not devote even a brief to the news, Mail Today likewise. It is almost as if the media in the rest of India has decided that the Northeast, and Nagaland in particular, should be left to its own incomprehensible politics, no matter how great a price people in the region pay for unresolved issues.
Last Monday morning Delhi woke up to a Hindustan Times whose front page headlines were in a font designed to match the font of the half jacket Volkswagon advertisement the paper carried. Two days later, on June 2, Mumbai woke up to a Times of India which had converted all the Ts in its headlines, including the one on its masthead, to the emblem of a new mobile service provider, Uninor, which has blue clover leaves resembling a T. DNA and the Indian Express on the same day ran sponsored banner headlines relating to the same company. All of which prompted Mumbai journalist Mahesh Vijapurkar to ask, are we now seeing a new genre: paid headlines?