The challenges of reporting on an ethnic conflict

The crisis in Manipur shows how journalism can become a casualty

June 23, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 11:23 am IST

Indian Army and police personnel during a combing operation at Kanto Sabal village near Imphal, Manipur.

Indian Army and police personnel during a combing operation at Kanto Sabal village near Imphal, Manipur. | Photo Credit: AFP

In 2018, while covering an incident of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh, I visited the house of one of the affected families. The building had been ransacked and set on fire. It was clear that the family had rushed out before a meal in fear: a plate of partly kneaded dough, half-cooked dal, and chopped vegetables lay on their kitchen floor. There was also a religious book. A neighbour accompanying me became agitated seeing the condition of the book. Sensing that this situation may further aggravate tensions, I pleaded with him to remain silent. Scores of angry people were standing outside and any provocation had the potential to start another wave of violence. He thankfully found merit in what I said. He picked up the book, and we quietly left the place. Whatever be the situation, one of the thumb rules in this profession is that we are first journalists; we cannot afford to let religion or ethnicity cloud our judgement.

But this is an ideal, and the opposite often takes place. The ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur has brought to the fore the disturbing trend of reporting on ethnic lines. More than 100 people have been killed and thousands have been displaced in the last 50 days. And just like the police, the press too is deeply divided. An officer told me a few days ago that even two reporters working for the same organisation could have different versions of the same incident, depending on their ethnicity.

During a conflict, it often suits the government to suppress and censor news. This is where journalists can play a key role by holding the government accountable. But this is not what is happening in Manipur. If you pick up a newspaper published from Imphal and another newspaper published from a hill district, you will find that the news is often along community lines. There are exaggerated claims by both sides.

It is too simplistic to blame the journalists without factoring in the dangers faced by them. A crowd gathered outside the residence of The Hindu correspondent in Imphal after a news report about the killing of nine people in Imphal East was published on the front page of the newspaper on June 15. The locals were angry as they did not agree with the facts presented in the report. The said reporter had not provided inputs surrounding the killings, but he had provided additional details on curfew timings and protests, which is why the report carried his byline. The report also carried my byline as I had provided inputs about the killings after checking the veracity of the information with multiple sources.

After the crowd gathered in front of his house, the reporter clarified he had nothing to do with some parts of the report, which were written by me. The incident highlighted the immense pressure faced by reporters on the ground. This week, a TV journalist from a Delhi-based news channel was assaulted at the government-run media centre in Imphal. Imphal-based journalists say the scale of violence in the hill districts can never be known as reporters don’t dare go there.

The political establishment has failed to assuage the situation or protect press freedom. Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur from May 29 to June 1. On the last day of his visit, he addressed a press conference in Imphal. It was quite telling that there was not a single journalist from the hill district at the conference, for travelling to Imphal would have been a matter of life and death for them. Chief Minister N. Biren Singh did not accompany Mr. Shah when the Home Minister visited the hill districts.

Those reporting on the issue from other parts of country are labelled ‘parachute journalists’. It is said that they don’t understand the State and have no knowledge of its history and culture. They are sometimes accused of pecuniary benefits. Despite these challenges, there is only one way forward: to keep reporting and verifying information.

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