The space for editorials was blank. Readers of Nagaland-based newspapers Nagaland Page, Eastern Mirror and Morung Express were shocked. On the day symbolising a free and responsible press in India — National Press Day — these dailies chose to carry blank editorials.
This mode of protest, the strongest possible for print media, was in response to an intimidating letter written by a colonel of the Assam Rifles (AR). Issued on 25 October, it accused them of being complicit with ‘illegal activities’ of a banned organisation.
“Morung Express is exercising its independent choice to leave the editorial space blank in protest against the ongoing efforts by the powers-that-be to curb the rights of free press and to undermine the right to freedom of speech and expression,” was the reason printed by the daily.
The AR has asked Nagaland Post and CAPI, along with the above-mentioned dailies, not to carry public statements of militant outfits. “Any article which projects the demands of NSCN(K) and gives it publicity is a violation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1957, and should not be published by your newspaper.”
The letter further says that the Union home ministry has declared the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) an “unlawful association.” A copy of the notification and the ‘offending’ articles was attached.
This missive with the subject line “Media Support to Unlawful Association”, intended to stop Naga media from covering views of the militant outfits, raised an uproar both in the media fraternity and elsewhere. Monalisa Changkija of Nagaland Page sees it as “Assam Rifles’ tactics to divert attention from their own failure to contain and curb the activities of armed organisations/groups in Nagaland.”
These developments, which caused only a ripple in the rest of the country, involve some complex issues. Naga editors see it as an attempt to violate the fundamentals of free speech under the Constitution and United Nations declaration on human rights. It is reminiscent of censorship diktats under the Emergency era, when newspaper The Indian Express published blank editorials.
Nagaland was formed in 1963 under turbulent circumstances and hence societal and political contradictions are inherent to the state.
In such a situation, editors say, fair reporting of all parties becomes indispensable as all sides have their own share of competing interests and positions.
In a joint statement, the editors of six Naga dailies said that they will “remain impartial and non-partisan while exercising our editorial independence that is free from all influences by State, non-State and corporate entities.”
AR, in its response to the joint statement, says that at no stage has the media been asked to dilute free reporting. However, “Publishing an extortion notice of a banned organisation against business establishments is akin to abetting the banned organisation in collection of funds which will be used to carry out subversive activities against the government agencies and security forces.”
Though the state has an elected government, continuous extension of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) has given unchecked powers to the military. AR has on several occasions accused reporters who ask questions about its conduct of being anti-army. But direct accusations have begun this year since the ceasefire was broken. “In July, when our reporter questioned the killing of two kids, allegedly by AR , they branded us as anti-army and supporters of the banned organisation,” a Morung Express representative tells Tehelka.
Interestingly, when it comes to conflict zone reporting, taking versions of all stakeholders is a common practice in the national and international media. The Nagaland Post editor sees the censorship as a “thinly veiled threat by AR.”
Moreover, AR has no jurisdiction over administrative and civilian issues of the state. The dailies are ready to hold themselves responsible to the Press Council of India. They are open to meeting elected members of the state government on such issues.