‘Nagas at crossroads’: reporting conflict in Nagaland

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 19/03/2010
Media in Nagaland-Part II. Reporters reproduce terms used by the underground without quotation marks, which highlights the extent to which the linguistic frames of the underground are normalized through their circulation in mainstream media discours
says SUBARNO CHATTARJI

                   A Hivos funded study on the Hoot

 

Research coordinator in Dimapur, Athili Anthony Sapriina. Research director, Sevanti Ninan. Research consultant, Aloke Thakore. Analysis: Subarno Chattarji. 

 

Nagaland is the site of a protracted and complex set of conflicts where every faction and participant is convinced of the justness of their struggles and strives to project that conviction to other Nagas. The media occupies a crucial role in this maelstrom and the table below gives a sense of the dominance of conflict reportage in the period under survey:

 

Brief overview (Nov. 10 • Dec. 10, 2009)

Morung Express

126

 

Nagaland Post

141

 

Eastern Mirror

93

 

Nagaland Page

114

 

 

474

 

 

Number of C1 (Conflict with India)

238

 

Number of C2 (Intra-Naga)

138

 

Number of C3 (Naga-neighbours)

15

 

Number of C1 + C2

63

 

Number of C2 + C3

9

 

Number of C1 + C3

7

 

Number of C1 + C2 + C3

1

 

Number of Editorials

26

 

Number of Opinion pieces

55

 

Number of News Stories

393

 

 

A conflict as complex and multi-layered as that in Nagaland requires nuanced, accurate, impartial, responsible, sensitive, and sensible reportage. Journalists need to assess the immediate situation, analyze deeper patterns of relationships involved, and provide a conceptual framework to accommodate multiple perspectives. Framing becomes crucial in responsible conflict area journalism. Stories have to be framed in a way which encourages deeper conflict analysis, facilitates non-violent responses, and ultimately leads to a transformation of conflicts • in terms of perception and on the ground. This article focuses in particular on conflict coverage and the relative absence of the reporter’s voice.

 

A news story in the Nagaland Post typifies a mode of reporting on the internecine clashes, extortions, killings, and inter-factional violence in the state: ‘Kyong region has expressed shock on the November 4 incident at Woroku Tongti area under Pangti village where armed robbers held up the secretary of Pangti village NREGA at gun-point and ran off with NREGA fund amounting to Rs. 24 lakhs.’ [‘GPRN Kyong region condemns,’ Nov. 10, p. 2] It goes on to cite the GPRN statement and details of an earlier conflict. 

Another story ‘Thousands rally against "brutal" assault’ describes a rally protesting the assault on a class XII student by NSCN-IM activists: ‘Questioning the attitude of the cadres despite providing them with food, clothes and shelter, president Chumukedima Mothers Association (CMA) said the undergrounds under the barrel of the guns have been continuously harassing the innocent Naga citizens without mercy and in the process inflicting grievous injuries both physically and mentally. "This is not the first incident. There are similar cases of abuses including numerous killings by the undergrounds to [sic] innocents in the name of realizing independence," said CMA.’ [NP, Nov. 28, p.1] 

A third article ‘NSCN-IM on arrest of GPRN/NSCN cadres’ defends the arrest of opposition faction cadres by the Naga Army: ‘the Naga Army was compelled to arrest them as their activities were tantamount to any anti-social groups or hoodlums and did not reflect the behaviour of any person who understands and respects social ethics, the NSCN-IM stated.’ [EM, Nov. 21, p.1] The piece goes on: ‘On the issue of tax collection, the NSCN-IM said the manner of disorganized collection as practiced by the so-called GPRN/NSCN generates undesirable reactions from different angles.’ A fourth article, ‘Protest rally against assault’, refers to members of the underground as ‘national workers’ [EM, Nov. 28, p.1] A fifth piece ‘NSCN/GPRN notifies on taxation’ [EM, Dec. 3. p. 3] cites Ministry of Chaplee Affairs but provides no comment on the so-called ‘taxation’. 

In all five representative pieces reporters either repeat verbatim or summarize statements made by factions or protestors. Reporters reproduce terms used by the underground without quotation marks: ‘tax collection’ (a euphemism for extortion) and ‘national workers’ (for NSCN cadres), and Naga Army are examples. This adoption of conflict terminology is troubling in that it indicates a lack of distancing from contentious terms and issues. It also highlights the extent to which the linguistic frames of the underground are normalized through their circulation in mainstream media discourse. 

There are various explanations that may account for the particular manner of conflict mediation in reporter’s dispatches. Non-partisan, professional media are relatively young in Nagaland. Daily newspapers only began in the 1990s, what existed before were weeklies, mostly with overt political affiliations. Journalism training and education are both still at a nascent stage. 

Akum Longchar, founder of The Morung Express, confirms the lack of journalistic expertise in conflict reporting. He avers that there is no self-censorship, merely an absence of skill and know how, asserting that if journalists were better trained they would be more critical. While this is a plausible explanation it is interesting that Longchar also states that reporters listen to people in power a fact that explains the dominant role of press releases in the Naga media domain. The voices captured by reporters are, inevitably in this scenario, of those who wield political power whether in the government, the armed groups or civil society. It is a very political and politicized society and the reporter can easily give offence through analytical commentary. There is also, as Longchar points out, a cultural dimension to reporting where the sensitivities and institutional frames of clan, tribe, and society determine the parameters of reportage. In a very close-knit community it is difficult to be overtly critical. Longchar’s insights are valuable in sensitising outsiders to the constraints, limitations, and contexts that determine reporter’s dispatches in Nagaland.

But they are the perspective of the owner-managing director. A reporter who would rather not be named counters,  "Ask any reporter here and pat comes their reply, ‘who can protect us if any eventualities arises out of my story? The reporter knows that the proprietors or the editors cannot give them full protection. And then it is also the editors sometimes that censor stories that might bring some repercussions to the paper. The one thing expected in such eventualities is a ‘compromise’ and an apology from the paper published the next day or the day after."

‘The Nagaland Post editor Geoffrey Yaden feels that mass communication training by itself is not the issue when reporting on a state like Nagaland.  "Unless somebody is mature being mass com is not enough. Maturity is a criteria. They have a wrong idea of journalism. They don’t even know how to report on what has happened." Reporters here lack both a nose for news and analytic skills, he says.’ To which again, the reporter above responds, "There might be tons of investigative or controversial truth that need be exposed, but while doing so, if the newspaper cannot stand up with the writer on the repercussions that is expected to follow afterwards, who would likely want to take risk, especially in a situation like Nagaland?

 

On the issue of cultural factors which lead to compromise even in matters of crime, this reporter narrates one such incident. " Four inebriated youths raped a pregnant woman in the guise of underground factions near the end of 2008. The village head of the village where they were residing through the pressure from the family of the accused tried to reach a compromise by offering a sum of rupees 10,000/-. Such incidents are frequent, even when it comes to murder.

 

"t must not be forgotten that like any other journalist anywhere, here in Nagaland too for the aspiring journalists, it’s about breaking a story, bringing home a change, exposing corruptions or anomalies or injustice that matters.  But it is also very vital for the editors or the proprietors of the newspapers to inspire confidence among its staff that come what may, in truth, the establishment would stand to the last. Sadly, this courage is not exhibited by most of the papers head here." In other words, if reporters are lacking in maturity, editors are also not willing to stand up to community heads who cock a snook at the law of the land.

 

At the same time it seems necessary to focus on the absence of the reporter’s voice and what that means for the mediation of conflict in Nagaland. 

Press releases appear to be the predominant source of news on local affairs. Press releases from three sources are used by the newspapers • government, armed groups, and civil society organizations. The usual mode seems to be to treat the press release not as a first source of information, which is then corroborated by other sources, on the contents of which contrary opinions are sought, or around which news reports are written. Instead, press releases appear in newspapers in their entirety or in a truncated form where the editing is largely a pruning of the release for length. Hence, the same stories are reported in a similar fashion across newspapers. While this is often the case in national newspapers when the information is about product launches and the like, in the case of Naga newspapers this pattern holds true for political and civil society news. Partly for reasons of caution borne out of years of handling publicity demands from the underground, the reporting here shows little initiative on the part of the reporter. Even though the threat from the underground has diminished, no newspaper will take a series of statements emanating from the factions and analyse them, or invite comment on them. Or go out to seek information from such groups, beyond what they choose to give.

The caution can occasionally shade into self-censorship. A young local journalist working for the Eastern Mirror, said that local newspapers do not seem to enjoy the so-called freedom of press when it comes to writing about the Naga political groups, and the censure has affected the mentality of the reporters who limit their investigation to the facts behind incidents involving the ‘national workers’ or issues regarding the Naga political issue to just what gets relayed to them by the groups involved.

 

That the intimidation of the media has not totally receded from the public sphere in Nagaland is evident from an editorial in The Nagaland Page titled ‘Quit Shooting Us’ on  April 30, 2009: ‘Members of the media  fraternity get assaulted, harassed and even shot at. Perhaps it’s time we shared our reality with the rest of the global media fraternity. Quit shooting us or all the skeletons in your cupboards will tumble out.’ The threat in the last sentence suggests a degree of self-censorship in how the media conducts itself. It is also indicative of the complex and fluid relationship between intimidation and self-censorship and the negotiations between alternate power centres. That the editorial could articulate the threat is indicative of the growing stature of the media and its refusal to be cowed down. Sadly, however, most media reports tended to play the role of ventriloquist rather than engaged interlocutors.

The Eastern Mirror correspondent covering the Cultural Day programme of Phek Village Youth Society summarized the speech made by the Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Kuzholuzo (Azo) Nienu: ‘Nagas have neither fully adopted the culture of the west nor properly maintaining their cultural identity and therefore Nagas are at a crossroad with regard to our traditional and cultural identity. Asserting that besides folk songs, dances and traditional finery, Nagas have been known for their honesty, hard work and hospitable nature. He, however, noted with regret that those basic attributes of Naga culture have been overshadowed by extortion, ransom demand, deducting percentage, which were never a part of Naga culture.’ [‘Nagas at cross road in cultural perspective: Azo,’ Nov. 24, p. 3] Arguably the summation of the speech makes some important points and perhaps they require little commentary. What is striking, however, is that the issues raised by the minister are fundamental ones and seem to require some analytical intervention which is missing. The minister’s arguments relate to the ways in which Nagas (like their counterparts in the rest of India) cope with modernity and the manner in which this conflict is proposed in terms of a fundamentally superior Naga cultural ethos.

Azo also resists the stereotyping, indeed orientalising, of Nagas in terms of ‘folk songs, dances and traditional finery’ (wheeled out for exhibiting Naga heritage or the diversity of India). At the same time that Azo idealizes Naga ‘honesty, hard work and [their] hospitable nature’, he makes a critical distinction between these attributes and the current realities of ‘extortion, ransom demand, deducting percentage’. The minister calls a spade a spade refusing the euphemisms bandied by the various factions and replicated in the media. This is a politically courageous speech reproduced in summary but seems to have little impact in media discourse as the Eastern Mirror (along with other newspapers) blandly repeat the egregious terminology of the underground factions. Azo’s speech is provocative and asks for commentary which is absent. In fact the title header for the piece itself betrays a lack of analytical perspective in its emphasis on ‘cultural perspective’ as if this were separate or separable from the political, especially in a politically charged public sphere such as Nagaland. Azo’s speech makes the connection between cultural politics and militant as well as Naga Nation politics, but the correspondent seems oblivious of these and other valuable connections.

The relative absence of reporter voices has two further implications. First, is that the media, in its acquiescence to dominant government or underground terminologies, does not contribute to the fullest extent to the broadening of the public sphere for democratic debates. Second, in its overt dependence on the press release • whatever the source • the media cedes ground to the very entities it is supposed to interrogate. The symbolic politics of the press release in the Naga media world could be interpreted in terms of information control and replication rather than one of many sources of information and analysis. For analytical insights and debates we need to need to turn to editorials and citizen essays.



Also read:


Part I: Conflict and reconciliation in Naga newspapers

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