Covering the North East cauldron

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Books | 11/10/2017
What are the constraints and dilemmas of newspapers in the North East as they seek to cover current and ancient conflicts? A new book has insights.
VIKAS KUMAR looks at the study
Map credit: E-Pao

 

Book Review 

Walter Fernandes and Bhaswati Borgohain, 2017, Journals of Dispute: Media Coverage of Conflicts in the Northeast, North Eastern Social Research Centre Peace Studies Series – 11, Guwahati, pp. viii+199, Rs.250 ISBN: 978-81-933761-1-9

 

A few major dailies dominate India’s print newspaper industry at the national level. The importance of smaller regional newspapers, though, remains high because of growing political decentralisation and the rise in local sentiments amidst globalisation.

The regional newspapers of the North East are all the more important because national newspapers provide insufficient and biased coverage of the region. The failure of the national media is particularly problematic as many parts of the North East have suffered sustained armed conflict whose effects need greater public scrutiny. Moreover, given the low circulation of national newspapers, regional newspapers are often the only platforms for public debate.

Journals of Dispute by Rev. Walter Fernandes, the founding director of the Guwahati-based North-Eastern Social Research Centre, and Bhaswati Borgohain, a researcher, enriches our understanding of the print media in the North East. It examines six newspapers from Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, and Assam to understand “the role played by the print media in conflict situations in North East India and the possibility of their use for peace building.”

 

         

 

The careful choice of cases is the main strength of this book that captures the diversity of the conflict situations that the media has to cover in the North East.

 

Some conflicts never die 

Nagaland has seen one of the oldest armed conflicts in the subcontinent. The Naga conflict began in the 1950s when the Naga people questioned the terms of their integration with the Indian union. The conflict spread from what later became Nagaland to neighbouring Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar.

The largest insurgent faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland/Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), and the government signed a ceasefire in 1997 and began a sustained dialogue. Eventually, other factions also signed ceasefires. Nagaland has lived a managed peace since then. A major faction withdrew from the ceasefire agreement two years ago though.

The authors analyse the coverage of the NSCN-IM General Secretary Th. Muivah’s abortive attempt to travel to his birthplace in Manipur from Nagaland in 2010. The Manipur government barred Muivah from entering the state to protect the state’s territorial integrity and preserve communal harmony.

The Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley is opposed to the NSCN-IM’s demand for “Greater Nagaland” that includes as much as half of Manipur’s area. This case allows the authors to cover a long drawn out, but presently dormant, armed conflict, which is both nationalist and irredentist in character. The case study specifically relates to the territorial conflict between the Nagas and the Meitei community of Manipur, which is only one of the many strands of the Naga conflict.

The Tripura case study deals with a post-conflict situation. In Tripura, the indigenous tribal community resorted to armed insurgency in the late 1970s to resist the influx of Bengali settlers from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. The insurgency was eventually settled through negotiations. Tripura has seen a de-escalation of violent conflict during the last decade, which facilitated the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from the state. The tribal communities do not seem to have reaped the peace dividend though, which explains the growing disenchantment in the hills of Tripura.

"The choice of cases allows the authors to cover conflicts that began in three different decades"

 

In Assam’s Bodoland, the armed conflict that began in the late 1980s has persisted as a major faction of the insurgency that continues the struggle. In 2014, a candidate presumably supported by a coalition of non-Bodos defeated Bodo candidates in the parliamentary election. This triggered violence between Bengali-speaking Muslims, allegedly of Bangladeshi origin, and Bodos after the election. Like its Tripuri counterpart, the Bodo conflict is rooted in a contest over resources between indigenous tribes and “outsiders,” but in Bodoland there is a sharp religious divide between the two groups.

The choice of cases allows the authors to cover conflicts that began in three different decades. Moreover, from a contemporary vantage point, the cases cover decisive phases in the recent history of the concerned states.

In 2014, for the first time the Bodo-(Bengali) Muslim conflict was precipitated by political factors. In Nagaland, Muivah’s failed attempt to visit Manipur seems to have marked the beginning of the growing alienation of the Nagas of Nagaland from the NSCN-IM. While the Tripura case study does not deal with an inflection, it covers more diffuse developments that subsequently crystallised into overt dissatisfaction of tribes with their systemic marginalisation.

 

Theory enriched by case studies

In each case, the authors study two dailies published over a period of three months: Nagaland Post (Nagaland) and The Sangai Express (Manipur) for Nagaland-Manipur, The Assam Tribune and Amar Asom (Assamese) for Bodoland, and Tripura Times and Dainik Sambad (Bengali) for Tripura.

In Bodoland, both newspapers belonged to a community that was not party to the conflict, whereas in Tripura both the newspapers belonged to the dominant community that the minority held responsible for its woes. The Nagaland-Manipur case study covered one newspaper belonging to each of the communities in conflict.

Of the seven chapters in the book, the first three contain theoretical discussions on the media, methodology, and conflicts, followed by three chapters that discuss individual case studies and a concluding chapter on the media’s role in promoting peace.

The case studies begin with a discussion of the background of the conflicts that is mostly accurate but for minor errors, e.g., Phizo is referred to as “a founding member of the Naga Club” (p. 68), but he was barely 14 when the organisation was launched.

The tone of editorials, the appropriateness of headlines, bias in coverage, and sources of news are examined in the Naga and Bodo conflicts. The coverage of the development problems of different communities in news reports is tracked for Tripura, but the editorials and opinion pieces are not analysed. In addition to the content analysis done by their team of researchers, the authors also seem to have relied upon “a few semi-structured interviews” and “a conference of journalists and a meeting of peace activists.” Yet, there is hardly any reference to them.

 

Over-reliance on one kind of source

The most striking finding is the heavy reliance of newspapers on their “own” sources. Almost half of Nagaland Post’s stories were attributed to the NSCN-IM and only three per cent to Imphal-based Manipuri sources. Sangai Express did better in this regard as almost half of its stories were based on Naga sources from Nagaland and Manipur.

But for both newspapers, “own” was restricted to their respective governments, insurgent groups, and dominant civil society organisations. In Tripura, “tribal voices were non-existent compared to the forum’’ provided to the ruling party that was “either the only source or one of them” for most news items, say the authors.

"The most striking finding is the heavy reliance of newspapers on their “own” sources"

 

Assam’s Amar Asom was different, with reporters, local people and victims being the source of about 40 per cent of the stories.

Several consequences follow from over-reliance on one kind of source.

First, it obviously introduces bias. The study found that more than half of the news items in Sangai Express and Nagaland Post were biased, compared to Assam where a majority of the news items were balanced. Sangai Express catalogued the NSCN-IM’s crimes and suggested that the Manipur government’s response was dictated by the law.

Nagaland Post presented the NSCN-IM as the aggrieved party, whose leader’s natural right to visit his place of birth was denied. In Nagaland Post’s pages, the NSCN-IM emerged “as the ultimate guardian of the Naga people.”

In Tripura, for each development issue, both Dainik Sambad and Tripura Times gave less coverage to tribes than the Bengali community, except in the case of health. This “exception was not because the newspapers accorded more priority to tribal health,” but due to the breaking news quality of health crises in tribal areas.

Second, the choice of sources restricts empathy. Both in Nagaland and Manipur, the losses of the other side were reported in a matter of fact manner. Sangai Express covered at length the economic blockade imposed by the Naga tribes, while the death of two tribal youths and injury to 70 others was “mentioned as information with no tone of regret.”

On the other hand, Nagaland Post overlooked the impact of economic blockade on the people of the Imphal Valley, but dedicated an editorial, “Tragedy in Mao Gate,” to the loss of lives. While Tripura’s newspapers focused on development and did not raise divisive communal issues, “the difference of ‘we’ (Bengali) and ‘they’ (tribal) was present very subtly.”

In fact, the exclusive focus on general development challenges meant that Tripura’s newspapers overlooked longstanding tribal demands. Moreover, even in Assam, where the coverage was largely unbiased, there were occasional subtle hints about the “illegal immigrant” status of the Muslims under attack.

Third, in Nagaland and Manipur, journalists became part of the polarisation they were supposed to cover. The ruling party dominated the media in Tripura leaving hardly any room for tribal voices. The uncritical coverage driven by press releases allowed vested interests to use newspapers as a means of agenda-setting. This reduced journalists “to puppets in the hands of the powerful.” Assam’s newspapers, though, managed to avoid taking sides.

Fourth, limited sources reduce the possibility of course correction. In Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura there was a persistent bias in coverage. In contrast, while the newspapers in Assam initially reproduced the government’s claims about the identity of perpetrators, they eventually questioned those claims based on field reports.

The bias due to sources is not unalterable. The presentation of news, i.e., the nature of headlines and positioning of news items can, for instance, moderate the bias. About 65 per cent of the headlines of Sangai Express and 85 per cent of Nagaland Post’s sensational headlines did not reflect the content of the news items, unlike Assam newspapers that largely refrained from sensationalism. So, in the case of Nagaland and Manipur, the bias due to restricted sources was compounded by the way in which news was presented.

Lack of analysis further adds to the impact of biased sources. In Assam, both Amar Asom and Assam Tribune provided more coverage in the run-up to the violence than in the aftermath. So, while Assam’s newspapers anticipated the impending crisis in Bodoland, there was insufficient interest in the underlying problems afterwards.

"In Nagaland and Manipur, journalists became part of the polarisation they were supposed to cover"

 

On the other hand, Sangai Express and Nagaland Post failed to anticipate the crisis along the Nagaland-Manipur border, did not critically analyse the situation after the crisis had erupted, and failed to reflect on the underlying problems after the crisis subsided. Likewise in Tripura, the tribes attracted more attention during crises, only to be forgotten soon after. The lack of reflection after a crisis cools down contributes to its subsequent recurrence.

 

The role played by editorials and columns

The editorials and opinions in Assam’s dailies took “independent stands, different from that of the political parties and of the government” and displayed “independence and concern for the victims.”

One of the first opinion pieces in Amar Asom, “Asomor Ataitkoi Dangor Samasya” (Assam’s biggest concern), decried the dominant Assamese community’s attitude towards the Muslims as ‘we’ and ‘they’ and called for accepting ‘them’ and ‘us.’ An editorial published on the same day, “Aboidha Astra Aaru BTAD’s Nara Hanxar” (Illegal arms and BTAD’s human sacrifice), assailed the government’s failure in checking illegal arms and also condemned those trying to communalise the incident.

These two set the tone of the debate in Amor Asom that remained focused on the people caught in the crossfire between vested interests. Assam Tribune too focused on the role of vested interests and called for better management of scarce land resources.

It also carried opinion pieces on the historical and political-economic roots of the violence, e.g., “Reaping as one sows” highlighted the role of the Rajiv Gandhi government in arming Bodo militants to destabilise the Asom Gana Parishad government and questioned the wisdom of including non-Bodo majority areas in Bodoland. Both newspapers also condemned the government’s failure to curb the proliferation of illegal arms.

Sangai Express carried fewer editorials than Nagaland Post possibly because it had to balance multiple ethnic interests – Meitei, Naga, and Kuki. Sangai Express’s opinion space, however, embraced greater diversity of views and included contributors from all communities of Manipur. The first editorial in Sangai Express titled “Home coming Or” discussed the territorial implications of the proposed “Greater Nagaland” for Manipur. It was supported by two two-part write-ups, “Why Muivah should not visit Manipur” and “Weakness of NSCN’s demand for Nagalim” and an opinion piece “Muivah’s visit: Political agenda, Opposition, Consequences,” that questioned the historical and ethnic legitimacy of “Greater Nagaland.” These were followed by “Why Can’t Th Muivah visit his village?” and “Why Muivah should visit Manipur.” Likewise, “Last mile welcome for Muivah, if at all!” and “Th Muivah’s visit to Somdal will propel peace” were published on the same day.

In Nagaland Post, divergent views emerged from among the Nagas, who contributed almost all the opinion pieces. While all contributors criticised the Manipur government’s decision to ban Muivah from visiting his village and supported the Naga nationalist claim upon northern Manipur, a few questioned the NSCN-IM for hurting the Naga cause.

An opinion piece, “Mental emancipation of the Nagas,” suggested that the NSCN-IM’s conduct was unbecoming of Christians, while a press release of a rival faction highlighted the NSCN-IM’s “crimes and atrocities.” Perhaps only one opinion piece, “Naga Issue vis-à-vis Naga Manipur Issue,” half-heartedly reached out to “Mongoloid brothers” in Manipur and Assam and called upon them to respect the God-given Naga territory.

 

Lack of cohesiveness in the narrative

This book reminds one of social science courses in our undergraduate colleges. Most of them consisted of two disengaged halves, dealing with western theories and the Indian experience. Likewise the first three chapters of this book half-heartedly engage with (western) theoretical discussions on the media that are forgotten later in the book.

Even the most obvious determinants of media coverage identified in the academic literature such as ownership and source of advertisements are noted, but not explored. Packing both “theory” and case studies in a short book does injustice to both.

 Another weakness relates to the choice of newspapers being restricted to publications in the dominant languages. A comparison of Naga – Tenyidie and Tangkhul – and Manipuri newspapers, Kokborok and Bengali newspapers, and Bodo and Bengali newspapers might have revealed greater polarisation. Likewise, the inclusion of photographs might have revealed greater sensationalism.

"Another weakness relates to the choice of newspapers being restricted to publications in the dominant languages"

 

A third point that needs to be flagged is the absence of a discussion on what drives the reliance upon biased sources of news. The authors identify this as a big problem because it undercuts fair coverage/debate that is “important for just peace to prevail.” While they agree that regional newspapers have instigated “conflicts and violence,” they emphasise the need to acknowledge the sacrifices of journalists “killed and threatened for covering conflicts and violence against the wishes of the powerful.”

The North East’s media indeed walks a tightrope as media personnel are not physically safe and even otherwise are not free to defy their communities. However, the authors do not even catalogue, let alone discuss, major attacks on the media. They also note that even in the absence of direct physical threat, the task of the media is challenging as it needs to differentiate between terrorists and freedom fighters, separate new acts of violence from reactions to earlier violence, and find a balance between objective reporting and avoiding the possibility of intensifying conflicts through objective reporting. But they do not illustrate these difficulties using concrete examples from their case studies.

To conclude, Journals of Dispute tries to provide an account of how the North East’s newspapers tread the fine line between functioning as records/journals of events and serving as sites where disputes play out.

The authors succeed in illuminating the ways in which the print news media, sandwiched amidst the multi-layered complexity of the region, covers conflicts. However, “the power structures in the media,” whose control lies “in the hands of a few… linked to the dominant socio-political structures,” are left unexplored.

But, these shortcomings notwithstanding, it bears emphasising that there aren’t many books that deal with such a wide range of issues pertaining to the functioning of the news media in the North East. And, despite the space constraint, the authors have succeeded in covering several interpenetrating perspectives on conflicts through their careful choice of cases which should serve as a benchmark for future studies.

 

Vikas Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

 

 

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