The impunity with which the Manipur government have been arresting and releasing journalists at their own whim is alarming. The latest of these outrages is in the arrest and then release of two editors of a web portal The Frontier Manipur for publishing an article by a contributor which incidentally had been reproduced in at least two other journals, one in English and the other in Manipuri, only a week or so earlier. A lot has been said about these arrests by commentators and how they transcended all democratic norms, but understandably, the tendency has been to overlook the arrested men were released. We take the trouble to mention the second as well to drive home and alert everybody who still has faith in the rule of constitutional law, of the true depth of dangers the society is staring at currently. The arrests should not have happened at all for it clearly overturned the law, but the release also did not follow any procedure prescribed by the law of the land either.
Anybody familiar with the registration process of a newspaper with the Registrar for Newspapers in India, RNI, will know how strongly the RNI insists on the names of the editor, publisher and printer being printed prominently in what is referred to as the “Imprint Line”. The RNI also is clear that no other titles such as editor-in-chief, associate editor, sub-editor etc., should appear in this space. If any newspaper organisation wishes to have these other editorial designations to suit their needs, that would be their internal arrangement but not recognized by the RNI. Among others, this is with the intent of fixing without any uncertainty, responsibilities for any libels cases that may arise with respect to the publication on the three RNI recognized designations – publisher, editor and printer, first and foremost, but also other offenders too along with the three. Once upon a time, when newspaper laws were first being conceived of, these three designations were generally held by single individuals, but now things are a little different, especially when it comes to the printer, for a number of publications today outsource their print jobs to professional printers who are not related to the media business except for taking print orders from them. Even in such cases, the RNI requires the printer and publisher to make separate declarations to the District Magistrate of the district either is located in so as to separate libel liabilities between the two. The old assumption when newspaper organisations were much smaller is also that every article which goes to print would have to be after the editor has scrutinised it and approved as libel free. In today’s much bigger and much more sophisticated multi-edition newspapers, this is no longer so, but still an editor is supposed to read and approve at least every opinion piece, especially written by people outside their organisation and also know the contributor even if he or she is writing under a pen name so that in case of libel suits, if required by the law, the identity of the writer can be made known for the discharge of due process of law.
In the article in question for which the two editors were arrested, the question is who exactly should be held liable for the alleged offence as per the law. The press law is clear about this, but then it does seem they were arrested not under any press law but the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). The charges against them also were under IPC sections 120B (Criminal Conspiracy), 505(b) (Causing alarm to induce offence against the state). These laws, as we know are intended for fight terrorists and other militant challengers to the Indian state. Can the arrests then be still seen as justified? We certainly do not think so, especially after reading the article, which at its crux is a critical assessment of the manner a resistance movement under the banner of several underground organisations, who together once caught the imagination of a besieged population, are now fading away into oblivion and losing the grudging respect they once commanded amongst the people. There is a touch of nostalgia in the tone, but can this be treated as a cognizable crime of abetting insurrection? It is there for anybody to see that although the article addresses unlawful organisations, there are no calls for violence, so can it still constitute a legally cognizable offence? If several Supreme Court rulings, including one involving writer and activist Arundhati Roy for a speech made on militancy in Kashmir is anything to go by, it certainly cannot.
But if the impunity of the arrest is alarming, the matching arbitrary nature of the release should equally worry. If the charges made against the two arrested editors, fabricated or otherwise, were so serious as to be deemed fit by the police to invoke the UAPA, how can the police so casually decide to drop the cases as if nothing of consequence had happened? From statements of the police, apparently the arrested persons apologised, and it was on the strength of the apology they were released, a claim which the arrested men denied later. In any case, can grave charges under UAPA be revoked on the basis of an apology? News reports on the following day of the arrest also said leaders of the All Manipur Working Journalist Union, AMWJU, and Editors Guild Manipur, EGM, met with the chief minister, N. Biren, to plead for the release of the arrested editors, suggesting it was on the direction of the chief minister that the two men were ultimately released. This also gives some credence to the suspicion amongst many that the police action of arresting the two editors was also in keeping with a directive from someone higher up. These developments should prompt conscientious citizens to ponder on some very disturbing questions. Foremost of these is, has the judiciary been marginalised so that such weighty decisions of criminal adjudication are now in the hands of the executive? It is common knowledge that such usurpation of judicial powers by the executive happens only in banana republics ruled by comic book dictators. If Manipur is still a law-abiding state, won’t whatever has transpired in this sorry episode amount to contempt of court? Or is the state beginning to mirror a banana republic and the law is becoming what the executive says the law is? To be fair, another explanation could be, the police initially presumed a cognizable offence had been committed and booked the editors and lodged FIRs on them suo motto, but soon realised the charges had no ground so withdrew the FIRs. If this is so, in the name of transparency, should not those who made the move apologise for the false alarm and the inconveniences caused.
Regardless of all other claims of success by the BJP government in Manipur, there is no dispute that there has been a sharp spike in the manner the press is being targeted. There have been so many arrests of pressmen and other whistle blowers for frivolous reasons, none of which ultimately proved tenable in the court of law and the arrested scribes have ultimately had to be released on the strength of court orders. This ought to be a matter of shame for the government, or at least a cue for course correction. There are however seem no sign yet the government is ready to relent on the matter. By contrast, the previous three terms of the Congress in succession now stand out as extremely neutral to the media, whatever else its failings were. The then government allowed even very critical assessments of their performances. In the run up to the last Assembly election, there were even full-page advertisements released by their rivals the BJP, vilifying their party and leadership, so much so that media houses have had to face the scrutiny of the election office for breaching election code of conduct. Yet the Congress government made no move to curb the media. Today, because of the intimidatory tactics of the government, coupled with co-option of the pliable of the state media, there are only very few newspapers and TV channels courageously standing up to the government as they are required to, and speak truth to power in the hallowed tradition of a free and fearless press. Once upon a time the media had to be careful of not rubbing touchy faction ridden insurgent organisations the wrong side. Today, it is the legitimately elected establishment which has become the nemesis journalists have to avoid questioning. Perhaps this is part of a covertly endorsed larger nationwide pattern after the BJP came to power. In the World Press Freedom Index for 2020 brought out by the respected international journalist organisation, Reporter Sans Frontier, (Reports Without Borders), India has dropped to 142nd position amongst 180 nations, from its 138th position in 2019. It can be no consolation that Pakistan is placed at 145th and Bangladesh at 151st, for it is also true that even Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are ranked much ahead of India.
There are still more to the issue. The media is a prime agent in building a discursive space in the society where all its problems, even the nastiest, are publicly thrashed with the intent of arriving at resolutions to them. The problem of militant oppositions to the established order is certainly one of the foremost of these problems urgently needing attention. This being so, as long as these debates are not reduced to threats, intimidations, extortion demands or calls for violence, even the most radical opinions directed against the establishment should be heard so that all stake holders will get to know the exact nature of the energies driving these movements, or else to sense the shifts in their ideologies. Only such an approach can create the room for engagements that lead to resolutions. Unfortunately, the ongoing spree of intimidation of the media is smothering and stifling this space. No points for guessing, but without doubt this will amount to a removal of the safety valve to the extreme resentments inherent in the society which in the first place spawned these insurgencies. This can consequently lead to the steam inside what has been described as the Manipur pressure cooker to build up and come to exploding point again, threatening to throw the relative calm of the place in recent time, back into chaos and mayhem.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author