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Why Media in Manipur Must Not Forget its Role as an Adversarial Foil Against Anybody in Power

All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, celebrated its 47th Foundation Day on September 16, 2020. It has indeed been a long and nostalgic journey. Most of the institution’s founders are no longer amongst us. The very few who still are, are long retired and most of them in poor health. But the seed of idealism and duty they sowed into the profession of journalism in Manipur, lives on, though it must be added, with signs of erosion showing up every now and then. Most newspapers in the state were launched small scale by people who believed in journalism, and therefore in most of them, the editors also owned them, giving the question of separation of editorial and proprietorial interest considered cardinal for good journalism a peculiar note. Business component remained tiny for a long time, therefore virtually eliminating the dreaded business influence interfering in editorial independence but as these newspapers grew in revenue and stature, the lure and pressures from the corridors of power they were exposed to, had its tolls. But by and large, it must be said, media in Manipur continues to treasure its independence inherited from the founders of AMWJU. Much has changed with the changing times, and today the proprietor editors are becoming a dying breed. An increasing number of media houses now have business persons as owners, and editors are professionals hired by these businesses, bringing in professionalism, but along with it, new hurdles before editorial freedom – bringing it closer to what are now standard in the rest of the commercialised world.

Hence, in the present times, the definition of media freedom in the state has further compounded. On one hand are the endemic, universal problem of section of the media’s eager bonhomie with power, and the fallouts of this. This power is two layered. First, this has to do with the relationship of journalist and their employers, or to put it another way, the business interest and editorial interest of a media organisation. The uneasy lesson for journalists has always been, while business of a newspaper will remain the lifeline of journalism, journalists must also nonetheless remain independent of this business interest. Indeed, media is a business, but it is not just another business defined by the principle of “buy cheap sell dear”, for on its shoulders also rests the ideal of democracy. The other lure of power journalists are prone to is more cynical, for the patron here are those in the corridors of state power. Quite insidiously, many journalists through various incentives direct and indirect, are won over on the side of power, inducing them to a regime of self-censorship in reciprocation to the favours they earn from power, compromising in the process journalistic independence. Degraded in the process is also the understanding that journalism is meant to be a foil of power, and therefore necessarily have to be inclined towards an adversarial position to anybody in power, in the time-tested belief articulated by Lord Acton, that “power corrupts, absolute absolutely”. The media’s importance role therefore is to be a check and balance factor the state’s power play.

It must be recalled that public expectation from the media is such that even the recent decision of the government to enhance journalist pension entitlements from Rs. 4000 a month to Rs. 8000 resulted in scepticism amongst the public that this supposed government generosity is a bargain. This scepticism should serve as a caution for AMWJU. However, on this count at least, it is essential to look at the development from a different angle. One, the journalist pension scheme works on a contributory mechanism. Journalists who are enlisted, pay a certain amount monthly to a common fund, and to this the government adds a complimentary amount to build up a corpus, from the interest of which the pension are made available. It is in this sense like the Provident Fund scheme of other services. If the government has contributed more than what the journalists themselves are able to raise, it must still not be treated as charity. The money the government contributes to this corpus, is public tax money, contracted to be invested by the government towards public causes. Since journalism is very much a public service, even treated as an important pillar of democracy, the public money invested to uplift journalism should be treated as an entitlement for the public service the profession provides, and not a gesture of government generosity at all. While the AMSJU and its members must appreciate the government’s move for fulfilling a governmental responsibility, it must not feel obligated in any way to return a favour. AMWJU must be ensured there is no quid pro quo here.

There is no point in underscoring that AMWJU must be extremely careful in dealing with power in all its ventures. We know the very raison d’être of AMWJU is to work for the welfare of its journalist members, over and above its responsibility of defending press freedom whenever this is challenged. AMWJU has been doing this, for also it instituted the Paomi Welfare Fund, two years ago with a corpus of Rs. 80 lakhs it raised through a lottery to help journalists in dire needs to meet their medical bills. All these are commendable, but it will do well for its leadership to always remind themselves that while the journalist fraternity cannot be the enemy of the government, it must always strive to remain the government’s uncompromising critics, whoever is in power. Renown author George Orwell, who began his writing career as a journalist could not have put this better when he famously said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” This is especially relevant in the present time, now that journalists are either openly co-opted with favours from those in power, or else intimidated by means of unwarranted arrests and harassments. Of the latter, no further testimony will be necessary for those of us in Manipur. Of the former too, nobody here will need much convincing.

In the rest of India, especially in the Hindi belt, another extremely alarming development is overtaking journalism, especially the television. Most are now openly partisan and have also assumed responsibility of the onerous task of adjudication which should be solely in the hands of the courts of law. Making it even more distressing is the fact that these media trials have the feverish support amongst a large section of the gallery of onlookers, egging them on to continue with their outrages and baying for the blood of those under scrutiny in these media storms. Often these galleries are reminiscent of the blood thirsty crowds in the extremely savage gladiatorial combats during the Roman era in whose vocabularies nothing as sanity, mercy or abhorrence for bloodshed. It is frightening to see the pleasure many seem to take in the thought of blood and gore, regardless of the possibility that the blood shed may be of perfectly innocent people caught in the crossfire. We do hope the media scenario in Manipur is spared of this madness, although judging by the spread of this lynch-mob audience even in our state, the dangers of this blood thirst ultimately reaching here cannot at all be treated as remote and out of bounds.

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