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For a free press

On November 16, India celebrated National Press Day. Speaking at an event celebrating the occasion, President Pranab Mukherjee said, “The power of the media should be used to reset our moral compass and promote liberalism, humanism, and decency in public life. While opinion is free, facts should be sacred.” Ironically, on the very same day, editors of six newspapers in Nagaland issued a public statement, protesting against attempts by the Assam Rifles paramilitary force to curb the freedom of the press. On October 25, 2015, the editors of five Nagaland-based media houses were issued a notification by a Colonel of the General Staff for Assam Rifles. With the subject line “Media Support to Unlawful Association”, the letter warned newspapers against carrying any public statements made by militant outfits, specifically the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), which was recently declared a terrorist organisation by the Centre.

“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of NSCN (K) and gives it publicity is a violation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1957, and should not be published by your newspaper,” the letter said. The “offending” articles attached to the letter included an NSCN (K) statement that threatened to kill “certain lawmakers”, who were pursuing a “subversive course to force NSCN (K) to capitulate and toe the line of a particular political group which propped them and vice versa”. In other words, elected representatives who were trying to gather support for the peace deal being struck between the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and the Centre. In August, Government of India signed a historic peace accord with NSCN (I-M). The NSCN (K), which had signed a peace agreement with the Centre in March 2001, had withdrawn unilaterally from the ceasefire agreement earlier this year, after it was alleged that the area along Indo-Myanmar border under their control was fast turning out to be  a “safe-zone” for terrorists of various factions in the Northeast. Moreover, it was involved in an ambush in the Chandel district in Manipur, where an Indian Army convoy was attacked. Other “offending” reports included one on “tax” collection by the NSCN (K), which were also “construed as support to an unlawful association”. When terror organisations issue repeated threats of mass violence against India, does the Centre direct television channels and newspapers not to report it? Moreover by implying that such newspapers are supporting a particular banned organisation, “the Assam Rifles is, ipso facto, jeopardising the personal safety and well-being of the editors and the media fraternity”, according to the statement released by the protesting editors. It is fair to suggest that the Assam Rifles unit of the Indian Army is way out of line.

The Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, operating under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, has no business telling the media what it should or should not publish. They have issued such notification, conveniently bypassing an elected executive in the state. Despite the prevalence of AFSPA in certain pockets of the state, senior officers of the Assam Rifles must realise that India is no Myanmar, where the military calls the shots. If the armed forces feel that the media has directly incited violence in the state or shown partisan support to terror organisations, they should take it up with the Government of India or the Press Council. It is incumbent on the Centre or the Press Council to decide what action must be taken. Moreover, the importance of the print media in Nagaland cannot be overstated. Newspapers remain the primary means of mass communication in the conflict-ridden state. 

Newspapers play a vital role in informing the people. In their statement against the notification, the editors of six Nagaland-based newspapers pledge to “remain impartial and non-partisan while exercising our editorial independence”, to report diverse viewpoints and create a healthy space for debate, to uphold the values of non-violence and democracy, to uphold the ethics of journalism, and report events with “transparency, accountability and objectivity”.  Funnily enough, the senior officers of the Assam Rifles saw it fit to send its notification to only Nagaland-based newspapers, while other national and regional media outlets continue to publish statements by other banned outfits, including those by the NSCN (K).
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