Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) July 15, 2012: A rain-mist-veiled lazy Sunday evening. Time : 6 pm. But it was not a hectic, newsy day. Thirty-two year old Tongam Rina, associate editor in Arunachal Times barely stepped into the editorial office when two bullets pierced her stomach and shattered her spinal cord.
Nearly a year has elapsed since Tongam Rina, associate editor of Arunachal Times, a leading English daily in Arunachal Pradesh, was shot at point blank range by suspected militants. However, the state government and police have still not been able to nab the culprits.
The rough and tough-talking Tongam never shied away from any assignment or taking a stand; be it writing against the NSCN(IM), corruption in the state, the super-hydro dams ravaging and pillaging the mountainous state or the deep tribal chasms tearing the cultural fabric into shreds. She survived the attack and continues with her work undaunted.
As a mark of protest, the Arunachal Times and its website started a countdown counter on the paper and the site which boldly highlights the number of days since the attack (337 so far) and that there have been no arrests so far.
"Very often we are being threatened by the militant outfits even for inane comments which they find objectionable. The situation here has reached such a stage that the state government has given us personal gun licences to protect ourselves," remarks Taba Ajum, Tongam Rina's colleague in Arunachal Times and president of the Arunchal Press Club.
According to Ajum, at least ten journalists, including him, are going around sporting guns the government gave them permission to carry! Of course, carrying guns does not ensure safety, "but then what does a journalist do in such Catch-22 scenario?"
The only thing was to maintain a pressure on the government and police by demanding arrests of the attackers. However, despite carpet-bombing coverage, the police till date has not been able to arrest any of the assailants. The countdown and the continuous coverage of the days since the attack and the inaction of the police has some effect, he felt, as there have been several indirect messages and, requests have come to his office to stop the countdown!
Not an ideal 'state' for journalists
Chandel (Manipur) December 23, 2012: Curfew had been clamped in the district following public protests sparked off after news broke out that a Manipuri actress Momoko was molested during a musical concert allegedly by NSCN(IM) militants.
Twenty-nine-year-old Thangjam Nanao Singh, a reporter of the local news channel 'Prime News' was video graphing the protests that refused to simmer down near Imphal. The trigger-nervous police in these states opened fire at the protesters. Singh paid a price for trying to capture the police 'shoot-to-kill' rampage. Trapped between the protesters and police, he kept shouting that he was from the press but to no avail. He went down in a hail of bullets.
These are just cases in point. In the political turmoil and violence-torn regions of Northeast, the life of a journalist hangs by a thread that can snap anytime and anywhere. Culprits continue to roam free with impunity or are never identified, and an attack or a murder of a journalist just becomes a statistic.
The life of an average journalist from the Northeast region is crippled by the lack of any vestige of social security on the one hand and the ever present threat of militant outfits, on the other. They work under severe financial constraints and many of them don't even have an appointment letter.
Only three newspaper houses so far in the eight states of the region have implemented the Majithia Wage Board Pay scale. Most of the state governments have not even initiated the process constituting the tripartite committee for the implementation of the wage board.
Despite this, they go out into the field and have to cover activities of militants, who don't hesitate to shoot a bullet at the slightest provocation! The Assam Tribune including national dailies like The Telegraph, The Times of India gives medical coverage to those who are on their payrolls. Not a single vernacular daily provides journalist with any sort of insurance cover.
The security situation in Manipur is grimmer. Nearly 38 militant groups run a parallel government, and journalists have to tread gingerly on a rope where every string has a different ethnic identity- like Meitei, Kuki, Thagnkul, each wanting to present their view point.
Since 1990, seven journalists have been killed and political activists as well, as criminal elements have attacked many more.
The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA) has only aggravated the working conditions for journalists in Manipur. It is not startling to hear journalists being picked up or harassed by security forces on charges of alleged links with a militant outfit.
However, there is one plus point. Years of torture have made the fraternity stronger. Manipur has a strong journalist union named Manipur Journalist Union, which carries out a strong protest every time any crime is committed against media personnel.
"We have to save ourselves. The government is handicapped. So whenever we face threat or intimidation from the militant forces we directly go to the public with facts, it's our way of dealing with constant insecurity which have become an inseparable part of our day to day life," says Ratan Loyan, a freelance journalist from Manipur.
And it's not only the non state actors (a.k.a militants,) but even the government agencies use subtle coercive methods to strangulate and gag the media. Most media houses in smaller states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Manipur depend entirely on government advertisements for their revenue generation.
Even in a peaceful state like Sikkim, journalists face pressure and censorship from the government. In the absence of any sizeable advertising revenue from the corporate sector, most newspapers are either owned by influential politicians or by businessmen. The result: proprietors have only one interest and that is making profit. Journalistic ethics or miserable working conditions barely cause any ripples in the minds of newspaper and news-channel proprietors.
"In smaller state like Sikkim, a journalist has to perform various roles - as an activist or an information disseminator. Many times, financial insecurity forces many to work in different areas to make a living," says Vishnu, now a freelance journalist. Vishnu is just one of the hundreds of journalists who found themselves out on the street after the folding up of the now infamous Saradha Group owned Seven Sisters Post.
Saradha Group, which amidst much pomp and show, launched newspapers and news channels, went down like a sand castle after its Ponzi scheme went kaput.
In the biggest state of the region, Assam - touted as the gateway to the Northeast - the story is not much different. More than 24 journalists have been killed since 1991. Notably, none of the culprits have been arrested in any of the case.
The state has more than 30 vernacular dailies and half number of English dailies but the working state of the majority of journalist is in deplorable condition. They lack basic social security provisions like health security. However, the oldest paper of the state, The Assam Tribune was the only paper in the NE which implemented the recommendations of the wage Board. But the grapevine has it that the new recruits are being taken on contractual terms.
"It's a sorry state of affairs. Many newspapers don't even declare their financial results. We can't inspect media houses or examine their balance sheets and the payment of salaries to the staff," said B B Lahkar, a member of the Indian Journalist Union (IJU).
The scene is much the same in neighbouring Meghalaya. In this small hilly state, many journalists work for two to three organisations to meet their basic financial needs. Nearly, most of them are without any appointment letter or valid contracts with the organisation they are working for.
Now, in an effort to ensure the safety and security and to protect the interests of the journalists working in hostile conditions in the north eastern region, journalists have decided to get together to form the North East India Federation of Journalists (NIJF), an umbrella body comprising journalists from all the eight states. Within three months time an ad hoc committee will finalise details after taking feedback from the journalist across the region.
Perhaps a renewed effort to bring journalists of the Northeast together will help them to speak out on safety and security and end this pervasive culture of impunity.