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Mass media in north east India: the trends of conflict reporting

How can the framework for conflict reporting be transformed in the mass media? The author highlights various conflicts in north east India to illuminate the challenges and limitations the mass media faces in covering these conflicts.

Paranjoy Bordoloi
26 May 2014
Assam violence vigil

Participants to a vigil against violence in the Assam region. Flickr/Joe Athialy. Some rights reserved

Manorama Devi, a suspected messenger of a militant organization was gang raped by armed force personnel in Manipur (an insurgency affected state in northeast India) in 2004. The woman was found dead in the morning after the incident. Her case is not a rare exception in Manipur where incidents of molestation and rape against women are a regular feature of the society; many of which are not reported. In certain cases like that of Miss Rose (1974), Neelam Panchabhaiy (1986), Tamphasana (1990), Ahanjaobi Devi (1996) people have been fighting legal battles against the persons who committed the crimes for years on end (retrieved from CounterCurrents.org on Feb 26, 2013). However, the injustice against Manorama Devi was publicised widely in media, unlike other cases in Manipur.

The day after the gang rape of Manorama Devi, a group of middle aged women protested in the streets completely naked with only a banner with the words ‘please rape us’. One of the most powerful protests from northeast India, this was not surprisingly  successful in getting coverage not only in the national newspapers but also in international newspapers and news agencies. The media began to allot more coverage to such events, due to the protest tactics used. The headline of the leading national news channel IBN in their news report conceded: “The murder of Manorama in Manipur had shocked the nation and put the spotlight on the abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act” (IBNLive on Feb.28, 2013).  

This incident shines a spotlight on the importance of media intervention in conflict situations. The violence in Manipur had been ongoing for the last three decades.  Human rights organisations along with the other local organisations have been trying to influence national media agencies to increase coverage on this issue. However, only when violence occurred in this event was the issue given coverage. It has been observed that after the symbolic protest, the coverage was not only limited to the immediate time-frame of the incident but also other dimensions of the conflict were highlighted. There were many articles published regarding the Armed Force Prevention Act of 1958 and its consequences for the state. Moreover, news of Manipur was prominent in many regional newspapers owned both by national and international organisations for many days afterwards. 

Even on the second anniversary of Manorama Devi's death, the leading national newspaper Indian Express wrote about the protest at the rape incident and about the AFSP under which she was detained (retrieved from Express India on Feb.28, 2013).  However, the dominant media structure does not think beyond the existing frameworks for viewing the situation. In the case of Manipur, many of the media agencies did not focus on the importance of past history and the indigenous demographic profile of the state. Joytirindra Dasgupta has rightly pointed out that the narrow media outlook is responsible for a substantial misunderstanding of   political processes in the northeast.

In the last two decades, Assam has witnessed many serial instances of violence from militant and ethnic groups, including communal clashes from the hills of Karbi-Anlong to the river-bank district of Dhubri. An increasing number of newspapers, as well as local 24 hour news channels, have given extensive coverage to all these conflicts. In the past 5 years, the news channels have given the violent incidents in the state live coverage. The changes in the reporting of conflict have provided an important way of identifying the lens through which incidents have been reported by media. 

Militant groups like ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) and NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) along with others have changed their terror tactics by using serial explosions in the public places of Assam. During the last two decades there were many serial blasts in Assam which became the thumb-prints of these two militant groups. It is not unusual that a feeling of fear and crisis has been inculcated in Assamese society as a result. On the contrary, it has been observed that during the times of serial attacks, people in the state have depended on the media for receiving important information. This is a common trend observed by conflict-resolution professionals in other conflict situations, and Assam is no exception.

On October 30, 2008, all the local satellite channels of Assam interrupted their regular programmes to broadcast live footage of serial blasts occurring on that day; even photographs of the dead bodies of the victims. One of the leading news channels aired unedited footage of the serial blasts for more than an hour. In the next 24 hours all the channels gave live coverage of the explosions from Guwahati, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Barpeta. However, the numbers of the killed and injured were not uniform across the media. The variations of the numbers were visible in both local and national newspapers including news channels. The national newspaper Tribune quoted 61; other news agencies said 64 were killed, while live coverage on local news channels estimated over 100 dead. The growing competition and inclination towards breaking stories related to the incidents have compelled the news channels to use disturbing footage of the plight of the victims. As a result, messages of terror have created a sense of trauma in the society.    

The manipulation of facts is one of the most important elements in media coverage of the incident of October 30. The rearranging of facts to provide a new angle of the incident was quite evident in national newspapers, which utterly failed to take into consideration the sensitivity of the issue. Quoting A.K. Mitra, the chief of the Border Security Force (BSF), The Economic Times for examplepublished a story with a headline, ‘threat of Islamic Militants.’ Pamela Philipose in her article ‘The Changing Nature of Newsgathering’ takes up the story from there as an example that “Throughout last year the BSF had intercepted 807 Bangladeshis trying to illegally cross over to India – the actual infiltration is roughly estimated to be double the number intercepted – the BSF said the figure was almost 10,000 to 12,000 till a few years back. In other words, at least 24,000 Bangladeshis have been infiltrating every year” (Philipose, 2011). Pamela Philipose points out how the figure 807 becomes 24,000 in the course of one sentence with no evidence to back up the final figure. News stories that manipulate the facts have been affecting the credibility of media as well as spreading misleading messages throughout the society.

Many leading social scientists have noted that such propaganda polarizes people and escalates conflict as it spreads hatred and dehumanizes one group, which may well result in renewed clashes. The coverage in the national media during the ULFA attacks of Hindi-speaking people in the month of November 2003 was directly responsible for the spread of violent incidents into Bihar.  In that month, the ULFA started attacking and killing Hindi-speaking people in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts of the state. However, the national newspapers and news channels reported this as clashes between Assamese and ‘Bihari’ people.  Even the BBC website reported: ‘More than 17,000 people have fled their homes in northeast India's Assam state to escape attacks on Hindi-speaking settlers by Assamese mobs and rebels’ ( BBC on Feb.25, 2013). 

As a consequence of the media coverage, violence erupted in other regions. When the news spread, the trains of the North East region going through Bihar were attacked.  The ULFA attacks turned into large-scale violence in the state as incidents were reported against Hindi-speaking people. On the other side, local newspapers gave more publicity towards the attacks of the ULFA and published photographs of the people killed in those attacks. One or two local newspapers reported that the ULFA has been regaining its power and publishing propaganda of the militant groups through their press releases.

Coverage of ethnic conflicts in the Assam region could be greatly improved if media agencies used local journalists from both ethnic groups in any conflict. This approach might become one model to change the existing framework of media coverage so that it actually contributes to peace and development in northeast India. But for this, media at all levels has to change its practices in covering conflicts.

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