Journalists Arrest and the Deep Divide Within
Imphal free press editorial attacks senior scribes for sponsored foreign travel
ITANAGAR: In less than six months, Kishorchandra Wangkhem has seen the inside of jail thrice. His crime? Using social media to post his opinions on issues and voicing his views that are allegedly being viewed by the state as being against the BJP.
The journalist from Imphal was first arrested in August for his comments that allegedly criticised the BJP on social media. A TV journalist with the Information Service Television Network (ISTV) of Manipur, Wangkhem was released after the intervention of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) when its members met with chief minister Biren Singh.
The second time that he was arrested was on November 20 after he posted four videos on Facebook criticising the chief minister for his comments praising the Rani of Jhansi and her role in India’s independence struggle during an event celebrating her birth anniversary.
In the video (in English), Wangkhem had directed a question to the chief minister asking if “Rani Jhansi had taken any role for the upliftment of Manipur(sic)”. He went to say that during her time, Manipur was not even part of India.
“I would like to remind you Mr Chief Minister that she has nothing to do with Manipur. If you are observing this, you are observing this because Centre asked you to do that(sic),” he had said in the video.
Wangkhem then went on to question if Singh had any sense of nationalism for Manipur and that he should not act as a “puppet”.
“Don’t betray, don’t insult the freedom fighters of Manipur… Don’t insult the present freedom struggle of Manipur,” he went on to add before launching into an expletive-laced rant against the chief minister, calling him a “puppet of Hindutva”, daring Singh to arrest him.
The journalist also went to say that Singh is “a puppet, nothing but controlled by a remote from the Centre by a tea-maker, chai wala”.
Those comments did not go down well with the administration and he was arrested under sedition charges.
He was released on November 26 after an order by the chief judicial magistrate of Imphal West district said that the “words, terms and gesture used by the accused and the context in which they are used and the comment made by the accused cannot be termed seditious to attract offence under section 124-A IPC”.
The order added that Wangkhem was acting in “mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of public figure in a street language”.
But, just 24 hours after he was released, Wangkhem was once again arrested for the third time and detained at the Sajiwa central jail.
After some initial confusion regarding the circumstances and the reason for his arrest, the Imphal West district magistrate issued an order explaining the “Grounds of detention under Section 8 of the National Security Act”.
That order said that the journalist has been detained by police for using “obscene words thereby defaming the present Prime Minister of India and Chief Minister of Manipur” and that he “spoke and acted in support of the militant/terrorist organizations presently operating in Manipur thereby showing your seditious attitude and leaning towards unlawful organizations”.
Wangkhem has been in jail since.
While he had the vocal backing of his journalist colleagues in Manipur back in August when he was first arrested, Wangkhem finds himself cutting a rather lonely figure this time around.
Unlike in August when the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU), this latest incident has thrown up a divide of sorts within the fraternity.
AMWJU president Brozendra Ningomba had issued a statement stating that Wangkhem had disregarded the union’s resolution to take responsibility for their own actions that are uploaded on social media not connected to the profession.
Ningomba’s statement said that “AMWJU, being the apex body of right-thinking and sensible journalist community of the State, doesn’t stand together with any criminal minded and mentally unsound person who acts and talks in the most uncivilized manner in an inebriated condition”.
Incidentally, Wangkhem was working with the same news channel for which the AMWJU president is the editor of.
His former editor had said that Wangkhem had said he would be quitting the office and was later terminated from his job after the videos became public.
Newspapers in Imphal have come under scrutiny from sections of the public for the alleged lack of space given to Wangkhem’s case.
An editorial in one of the leading English newspapers of the state, The Sangai Express, said that Ningomba’s statement “should throw some light on the issue”. It added that “Wangkhem had uploaded his video on Facebook and not on any platform connected with his job as a journalist” in his personal capacity.
The editorial, however, said that this “should not mean that newspapers in Imphal should refrain from taking a stand on the matter on the ground that Kishorchandra is today no longer with a news organisation” and that the matter should be best left to the people.
Vocal criticism from Imphal-based news organisations have been far and few in-between. An exception has been Imphal Free Press which has not only openly criticised the government of Manipur for its actions but also been critical of the press fraternity in Manipur.
The present chief minister is a former journalist who recently jumped into electoral politics. Several sources in Imphal alleged that Singh is well-acquainted with most of the senior editors working in Imphal, hinting at a favourable relationship between him and them.
A scathing editorial titled ‘Mr Cheap Minister’ that appeared on the December 8 issue of Imphal Free Press reads: “It is well known that some editors and AMWJU president of late has been travelling in Europe, very much sponsored programs and not self-sponsored. With the present situation and many scribes shouting foul against the NSA detention, some people with editorial sanction are basking in sunny beaches and peacefully devoid of the imbroglio here and how the press has been slandered and rightfully so.