The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday, 5 September, said it was "shocked" by the statements made by Manipur CM Biren Singh, a day after the state government filed First Information Reports (FIRs) against four guild members, including its president.
The FIRs were registered over the EGI's report titled 'Media's Reportage on Ethnic Violence in Manipur' which claimed that "journalists of Manipur wrote one-sided reports" about the violence in the state.
The report also accused the state government of being "partisan during the conflict."
On Wednesday, EGI moved the Supreme Court seeking to quash the FIRs filed against its members by the Manipur government. The apex court granted interim protection to the journalists' body and scheduled the next hearing on 11 September.
Two days after the report was published, EGI president Seema Mustafa and senior journalists Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan, and Sanjay Kapoor were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as well as provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Press Council Act, 1978.
Notably, the FIR reportedly invokes Section 66A of the IT Act despite the the fact that the provision was scrapped by the Supreme Court in the landmark 2015 Shreya Singhal judgment.
Since then, the apex court as well as the central government have, on multiple occasions, directed state authorities to not invoke the "unconstitutional" law.
What Does the EGI Report Say?
In a 24-page fact-finding report, the Editors Guild accuses the Manipur media and state government of being partisan. Here are the key findings of the report.
"During the ethnic violence, journalists of Manipur wrote one-sided reports. In normal circumstances, they would be cross-checked and monitored by their editors or Chiefs of Bureaus from the local administration, police and securi ty forces. However, this was not possible during the conflict," the report read.
"The Meitei media, for that is what Manipur media seemed to have become during the conflict, acted collectively with editors consulting each other and agreeing on a common narrative e.g., agreeing on common language to report an incident, referring to certain use of language or even not reporting an event. This the EGI team was told was because they did not want to inflame the already volatile situation further," it added.
"With the internet suspended, and communication and transport in disarray, the media had to rely almost entirely on the narrative of the state government. This narrative under the N Biren Singh dispensation became a narrow ethnic one playing up to the biases of the majority Meitei community," the Guild alleged.
"The Meitei media became a party to the vilification of the security forces, especially the Assam Rifles. It failed in its duty by constant propaganda against the Assam Rifles claiming that it was only purveying the views of the public," the report read
"There are clear indications that the leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict. It should have avoided taking sides in the ethnic conflict but it failed to do its duty as a democratic government which should have represented the entire state," EGI alleged.
"This directly affected governance which was also seen as partisan. The net result is that the executive, its instruments (the police and other security forces of the state) and the bureaucracy are today divided along ethnic lines. There is a Meitei government, Meitei police and Meitei bureaucracy in Imphal and the tribal people living in the Hills have no faith in them," it added.
"The State made a mistake in banning the internet. An internet ban only feeds rumours and blocks the views of the disadvantaged community as has clearly happened in Manipur," EGI said.
What Is the Editors Guild Acccused Of?
The FIR was filed on the basis of a complaint lodged by an Imphal-based man, who said that a photo in the report falsely claimed to show smoke rising from a Kuki home which was in fact the office of a forest official, Scroll reported.
Addressing the allegations, the Editors Guild on Sunday tweeted, "There was an error in a photo caption in the report released on Sep 2. The same is being rectified and updated report will be uploaded on the link shortly. We regret the error that crept in at the photo editing stage."
While accusing the EGI of publishing a biased report, Singh said that the members of the guild's Manipur fact-finding team had not met the representatives of all communities.
"I also give a warning to the members of the Editors Guild, if you want to do something, please come to the spot, see the ground reality, meet the representatives of all communities, all victims and publish what you found. Otherwise, meeting some sections of the people only and coming to a conclusion – that’s a disservice and is condemnable."Manipur CM N Biren Singh
In response to Biren Singh's charge, EGI said, "The Guild had sent a three-member team to Manipur to examine the media’s reportage in the state as well as the effects of internet shut down. The team met a cross-section of reporters, editors, representatives of the Editors Guild of Manipur, All Manipur Working Journalists Union, civil society activists, public intellectuals, women affected by the violence, tribal spokespersons and the representatives of the security forces operating in Manipur."
"The Guild is extremely disturbed that rather than respond to the concerns raised in the report in a meaningful way, the state government has registered FIRs invoking multiple provisions of the IPC. The Guild has already acknowledged and corrected an error that was pointed out regarding a photo caption, and we remain open to further discussion."EGI statement
'Refrain From Shooting the Messenger'
The Editors Guild said that it found Manipur CM Biren Singh's remarks labelling of the journalists body as “anti-State” and “anti-national” deeply disturbing.
Other journalist associations like DIGIPUB and the Press Club of India also condemned the FIR against EGI members, terming it as an "attack on the freedom of the press."
"We strongly believe and support the right of the Editors Guild to constitute a fact-finding team on media reportage and to publish a report, or for that matter, on all critical issues related to our democracy, including the protection of fundamental rights. The fact that the Editors Guild issued a statement correcting an error in the report indicates that it acted in good faith."DIGIPUB
"DIGIPUB demands that the government of Manipur refrain from shooting the messenger and the case against the Editors Guild be immediately voided," the statement added.
Similarly, the Press Club of India stated: