Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it is zooming in on Manipur, “where press freedom violations are on the rise and where journalists are increasingly being persecuted by the local government, parliament and judiciary”.
RSF said this days after Grace Jajo, a freelance reporter, who often covers debates in Manipur’s Legislative Assembly in Imphal, was prevented from entering the press gallery during the recent Assembly session over a Facebook post, sharing an article published by a local news website.
The Paris-based watchdog called on the local authorities to stop trying to “intimidate reporters”.
Grace Jajo is a freelance reporter who often covers debates in Manipur’s legislative assembly in the state’s capital, Imphal, and who had a pass for the press gallery. But, on 22 February, “the security guards came for me, threatening to evict me by force” she told RSF.
“At one point, I was surrounded by armed guards on all sides (…) I was totally shocked.”
After confiscating her pass and escorting her to the exit, “they said they had an order to not let me in,” Jajo said, “I asked to see the order but the order never came. While I waited, they treated me very badly, insulted me and finally asked me to vacate the entrance.”
The next day, Jajo learned that the assembly’s secretariat was accusing her of “intentionally trying to malign the official procedure” and “breach of privilege” – a charge inherited from the colonial era that is supposed to protect the legislature from a threat to its independence.
“The pretext was her Facebook post sharing an article that a local news website, The Frontier Manipur, had published on 20 February, in which it exercised its right to respond to the accusations of ‘breach of privilege’ and ‘contempt of the House’ that the assembly’s secretariat had brought against the site in connection with one of its articles. The article, about an address that Manipur chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh had delivered to the assembly, took all of its information from an official press release,” the RSF said.
“Grace Jajo was humiliated despite having all the necessary journalistic credentials,” The Frontier Manipur executive editor Paojel Chaoba told RSF.
“She was not given any explanation for not being allowed to enter the assembly. It was a shoot-first-ask-questions-later situation.”
“By using such methods to target journalists it doesn’t like, the assembly’s secretariat is behaving in an absolutely unacceptable manner for an institution that claims to safeguard democracy,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on assembly speaker Yumnam Khemchand Singh to immediately drop the absurd proceedings against Grace Jajo and The Frontier Manipur. And more generally, in the light of the steady decline in press freedom in Manipur, we caution chief minister N. Biren Singh against any future violation of journalists’ rights and we remind him that he used to be a reporter before he entered politics,” Bastard said.
On the day that Jajo was notified of the charges against her, February 23, two other journalists, Kirmil Soraisam, the director of the 7Salai news site, and Rabi Takhellambam, one of his reporters, were arrested on a “fake news” accusation over a small error in a story that had been quickly corrected.
They were released on bail three days later but are now charged with disturbing public order, criminal intimidation and defamation, RSF said.
Chaoba and one of his editors, Dhiran Sadokpam, were arrested a month before, on January 17, and were held overnight after The Frontier Manipur published an op-ed about the “armed revolutionary movement” in Manipur.
In a press release on December 1, RSF defended another target of the judicial harassment to which The Frontier Manipur is being subjected.
“It was one of its journalists, video presenter Kishorechandra Wangkem, who had been held for the past two months. He was freed on bail ten days later but continues to be the target of constant judicial harassment. He has repeatedly been arrested since 2018, when he criticized Manipur’s chief minister and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at national and state level,” RSF said.
“Even talking about press freedom is becoming problematic,” RSF said.
After Wangkem dedicated the “Khanesi Neinasi” programme on February 16 to freedom of expression, it was threatened with judicial proceedings on March 1.
“Manipur’s state government thereby became the first in India to take advantage of a new federal code of conduct for online content that gives local officials extensive powers to restrict press freedom. After a national outcry, Manipur’s authorities backed down and withdrew their threat of prosecution,” it added.