On 9th May, a Whatsapp message about Utsav Singh Bains, a Supreme Court lawyer, getting threats for taking up the case of a road rage incident involving Nongthongbam Ajay, the son of Manipur’s present Chief Minister Nongthongbam Biren started doing the rounds. The said incident that had occurred in 2011when N Biren was the Minister for Youth affairs and Sports in the Congress government besides being the Government’s Spokesperson, left 18-year-old Irom Rozer dead after the CM’s son fired at point blank. The Whatsapp forward said Bains was engaged as a lawyer by the victim’s family to file an appeal in the Manipur High Court and a petition in the Supreme Court against the accused after lawyers in Manipur had refused to take up the case fearing for their lives.
Siding With the ‘Powers-that-be’
By afternoon, a national paper had carried the news online and though newspapers in Manipur normally carry news related to the State from national media outlets, there was a near blank out the next day: only two English newspapers in Manipur carried the news and even though both these papers had their Manipuri newspapers as well, only one of them carried the said news but buried it in the inside pages. The bit about blanking out the news in Manipuri newspapers is significant as there is more readership base for Manipuri newspapers. On 12th May, the local non media grapevine was buzzing with the news that senior media practitioners of the State were being gifted Samsung tablets by the Chief Minister no less, at a hotel in Manipur. A few days later, a Manipuri newspaper that had ironically blanked out the news of the threat to Bains carried a cartoon and a satire column targeted at the Chief Minister and the media in Manipur. The cartoon has the CM handing over a gift to a media person even as an aide tells him ‘so we are agreed on what to write’ (referring to what news to carry or not) while the satire column mentions that the CM has started many interesting projects in Manipur like the hill-valley connect festivals along with a ‘media project’ involving mobile phones.
In the days that followed, there were indeed reports around the immediate news of the lawyer being intimidated by two particular armed groups, one of which is currently close to signing a ‘Framework agreement’ with the Government of India. None of these news outlets even featured the voices of the parents of Irom Rozer. Instead, lawyer groups in the State were quoted saying in very strong words that no State lawyer had been approached to take up the task of taking up the case. With the appointment of a senior journalist who is currently the Consultant Journalist of a newspaper as the Media Adviser to the CM, the media romance between the Manipur media and the State’s CM seems a foregone conclusion.
Concern over State Interference
Going by the struggle of the media in Manipur in its long journey of battling resource poor settings and being caught between State and non State actors, often being caught in the middle, this seduction by the State is a great pity. Many journalists in Manipur have lost their lives and faced bomb threats while there have been numerous instances where newspapers have gone off the stands even as journalists protested on the streets over threats and curbs on press freedom. By a strange twist of fate, N Biren Singh in his earlier journalistic career as Editor of a Manipuri newspaper ‘Naharolgi Thoudang’ was arrested in April 2000, for publishing a speech by a social activist on charges of it being ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’. That the same person in his role as a father would move for the bail of his son is natural but letting his political position and power influence forces at his disposal to threaten the family that has lost its only son at the age of 18 can only be proof that power leads to moral and political corruption. The fact that the media in Manipur has been directly and indirectly influenced over the case says a lot about the State and its susceptibility, raising the question of how many such compromises will likely be made in the future.
Written by Chitra Ahanthem
This article was published in the June, 2017 issue of Eclectic Northeast