Media as the Message

A reflection on insurgency, local media, conflict resolution and media intervention

This write-up is an inquiry, taking cues from news and views from across the globe, as to how mass media can play a role in conflict resolution in general, and in the trouble-torn province of Manipur in particular. In this context, conflict refers to the ongoing battle between the millions of security personnel under the payroll of Indian government and the proscribed organisations, which have been literally up in arms against the state to regain the lost sovereignty of Manipur.

On a certain level, despite ceaseless social unrest, political mess and overall degradation of the society, there is not much effort that we can claim we have put on, to find a way out of this hydra-headed problem. After years of negligence and apathy, an SoO here and a development programme there only—demonstrating only the vision of our leaders, too little and too narrow—have been the order of the day.

We have even started enjoying the regular social volcanoes; for instance, we consider the easiest way to earn money is to indulge in black market, if not smuggling during the chronic blockades. The pathetic business is especially visible during the most difficult of times when agitators would ban medical supplies and shut down educational institutions. Even the Nazis cannot keep up with this kind of insanity. Keeping aside the competition of barbarity, here, we will focus on media, as one of the reliable arbitrators. 

The Second World War (has been) over a long, long time ago but war has not ended in Manipur or in India’s troubled Northeast. For more than fifty years, the Northeast has been seen as the problem child of the Indian republic. It has also been South Asia’s most enduring theatre of separatist guerrilla war, a region where armed action has usually been the first, rather than the last, option of political protest.
Northeast: A Thousand Assertive Ethnicities
Source: The Imphal Free Press / Kangla Online

Insurgency started in this part of the world in the Fifties, even earlier in some corners, and reached its formidable stage by the Seventies and the rest is history. Amidst the cacophony, as a breather, media has been greatly responsible for making a level field, providing information to a certain level amidst the difficulties.

When the Mizoram National Front took up arms in the wake of a natural calamity in the Sixties, it was a blot in the Indian history. The union government grouped the Mizo villages, conducted air raids as a part of its grand nation-building process and committed heinous crimes. The MNF is gone but the conditions, in terms of the consequences of state terrorism and armed conflict, are still felt unabated in Assam, Nagaland or Manipur until today even after India’s sixty-ninth independence birthday. Without media, the government had been boasting of building bridges where there is no river with the state- sponsored All India Radio and Doordarshan television. All along, the natives are still complaining the lack of coverage of the region in the so-called mainstream/national media. Somehow, those days seem to be history with the rise of new media—now only the problems remain as they have always been.  

Somehow, media has been able to document the Big Brother’s bullies and the brown babu’s burden though there has been a slight change in the equation today. The issues of dominance and suppression stand as good as it was then. However, the show is still going on, so we are concerned how media can be more persuasive and how much it can contribute and broker between the various stakeholders for a lasting solution. How exactly can the media play its role?   

According to media experts, a two-way communication is the best method to resolve a conflict. In this regard, media has been hitting the target with messages and statements from four directions. On the ground, though, it is quite a different story. For instance in Manipur, the legal government preaches that the rebels must give up arms under constitutional provisions, while the latter are not ready to compromise on the demand for sovereignty.

Well, that may be the case but there is a space for discourse, a chunk of it in the media and simultaneously the chance to put a pressure to whomsoever it is concerned.

The other problem is the lack of political will in resolving the crisis. Observers maintain there are a group of smart individuals and groups who are benefitting from the numerous unsettled issues in the region. They say the local ministers are the ringleaders in looting the public exchequer, saved for plans and development while blaming all the backwardness and their premeditated inability to the existing condition. The contractors follow next to them closely, while the bureaucrats and government officials in higher posts again trail them not far apart.  

Has the media been able to help communicate between the warring groups? Yes and no.

Yes, because now many people know that the issue, particularly that of armed rebellion, is genuine and it has its roots in history. Even mainland experts have started accepting it as a political conflict rather than as a consequence of unemployment problem. The main groups, read the government and the militants, at least know each other’s demands and a few of their grievances as well. Both of them are doing well in their departments of propaganda too. However, for the record, it will do us a world of good if they start using the 21st century communication technology and do away with their thinking from 19th century.

No, because the communication is too superficial and the existing problems of politics, society and economy have not been able to provide a durable solution. It has been in terms of, not years, but decades that armed conflict has prevailed while attack, counterattack and the resulting mess have torn apart any sense of rationality and the social fabrics in the province. Still, media has been putting the contestants on the public space, opposing propaganda to a certain level, reducing hostilities and publicising the gravity of existing conditions while informing the stakeholders and the public alike. During crises too, when the warring parties are in a stalemate, unwilling to talk it out, media offers a substitute source of communication. 

Across the globe, media has been a competent broker while the impediments to its functioning are mostly external.

Global bodies like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and others have recognised the significance of promoting a solution like offering independent media in conflict situations. It is documented that its aid to media in Southeast Europe, Angola, the Great Lakes Region in Africa, West Asia, East Timor, and Afghanistan has enhanced peace building and reconciliation processes. Their philosophy is guided by the belief that ‘information communication technology and media are important tools in fostering dialogue, mutual understanding, self-expression, peace and reconciliation’.

Yet, back home, we have been unable to assess or quantify the position of media in ending all this madness. On one hand, its objectivity has only been able to offer impartial information; and on the other, this is too lacking in cases like that of Manipur. Threats over the phone, hand-grenade ‘gifts’, high-handedness of both legal and illegal authority, manipulation by the government, to name a few, have taken a toll on the objectivity and accuracy of the media. After all, everything boils down to the question of making a living and the futility of taking the risk ‘unnecessarily’!

If the militants are hell-bent on kangaroo courts, the government is barefaced as always, covering up its insensitivity repeatedly with the latest being in its secrecy in the framework agreement that it signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM faction) in August 2015. State government or the union, it is just like ising and water: different name, but the same thing. It also seems nobody wants to tell the truth but the media—though it is handicapped by the authority’s power to give access to the information or deny it.  

Media experts point out that the approaches of opponents in conflict zones follow a certain norm. State actors, who are entitled more power on virtue of its legitimacy, try to play down an issue. Non-state actors, or the weaker opponent, focus on publicity and building a network. Here, it is worthy to differentiate between the national/global media and the local media. The former is occupied with its motive for intervention in policy formulation, governmental issues and other stories that are sketched on a broader canvas on one side.

On the other, even if it exists on a different level, local media often contributes more information in conflict resolution. Readers trust it more too. It is also more effective considering its reach at the ground level and thus its proximity presents a clearer and broader picture of localised conflict issues. The only question is how much: how much will they have a say?

Sometimes, media can be detrimental when readers misuse it for vested interests. In Manipur, the hills are anxious that the more wide-reaching media of the valley are always in favour of a dominant group or the Meiteis in particular.

Still, this is not location specific: there have been numerous cases elsewhere in the world, especially in conflict areas, when media becomes an antagonist by being partial or is alleged to be bias to a group. Then there are the issues, as mentioned, like those of rebel groups showing their muscle power to have their say.

Despite these matters, media has been providing a voice to conflicting groups under its principle of ‘speaking to each other’ instead of ‘shouting at each other’. Ironically, I cannot be objective here because I consider the stake is too high to be only ‘looking’ at the issues.

Poverty can be extremely depressing. There is no gainsaying that it can dehumanise, depriving self-esteem as well as human dignity from those caught in its trap. If not for the support of the joint family institution, still very much a tradition in the Manipur, the number of absolutely poor, with absolutely no income source at all, would have become visible in very many ways. Nearly eight lakh unemployed youth, (as is what the registers in the state’s employment exchange shows), out of a population of 28 lakh (2.8 million), would have been simply socially explosive and devastating if not for this generously elastic shock absorber. Indirectly, we may already be witnessing the strain on the society in the rise of delinquency, prostitution, drugs abuse, street crimes and even organised extortion gangs. The tendency of street protests in the state these days to get mindlessly violent could be still another manifestation of mounting youth frustration.

Salvage Hope
Source: Imphal Free Press

When we consider the case in Manipur, media is in a tight spot. First, the multiple stakeholders, mainly the government, the armed rebels and the civil society are in their own worlds. Second, repeatedly, it has to face diktats especially from the government police force and non-state actors. On numerous occasions, media houses had to close shops because of threats from an aggrieved party or two. Many editors have been also ‘called to the hills’, a term which in local parlance refers to the coercion from rebels summoning a person/group to come and meet their representatives in remote locations of the province, mostly in the hill areas, for an alleged misdeed.

Picture the observation made by the statutory body of Press Council of India (PCI) regarding the state of media. In one of its meetings of council and committees, it mentioned that it had taken ‘a suo-motu cognisance of the incidents of violation against media persons, amongst other, the persistent threats to professional journalists from militant organisations in Manipur’.

The PCI had mentioned it in the wake of an incident in 2006 when six Manipuri editors were ‘called to the hills’. The editors were given a condition for their release: they had to publish a press release, which the kidnappers had sent them but then was not printed. Apparently, there was also a second threat from another group of kidnappers, who belong to the same gang but in a different faction and who do not want to publish it. Farce!

The injuries of warring legal and illegal parties are obvious and to add more insults, the arguments between intraparty elements have spread to a public platform. It eliminates any sense of rationality because, in the first place, they have nothing to do with a government plan. It was felt the deepest in Churachandpur in the wake of protests for and against the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) System recently.       

Similar to the non-state actors, the police personnel have been keeping up with their hobby of abusing the people, or the journalists in this case. Anyway, the answer is insignificant here but for the sake of argument, what would be the observation, made by a statutory, quasi-judicial authority like the PCI, imply to the organisations that not only defy every governmental agency but also challenge the very state of India? And what about the government forces in the same case?
Sample this old yet relevant news report that the PCI had quoted in its report: The press in Manipur is caught in a Catch-22 situation with journalists becoming the target of both separatist groups and the state government, leading to a muzzling of the freedom of the press. Several journalists were killed by militants in Manipur and newspaper offices attacked with bombs. Newspaper editors were also arrested by police for publishing ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’ reports pertaining to some separatist groups. (The Pioneer, New Delhi, 29 October 2005.)

People in other parts of the world talk about the right to freedom of expression. However, we are busy with protests demanding for the right to life! We live in a democracy, for namesake, with electoral politics as the sole proof of living in such a system. All of these issues make the media a joke, and its consideration as the fourth estate holds no water. It is a given that media is synonymous to information however we have been extremely deficient in making informed decisions and communication amongst us. The consequence is obvious, as the state agencies and law enforcement personnel have been reduced to mere spectators, most recent in the three-month agitation that started in early June this year. So when they are not abusing people, can we say these agencies and personnel become deaf and dumb?

Media in Manipur has transformed in less than the last three decades what it cannot in earlier centuries. Newspapers and journals have been around for quite some time. Hijam Irabot is believed to be the father of media with his handcopied Meitei Chanu that he started in 1922. Some people consider Tongjam Gokulchandra’s Dainik Manipur Patrika, which started in 1933 as a printed newspaper, should be counted as the first daily per se. In the same year, the first monthly journal Lalit Manjuri Patrika edited by Arambam Dorendrajit was also born.

Further, radio programmes were started in 1963 and television arrived in 1982 with the Asian Games and cable television made its entry by early Nineties. Local cable channels have been also doing well all along. The new millennium saw the advent of Internet and now, these are the days of smartphones and Facebooks.

When one scans the contents of prominent newspapers in the Northeast region of India, what distinctly emerges first is the sheer difference in the quantum of news in broad categories like development, politics, crime, governance, art and science. While these differences indicate the primary interest of local newspapers in giving better focus to local peculiarities and dynamics; there is a marked qualitative difference in both the form and the content of the news. …Adequate coverage has been given to…prominent issues related to politics (insurgency, electoral politics), development (infrastructure, mining and investment), crime and governance (petty crimes, land encroachment, border dispute-based ethnic clashes), art and culture. However, there are certain patterns that seem to connect them all, not necessarily at the level of similarities or difference of theme.
Scanning Media Coverage
Source: Hueiyen Lanpao

If we go by a textbook approach, there is no empirical study but we know how we access information in this digital age. We only need to dig how this has powered us to achieved durable and cordial political solutions and how the media has been slogging to give us information. And if we go by facts, there have been countless discourses and discussions on peace, development and conflict resolution. The result is there for all to see: or precisely, not an inch on these issues has bore fruit in all these years, except keeping up the tardy momentum of deliberations. In this condition, it might be unfair to expect too much from the media but there are roles it cannot afford to ignore.

In any issue—and considering it never fails to crop up in Manipur like erupting volcanoes regularly—the agitators have only the media to spread its words. Likewise, ranging from government agencies and civil society organisations (CSOs) to armed groups, media is the sole outlet. When we talk about issues, we are not confined to the armed conflict here.

As is the situation in any backward and failed state, there are multiple crises. According to the 2011 Census, out of the total population of 27,21,756, the state has 7,01,987 (27.79%) educated unemployed youth who are looking for a job, of which 2,01,327 are girls and 2,643 physically challenged persons. Then the lack of transport and communication system has been our birthright. Over the years, there has been an exponential rise in the number of crimes against women. Recently, the state was almost defunct for three months with the ILP imbroglio. We have another hallmark: the problem of drug addiction and substance abuse. Finally, we are prone to human rights violation: it was once a privilege of the state actors, especially the army and paramilitary forces, now we have the non-state actors as well as the mushrooming CSOs lending a hand.  

For some perspective on the unique problems of the media in Manipur, it can be worthwhile to gauge the issues that the fraternity faces in other parts of the world. Some of the main concerns include the media’s tendency to sensationalise news as is common in the Indian mainstream media, particularly in television. Exaggeration of data has also been an issue and so is the unethical predisposition of some media houses to be communal and racist. Then indirectly, there are also generic problems of media to keep up with the new emerging technology in communication plus the pressure to put up with the business costs.

The US-based Daily Source ( listed some of the drawbacks in contemporary western media, which include: (a) high level of inaccuracies in media reports and subsequent loss of public confidence; (b) poor coverage of important matters, including those of government, environment, foreign aid, man-made disasters, education etc.; (c) media’s short attention span; (d) focus on profit while ignoring the public and core issues; (e) lack of quality; (f) media’s inability to inform the public; (g) media consolidation as in the concentration of ownership, and so on.

Points (e) and (f) are relevant in Manipur; with newspapers, in particular, getting what they give in terms of inferior quality, whatever the reasons are. The governmental Department of Information and Public Relations does not even have a website—need we add more? In the same breath, we are least concerned with what it is not but what it can be. It is significant because media intervention can become counterproductive because sloppy media can create more crises and undermine the entire efforts.

Finally, we are hopeful that the advancement in the technology related to media will accentuate the role of media intervention. More technology implies more information that further implies more decision-making powers. Experts on social construction of technology do believe that technology does not shape our action, but rather our action shapes technology. We can bank on others’ technology even if we cannot make any material progress on other fronts. We have also seen that media is developing in Manipur at a fast rate too, which makes it a more promising arbitrator. The flow of information is overwhelming—the professionals have the onerous task of weeding out the essentials from the details while verifying the authenticity of information.

In addition to its traditional duty of reporting, media should be able to address the problems and provide as well a path to the solutions. With all these concerns in mind, we can conclude with the awareness of using media as means to achieve sociopolitical and economical ends; and now we can shift our attention to creating media designs, formulate plans and define specific procedures for the best results. The only hope is that the chronic and unabated issues should not overwhelm the media. 


An old social lab

Suggested reading list

Chapter 1 from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan. Courtesy: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

by Andrew Puddephatt, Courtesy: International Media Support

by the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC). Courtesy: UNESCO

A list of articles posted on E-pao



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