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The Media As A Responsible Fourth Pillar of Democracy


In the midst of these socio-political tensions on ground, one factor that has stood out alarmingly is the amount of misinformation and fabricated propaganda from either sides, building upon the interests of the particular communities, and more pronounced in the social media in the present times.

By Salam Rajesh

Manipur is currently in the grip of a crisis within state, fueled by years of the sense of insecurity amongst different communities on the basis of concerns on land and human rights, and aggravated by a situation that can be said to be the end result of State’s non-transparent decisions taken on land and forest rights primarily, and the apparent failure in curbing inroad of illegal immigrants resulting in disturbances in the demographic profile of the state and thereto in social unrests.

The State has seen spates of tensions amongst the different communities in these past decades on the issue of land and the assertion of certain level of autonomy for the specific communities, resulting in violent conflicts and large displacements of people belonging to the conflicting parties.

In the midst of these socio-political tensions on ground, one factor that has stood out alarmingly is the amount of misinformation and fabricated propaganda from either sides, building upon the interests of the particular communities, and more pronounced in the social media in the present times.

This is where the role of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy and as a faithful watchdog of the society in times of crisis and abnormal situations comes to the fore, critical of the factor where reports in the media can mislead the general understanding of the people and further fuel the tension already on ground.

Speaking in particular of the functioning of the media in Manipur, there is the marked observation that in many instances, journalists who are reporting from the ground and those editing on desks have failed in maintaining the status quo that the Press Council of India (PCI) explicitly outlines in its guidelines.

While the PCI affirms that the Press is a “mass communicator, representative of the people and voice of the voiceless”, it nonetheless is clear that the media cannot misrepresent that ‘voice of the people’. The media ‘neither has friend nor foe’ and it basically is the link communicating the people’s voice with the administration – the State – on critical issues that affects the interests and concerns of the common masses, more pronounced when the people are at the mercy of external aggressors.

Going through the pace of the Press Council of India’s Norms of Journalistic Conduct (2019), the guideline as in Part B: Guidelines on Specific Issues, namely, (Part B:a) Norms for Observance by the Press in the Wake of Communal Disturbances -1969, under Section 9 outlines “Exaggerating actual happenings to achieve sensationalism and publication of news which adversely affect communal harmony with banner headlines or in distinctive types (p.64)”.

This is one point of reference which many media outlets in the State have evidently violated, consciously or unconsciously, such as the instance of the viral video showing the full content of the verbal contest between the 37 Assam Rifles personnel and the Kakching district police in front of the Sugunu Police Station on the 2nd of June earlier this month.

The difference is in reporting the incident in its actual perspective to make the readers understand the issue, whereas, the media has to restrain itself from showing the full content of the incident which could be misinterpreted by the common masses without understanding the actual context.

Further, the guidelines issued by the PCI on 21-22 January, 1993, in the wake of the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, stated that, “(iv) While it is the legitimate function of the Press to draw attention to the genuine and legitimate grievances of any community with a view to having the  same redressed by all peaceful, legal and legitimate means, it is improper and a breach of  journalistic ethics to invent grievances, or to exaggerate real grievances, as these tend to promote communal ill-feeling and accentuate discord (p.66)”.

The same guidelines have other matters of concern relevant to the current Manipur crisis, such as, “(v) Scurrilous and untrue attacks on communities, or individuals, particularly when this is accompanied by charges attributing misconduct to them as due to their being members of a particular community or caste (p.67)”, and “(vi) Falsely giving a communal colour to incidents which might occur in which members of different communities happen to be involved (p.67)”.

This latter version has been fully violated in many social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, where individuals have uploaded offending articles, comments and visuals aimed at inciting hatred and enmity amongst the different communities. It perhaps was a reason for the Government to keep on extending the ban on Internet so as to curb this social menace.

One very distinctive concern has been the projection of the current Manipur crisis as based on religion, particularly at the national and international platforms. This concerns the PCI’s guideline on “(vii) Emphasizing matters that are apt to produce communal hatred or ill-will, or fostering feelings of distrust between communities (p.67)”. Therefore, national and international media outlets can come under the scrutiny of the PCI for violation of its guidelines.

Concurrent to this is the PCI’s concern on “(viii) Publishing alarming news which are in substance untrue or make provocative comments on such news or even otherwise calculated to embitter relations between different communities or regional or linguistic groups (p.67)”.

Summing up on these observations, it was perhaps a reason why the District Magistrate of Imphal West called a hurried meeting with the media at the conference hall of the Directorate of Information and Public Relations the other day to forewarn the media outlets to stay within their ‘limits’, or face the music.

Interestingly enough, the PCI guidelines have few recommendations in the interest of the working journalists, such as, “(6) Journalists working in conflict situations should be provided with bulletproof jackets and helmets (p.141)”, which until now the State Government has either ignored or has not paid a serious thought for the safety of the practicing journalists working in conflict zones.

Finally, rounding up on the PCI’s concerns, it is appropriate that the local media reflect upon its call stating that, “(15) The media, journalists and their professional associations should play a more professional and ethical role at all levels (p.142)”.

.(The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at [email protected])


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