Ranjona Banerji: Damn the disgraceful detention!

28 Dec,2018

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Kishorchandra Wangkhem, a journalist in Manipur, was arrested in November for posting videos on Facebook. Basically, that’s it. Wangkhem criticised both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, for organising an event about the Rani of Jhansi, who had nothing to do with Manipur, according to Wangkhem.

He has now been sentenced to 12 months detention under the National Security Act. Therefore, criticism of elected public officials and historic figures is conveniently “prejudicial to the security of the state and maintenance of public order”.

On November 26, the chief judicial magistrate in Imphal released Wangkhem, stating, “The word, terms and gesture used by the accused in the video cannot be termed as seditious. It is a mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in a street language.” Wangkhem was arrested under the NSA the next day.

The NSA was the second resort of Manipur CM Biren Singh, who possibly needs to show he is more loyal to his leader than he is to India’s Constitution. Singh’s argument is that Wangkhem’s criticism of him, Modi, Hindutva and the Rani of Jhansi will increase insurgency in Manipur. Therefore, by Singh’s logic, the detention is justified.

The NSA is one more authoritarian, draconian law (passed by an Indira Gandhi-led government in 1980 and merrily misused by all politicians since then) which a 21st century India needs to re-examine, along with the concept of “sedition”. These laws are all too often used against journalists, cartoonists (Aseem Trivedi for sedition by UPA II, in 2012) and are a direct assault on freedom of expression and the Constitution of India. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra may have been a pawn in a political fight in Odisha, but his arrest and detention for criticising temples and/or rasgullas (!) in September this year, was also reprehensible. Whatever their intent (questionable to many), they are open to misinterpretation and misuse, usually by authoritarian, scared or desperate politicians.

Wangkhem’s detention is a disgrace and several journalists’ associations have strongly criticised it. He himself has promised to fight this to the end. The more politicians are unable to handle criticism, the more they must be subjected to it. That is, at the very least, our primary job as journalists. Not that you see enough of it yet, in the run-up to 2019.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/wake-up-people-says-manipur-journalist-jailed-for-criticising-cm/cid/1679642

http://www.ummid.com/news/2018/December/25.12.2018/journalists-union-condemn-detention-of-kishorchandra-wangkhem-under-nsa.html

This year, 2018, has been one of the worst for journalists worldwide. The annual round-up of Reporters Without Borders reveals that 80 journalists were killed, 49 “targeted deliberately and the rest were killed during reporting”. In total, 60 journalists were taken hostage and “348 detained during their work”.

https://www.deccanherald.com/international/world-news-politics/2018-worst-year-journos-708748.html

Equally scary is the conclusion that “nearly half the fatalities were from nations not at war”. And this where India, unfortunately, hits the spotlight. Local mining mafias, local strongmen are biggest culprits here. India is the fifth deadliest place to be a journalist, with Afghanistan being the worst. Not much room for cheer here when you add that we are 138 on the Press Freedom Index, our lowest position yet.

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-fifth-most-deadliest-place-to-be-a-journalist-afghanistan-worst-report/articleshow/67159828.cms

As the year winds up, we within the media, need to stop focusing only on media stars in Delhi and their activities. Many of them are suspect for being close to those in power anyway. And in the days of social media ascendancy, commentary perhaps gets more than its fair share of media attention (I know I say this as a commentator myself). The hard work done by journalists across India is all too often ignored. At our own peril, as we see from these year-end figures.

There is no doubt that 2019 is going to be a tumultuous year for Indian journalists. One can only hope we see more of the best of us than we have so far

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal

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