On 16th November this year, the date which is celebrated as the National Press Day, three news dailies in Nagaland ran blank columns in place of editorials. The news dailies picked up the occasion to protest a notification from the Assam Rifles dated 25th October 2015, that was received by six media houses in the state. On the same day, a joint statement by the editors of all the six newspapers in receipt of the notification was released too.
The said Assam Rifles notification asked the media houses to refrain from publishing public statements of NSCN-K, an outfit banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 (UAPA). The notification stated that the publication of such material is violative of the UAPA, and that by reason of publishing such material the media houses are complicit in the unlawful activities of the banned organization.
Witnessing the longest armed movement for independence in the Indian context, Nagaland has constantly been under laws like AFSPA which give impunity to the state’s armed forces. In such a scenario, the media has always faced tremendous pressure while trying to take account of the versions of all stakeholders. The present notification could be seen as yet another attempt to silence the media if it is not partisan in favour of the armed forces of the state.
An even greater concern in this context, however, is that a paramilitary body, which is supposed to follow the orders of the civilian authorities and the legal establishment, has taken upon itself to issue notifications of this nature. Democracies are not characterized by such actions of paramilitary forces. The Assam Rifles has also responded to the joint statement of the Nagaland dailies. Their response, saying that the recent uproar around the notification and the editors’ statement protesting it is an attempt by vested interests to “muzzle the voice of the Assam Rifles”, however, is farcical. Empowered by laws like AFSPA and UAPA, Assam Rifles is one of the state armed forces which routinely violate rights of common people. The very fact that it felt empowered to issue such a notification shows how lame their pretense of helplessness is.
Such conviction of power along with quick pretense of being the victim is a dangerous mix to be held by a paramilitary force. While a large number of forums and regions in the country are marred by intolerant vandalism of dominant groups in recent times, the Nagaland episode of armed forces censorship of media indicates a slide away from the institutional practices of democracy and the values and foundations of our constitution.
PUDR expresses deep anxiety about such a state of things. While the Press Council of India’s suo motu action of calling upon the Director General of the Assam Rifles to give reasons for issuance of such a notification prima facie having an adverse bearing on freedom of press is a welcome move, the utter silence of the Nagaland state government in the matter is shocking. Calling upon the government to stand by the ideals of our constitution, PUDR demands that the Assam Rifles take back the notification, offer an apology to the media houses, and brought under appropriate action for trespassing their jurisdiction.
Sharmila Purkayastha and Megha Bahl