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Mainstreaming Media: Let Us Look Ahead

It is a very pleasant surprise that in its effort and endeavor to find its way forward, the Government of Manipur has identified and included the media. I believe that this identification and inclusion is an expression of the Manipur Government’s belief that many heads are better than one. I also believe that this identification and inclusion is a result of the Manipur Government’s appreciation that the media is crucial for charting the road towards peace, harmony, development and economic prosperity. By identifying and including the media, the Government of Manipur has already taken the initial positive step forward, especially considering that State Governments in the Northeast rarely, or ever, mainstream the local media into the larger canvas of their existence and activities.

My paper today is Mainstreaming Media: Let us look ahead. Let us first identify the issues at hand that we need to resolve. While we identify the issues, we may be able to clearly see our solutions too. Despite making serious inroads into the consciousness of the larger public in the Northeast, somehow Northeastern State Governments have shown marked reluctance to make the space for the media to be included in issues that affect the people. In this region, State Governments seem to have the impression that the media here, whether electronic or print, exist as an extension of the Government Information, Publicity and Public Relations Departments. Our State Governments do not recognize and acknowledge the media as the Fourth Estate of democracy. It has serious repercussion, which we see every day. This has also made the media in the region vulnerable. The constantly threatened existence and functioning of the media is Manipur is a prime example.

We know the traditional roles and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate in a democracy but as society and State advances, newer issues arise, as also older issues take on different avatars. The media’s brief is not to participate, or interfere, in governance but to provide the platform for open debates and discussions on issues that impact upon the lives of ordinary citizens. The media must also participate in these debates and discussions from the vantage point of not being a part of the Government and/or involved in governance hence able to look at all dimensions of these issues from unbiased standpoints. The media must awaken the ordinary citizen from accepting things fatalistically and empower him/her to think independently and effect changes in his/her realities. The problem is that the local media in the Northeast is fully aware of our brief, and actually so are the Governments, but there appears to be great reluctance to allow the media to freely and fairly perform. There appears to be inhibitions from facilitating the media to act as the bridge between the Government and the people. This not only is a great disservice to the ordinary citizen but also creates the scope for anti-democratic elements to become threats to the media. Worse still, it impedes the Governments from knowing the minds of the people and fulfilling their constitutional obligations by way of good governance.

By pushing the media to the periphery of societies and States’ existence and functioning in the region, the essence of democracy is debased and this has a serious ripple down effect on all societal and State activities and endeavors. Ultimately, the power plays between and amongst the Estates of democracy backfires on society and State and the problems that we confront today are consequences of not respecting and upholding the tenets of democracy, and the ideals and aspirations of liberty, freedoms, rights, equality, justice, etc, generally the rule of law. These power plays also erode our traditional value-systems and our people find themselves uprooted from society and State. Hence, their disorientation finds expression in numerous unwanted ways.

The need to strengthen our traditional democratic value-systems with the modern concepts of individual rights, liberty, equality, justice, etc, and vice versa cannot be over-emphasized. In my perception, our Northeastern States have so successfully erased the character, contents and contours of our tribal societies that it has created unbridgeable distances between the individual and the society, as also between the individual and the State and the fallouts are the continuous problems of insurgency, militancy, bandhs, etc, in this region. The other fallout is the media’s unenviable existence within these distances, as also simultaneously the media’s efforts and endeavors to gap these distances.

Blaming the Governments alone is unfair because Governments too are products of society. To find answers to move forwards, we need to properly scrutinize and study our societies, our communities’”and generally our attitudes and mindsets and most definitely our value-systems. While the various Articles of the Constitution of India provide the skeleton of Northeastern States, it is the people and our biases, prejudices, politics, value-systems, vested interests and agenda that make the flesh of individual Northeastern States. To mainstream the media, we have to first mainstream our societies and States on the foundation of the democratic principles of the rule of law. In fact, that is the same foundation on which we need to mainstream our governance, fiscal discipline, our collective integrity.

I don’t know why and when we started assuming the role of the victim. True, the entire Northeastern region has been grossly neglected and this neglect has caused much harm to us all, politically, economically, socially, culturally and in every other way. Our problem stems from internalizing our victim role and gradually believing that we are powerless victims of the mainstream Indian consciousness. Our problems stem from the fact that somewhere along the way, we mistakenly came to believe that it is more profitable to play the victim than to roll up our sleeves and get down to designing our future. Unfortunately, the media here too internalized the general victimhood perceptions and we endlessly complain about existing on the periphery of the mainstream media. See, the Fourth Estate too is a product of society and much like all else we too impede our ability to imprint our presence in the national and international consciousness because of our biases, prejudices, perceptions, attitudes and mindsets. The media has to be very clear that it has no race, no religion and no region. When there is a border dispute between, say Manipur and Nagaland, the media is not supposed to play the communal, the religion or whatever card but report events without bias, then analyze why these events have occurred and make suggestions for restoration of normalcy, understanding and peaceful co-existence. If we editorialize on events and issues along community/communal lines or publish public opinion along the same lines, we only fan the fires of more discord. The media’s race and religion is peace, harmony, and this we can do only if we remember that we must play the role of the referee and umpire, so to speak.

Northeastern State Governments tend to look at the media as some form of rival thus negate the collective strength that could have been garnered to work together as equal Estates of democracy and consequently pave the way for societal peace and harmony, development and economic prosperity. All Estates of democracy have defined roles to play and responsibilities to shoulder. If all the Estates create the necessary space and scope for each other, it would be easier to achieve our societal aspirations and move forward. Meanwhile, it is also imperative that the media does not look at the Governments as the main villains of the story. The media would serve society better and strengthen itself if we shepherd the Governments to walk on the straight and narrow of the rule of law. Governments must lead by example but if it flouts all laws and rules, the rest of society inevitably follows suit resulting in chaos. It is then the suppression of other Estates of democracy follows by not only Governments but also other centers of power in society and State such as NGOs and of course what we generally call the non-State players. Unfortunate but this is the reality in almost each Northeastern State.

One problem that must be underscored in our endeavor to mainstream the media is that of problems and issues being sought to be resolved in favor of small interests, often for short-term ends, instead of resolving them in the interest of the greater good. Any society today is increasingly, multi-racial, multi-religion, multi-cultural and multi-ideological so there would always be differences, disagreements and dissent but if we look at them from the perspective of problems, we design our own failure. We must look at them as positions of power from where we can negotiate. But we can do that only if we look at our people as human beings with the same needs, same desires and same aspirations, not as collectives and communities identifiable by race/tribe, religion, etc. It is so unfortunate that Northeastern societies have started quantifying success, as also so many other aspects of human life from the perspectives of wealth and political power

The media in Manipur, in the entire Northeastern region, are the most unsuccessful from these perspectives as the media here are neither wealthy nor politically powerful. But the media cannot etch its imprints as a crucial Estate of democracy and participate in societal peace-making efforts, in the development process, in creating a healthy debate on issues that impact upon the lives of the humblest citizen if it remains as poor as the church mouse. How do we resolve this situation without compromising the independence of the media as one of the autonomous estates of democracy because in the larger scheme of things, he who funds calls the shots. This cannot be resolved by making laws and rules and regulations. It can be resolved only by courage of conviction of he who funds. If we must find our way forward, we have to work on our courage of conviction and empower our media financially and every other way. The media cannot be mainstreamed unless it is empowered with more independence and more autonomy financially and otherwise.

The Government of Manipur must sit with the media here and work out a system which would enable and empower the media, with the conviction that a strong media is the best medicine to cure the State of almost all its ailments. A strong media also indicates a strong and secure Government. It is only insecure and shaky Governments that normally suppress the media. A strong media is also reflective of a society’s strong mooring to the finest culture and traditions of democracy that uphold the sovereignty of the citizens. It is ironic but security cover has become another way of quantifying a person’s importance, power and success. I do not suggest that our Editors are surrounded by uniformed personnel and our media establishments are covered with security personnel round the clock. That would be in total contradiction to the essence of the Fourth Estate in any self-respecting democracy.

However, the Government of Manipur, as indeed all Northeastern State Governments, must find ways and means to ensure security of media personnel. It would help greatly if the Government of Manipur sends an unequivocal message across that it would have zero tolerance towards any threat and/or breach of security of the media in the State. And in the event of any threat or breach of security of the media in the State, it would greatly help if the Manipur Government accords top priority to bring to book the guilty. Such action would send across the message that the Government of Manipur prioritizes the institution of the Fourth Estate as crucial to democracy and development and would not tolerate any individual or groups of individuals that seek to harm or humiliate the media.

The media is also acknowledged and accorded esteem through numerous other ways, particularly through social platforms. Can the Government of Manipur think in terms of inviting renowned Editors, Columnists and Journalists as Chief Guests, Guests of Honor, Special Invitees, etc for Government programs, social functions, fairs, festivals, etc? When the Chief Minister, other Ministers, senior bureaucrats go to other Indian States or abroad on official duties, is it possible for the Government of Manipur to invite members of the press to be a part of the retinue to strengthen its efforts towards transparency but not to strengthen the State Government’s Public Relations propaganda?

Considering the very limited scope for the local media to earn revenue, is it possible for the Government of Manipur to facilitate and cater to the medical needs by way of treatment, insurance, etc, of media persons and their immediate families and dependents, as much as facilitate the educational scope for media persons’ children and dependents by way of scholarships, especially higher education, under the State Government’s capacity building programs without attaching any stings to these financial support-systems? Is it also possible for the Government of Manipur to institute awards, including cash incentives, to all categories of outstanding journalists, as also encourage literary and cultural bodies to institute awards, including cash or gift incentives, to all categories of journalists, so as to not only mainstream the media but also to attract the finest talents into this vocation? What is the system of issuance of Government advertisements and payments thereof to the local print and electronic media? Systems have a very disquieting way of revealing priorities and prejudices.

No system is perfect but is it possible for the Government of Manipur to constantly review such systems not only to facilitate better functioning of the media but also to send the message that the Government of Manipur accords priority to all media matters. Our media houses in the Northeast are very small enterprises with just a handful of people assuming multiple roles and responsibilities. And because the media functions 24 hours a day, time and human resource are precious and not easily available. It has been seen that Government employees, especially those entrusted with Accounts, across the region play psychological games to humiliate media persons, and in the process also earn a few bucks for chai.

When the DAVP of the Central Government has successfully created a system and used technology to issue advertisements of numerous Central Government Ministries and Departments to over a lakh newspapers across the country, and that too published in numerous languages, and have also worked out a system of billing and payments without any one from any local newspaper/magazine from peripheral States like ours running after payments in New Delhi, why can’t our Northeastern State Governments evolve similar workable systems for just a handful of newspapers and magazines here? Is it because we lack the intelligence and knowledge or is it because we know that our petty self-interests would not be met if we evolved transparent systems that would cater to the effective and efficient functioning of democratic institutions, as also cater to groups such as contractors and suppliers, etc, thereby strengthening private entrepreneurship, however humble, in our Northeastern States? Now the issue of why we exist only in the periphery of what we call the national media.

True, the Northeast features in what we call the national media only when there is the kind of turmoil that attracts the attention of the Prime Minister or Home Minister, generally the powers-that-be at New Delhi and that too as a delayed reaction. This makes us feel even more distant from the centre of power and governance. But then, even female foeticide and similar issues in Haryana, just a few kilometers away from New Delhi also doesn’t receive the attention they deserve from the country’s seat of power. What about Maoist militancy in several States nearer to New Delhi. One of the reasons Maoist militancy has escalated is because of New Delhi’s neglect of the Dalits and Adivasis there for decades.

For the powers-that-be at New Delhi, India consists of only Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Let us have no doubts about the reality of all peoples living in the fringe regions of New Delhi and accordingly let us strategies to make our voices heard globally. This is where we can make the optimum use of technology. Also, I am not very sure whether I, as a media person, would like to be identified with the so-called mainstream national print and electronic media that is obsessed with Cricket, the Stock markets, glamorous movie personalities, the rich and the famous and almost everything that does not exist in our realities in the Northeast. In fact, we may not have as much of a voice at the national level but we can if we explore the endless possibilities technology offers today.

Technology would enable us to be heard across the globe. What’s stopping us? Come on, let us shed the victim persona we have erroneously been wearing for the past few decades and look for strength within ourselves. New Delhi or the so-called national media cannot resolve our issues, even if they give us all the attention we desire. And making the headlines for all the wrong reasons is not the kind of attention that we deserve or should desire. We need to get our act together first and things, I believe, would fall in place. I believe that if Northeastern societies and States (including Governments) focused on our strengths, as well as areas of agreement, and created the space and scope for every institution to be strengthened, and if we cleaned up our self-created mess, especially that of unsatisfactory governance, corruption, nepotism, all kinds of chauvinism, etc, there is no reason why we cannot develop and grow and make this State and this region one to be reckoned with at the national level.

Let us collectively bridge the chasms we have created amongst ourselves first, indubitably the corollaries would follow. Let us not only look ahead but also acknowledge that there is much to look forward to. I thank the Government of Manipur, particularly, the Administrative Training Institute, for organizing this seminar and for inviting me to speak. I also apologize for not being with you in person. My paper may be a huge disappointment to you, as it may not be what you have expected from me. I apologize for that. I also apologize if what I have written hurt any individual or institution in any way.

*The paper is written by Monalisa Changkija.

*The writer is an Editor of Nagaland Page, Dimapur.

*The writer can be contacted at tmchangkija@rediffmail.com and tmchangkija@gmail.com.

*The paper was presented in absentia at the recent seminar organized by the State Government.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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