Journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem’s arrest under the National Security Act (NSA) received condemnation from journalist unions throughout the country but the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) have maintained a conspiratorial silence. Wangkhem has been in detention under NSA since November 27, 2018, for posting anti-BJP posts on Facebook. Though he was initially arrested under IPC sections dealing with sedition, it was after the court granted him bail that he was slapped with NSA. A person could be detained for a period of 12 months without trial under the NSA.
This comes at a time when India’s rankings in the world press freedom index is a subject of discussion at the Lok Sabha. India was ranked 138th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, two places down from the previous year. World Press Index is published by a non-profit organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The RSF said in its report that six journalists were killed in India this year and stated that self-censorship was growing in mainstream media while journalists were increasingly becoming targets of online smear campaigns, vilification and threats of physical violence. The report also said that the Indian government was using sedition laws to clamp down on journalists who are overly critical.
While Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Imphal-based non governmental voluntary group Human Rights Alert (HRA), has personally briefed the UN special rapporteur David Kaye about the arrest on December 21, 2018, Brozendra Ningomba, the interim president of AMWJU and the Editor in Chief of ISTV where Wangkhem worked, has unilaterally removed him from the job. The Imphal Free Press has also reported that Brozendra Ningombam wrote to the IJU, warning them to not interfere in the Wangkhem issue.
Other mainstream media in Manipur have also stayed away from reporting the arrest. Imphal Free Press is only one among the few news organisations from Manipur, which had reported the arrest of Wangkhem at the time. Speaking to TWJ, Mr Paojel Chaoba, a member of the editorial board at the Imphal Free Press and a member of AMWJU says, “Many of us in the union believe that we should raise our voice against it (detention under NSA). We do not agree with our interim-president (of AMWJU).”Mr Chaoba also said that the current President was not democratically elected. He added that it was possible for the union to condemn the slapping of NSA on Wangkhem, without losing its neutrality. “It is the duty of journalists to speak up for anybody, who is unjustly charged under NSA, let alone a fellow journalist. Because of this incident, I am ashamed to call himself a journalist.”
According to Ranjita Elangbam, wife of Kishorchand Wangkhem, “Except for one or two journalists who have expressed their solidarity personally, the AMWJU has not said anything.”She also said that they were receiving support from student organisations but the government is using police to silence them. Several student organisations like the Manipur Students’ Association Delhi (MSAD), have protested against Wangkhem’s arrest. Thokchom Veewon, President of MSAD says “The police went to the home of General Secretary (of MSAD) Keinou Javed Mahdi and asked about me and our Advisor Damuodar Arabam.” He said that the police told Javed’s family to be quiet for a few weeks, as a form of intimidation. Veewon also said that his organisation had held a protest against the detention in Delhi on the 16th of December upon which the Delhi Police had arrested and detained them.
Manipur Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, whom Wangkhem called a “puppet of Hindutva” in his FB post, told the ANI that he “can tolerate criticism but not the humiliation of my leaders.” He further added that humiliating national heroes like Rani of Jhansi and Narendra Modi was beyond freedom of expression. Biren Singh was also jailed under charges of sedition in 2000 when he was still working as a journalist.
At present, Kishorechandra Wangkhem has filed a petition in the Manipur High Court challenging his detention order. The court has heard the petition and have directed the state and the central governments to submit counter-affidavits against the petition, filed by the former journalist. Ranjita Elangbam also said that the court would hear the case only in the first week of February which means that Wangkhem would remain in detention for more than a month.