Today, the media in Manipur in context of print and cable TV is in an interesting yet stagnant phase. Gone are the days when small afternoon papers and periodicals made those in seats of power quake in their shoes with their stories of corruptions being exposed. Not that the periodicals and papers then did not come with their own local dose of sensationalism: screaming headlines of “loose women”, complete with their names and sometimes photos. There was lesser understanding of media ethics and many reputations were tarnished, not to mention, those behind the paper publications being harassed or dragged to court. But the given was that, the common men would look ahead to the latest story.
Let us come to the present media scene in Manipur: there is hardly any ‘breaking news’. The only difference in newspapers published in Manipur seems to the page lay-outs, the use of colour designs and of course the mast heads, with even photographs appearing in the newspapers looking the same! The front page is mostly of Government functions or in their absence, one of the many workshop or training programs being held in Imphal. Pushing for space would be a press conference report or two or the usual dharna coverage: almost always, the news report will focus on who the Chief Guest or President and Guest of Honor at a particular event was. A one line or two lines quote will be given to the said VIPs but nothing more beyond that. Press conference coverage results only in airing what is being said against another person or organization: there is simply no effort to cross check allegations or to get the other side of the story. The done thing is for the accused party to call for another press conference.
The inside pages of most English newspapers have to fall back upon news taken from news feeds and other wire agencies: a sprinkling of “other state” and “International news” with even Hollywood being given importance (since Bollywood news is banned content here!). For Manipuri newspapers, the common fare is lots of advertisements (since they would naturally appear in the most read papers) followed by shengdokchaba for various purposes.(Readers of this column online who do not understand Manipuri: shengdokchaba means clarification. There is a culture of certain people making accusations against people who then have to clarify: makes for great business!)
Cable TV news in Manipur is also close on the heels of the print media: a smattering of events and dharnas. The only redeeming factor is that ISTV, the only cable news provider does do some rural reporting though the language of reporting uses more adjectives rather than the tone remaining factual, with news readers sounding like they are mouthing heavy emotional radio drama lines at times. Another long standing issue with news coverage on this channel is also the rather gory focus on dead bodies and blood with no disclaimer, always defended by saying that a story needs to be told. It is another reality that bloodied dead bodies do not need to be shown on prime time to drill in the effect of a killing.
Is there lack of interest amongst the media? Certainly not, if one goes by the annual media awards, there are people writing about humane stories, doing rural reporting etc. But it would really be interesting to have special newspaper editions carrying all the awarded stories so one can look at them in context and give journalists and the readers a sense of what was written and how. And while it is true that media is under staffed and under paid, there is no doubt too that the All Manipur Working Journalist Union can come up with interesting initiatives or even work with other agencies to promote more in –depth news coverage. While there is a Government Department (Information and Broadcasting) that can be approached for financial support etc, Government support for media systems are best avoided, in order for media objectivity to be possible. The Journalist Union in the State needs to really examine the existing media functioning and see to it that new entrants and mid senior journalists are given the much needed exposure and support. In case, some ways of addressing media coverage is not taken up earnestly, we would all have to reconcile with reading insipid news content with little focus, interpretation or analysis. Worse, even the lack luster reporting will continue to hover around what happens within Imphal since the lack of travel support for journalists often comes in the way of doing stories based in other districts.
If initiatives for bringing about in depth reporting can be instituted, there certainly will be more readership, with news-papers mentoring their respective reporters/writers etc. This could give a specific identity to each newspaper which can help deal with some rather funny media turf control. A case in this context is the practice of newspaper owners/publsihers siding up to newspaper hawkers with cuts and presents to agree to them not carrying newspapers other than theirs. If newspapers have their area of exclusivity, readers would be able to able to take a call for which paper they want to read, rather than having the hawker in collusion (indirectly though) with newspaper owners deciding which one to read for the reader!