Biased media coverage compounds Manipur's woes

Fake news led to violent reprisals which escalated into a series of horrific crimes against Kuki women, who became victims of targeted sexual violence

The media office of the Kuki community in Kangpokpi (photo: DW)
The media office of the Kuki community in Kangpokpi (photo: DW)


Ongoing unrest in India's Manipur state has entered its third month. The sectarian violence between the majority Meiteis and minority Kukis has also led to another casualty — the truth.

After the violence erupted in India's conflict-torn northeastern state in May, authorities blocked the internet in an effort to stop disinformation and false rumors from spreading on social media.

Polarized media

But by then, a lot of unsubstantiated reports and fake videos had already circulated, such as footage purporting to show Meitei women being allegedly raped by Kuki men during the first days of the conflict.

The fake news led to violent reprisals which escalated into a series of horrific crimes against Kuki women, many of whom bore the brunt of misinformation campaigns, becoming victims of targeted sexual violence.

A case in point is a video that emerged of a May incident in which two Kuki women were stripped naked and raped, then forced to parade in front of a group of men from the dominant Meitei tribe.

Journalists and media commentators who continue to report from Manipur say that there is a noticeable bias in news coverage that severely hinders information gathering and reporting.

"Given the situation and geographical divisions of the communities, there is unfortunately one-sided news," Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, told DW.

Deepening divide

The mostly Hindu Meiteis make up 53% of Manipur's population and live in the more prosperous valley — while the largely Christian Kukis, with a 16% population share, live largely in the surrounding hills.

"There are no Kuki journalists in the Imphal Valley and vice versa. Obviously, the full picture does not emerge and this is a matter of regret," said Phanjoubam.

"These are trying times. Journalists from either side do not travel."

Some of the journalists in Imphal who spoke to DW said the editorial positions of major valley newspapers and cable news channels were "biased." They requested anonymity because they risk being targeted by their organizations or other outfits affiliated to the Meitei community.

In several cases, web portals have taken down news stories amid threats and fear of outraging one community and even to appease political powers.

"I know how an academic who had to apologize after she wrote in a mainstream newspaper asking for chief minister Biren Singh's resignation," a senior journalist told DW. "She also had to make amends to the university."

Some of the influential mainstream publications include the popular Manipur daily Sangai Express, the most-read Meitei language newspaper Poknapham and others including The Peoples Chronicle and Imphal Free Press. The popular cable television news channels include Impact, ISTV Network and Elite TV.

How does the conflict impact reporting?

News reports from the hills that surround the Imphal Valley are being downplayed by Imphal-based media outlets. In many instances, reporters based in the hills have resigned or decided to report from safer locations, such as Assam and New Delhi.

"It is difficult to know what is happening on the other side and more importantly on the ground. I get no news from Imphal and the valley and have to depend on sources which may not be completely accurate," said independent journalist Ninglun Hanghal, who was based in the hills of Churachandpur — the epicenter of violence — but moved out of Manipur.

Sophia Rajkumari, founder of the Eta Northeast Foundation Trust, pointed out that the press had not held accountable those responsible for the current crisis for allowing matters go out of hand.

"The press has not really focused on the dichotomy of the ruling party and its alliance MLAs still remaining in the party and ministry despite their professed problems with the chief minister," Rajkumari told DW. "This is something that the press has simply not probed."

"In many ways, the media hasn't really understood the situation — its triggers and the political aspects as well as the broader national security implications," Rajkumari added.

It is still not certain when internet restrictions will be lifted in Manipur. Most journalists continue to operate from the government-run media center which is internet enabled.

Mobile internet services have far greater penetration than broadband and Wi-Fi, particularly in rural areas. They are used by the majority of internet subscribers and continue to remain suspended.

"It is very tough for journalists to be neutral and who think rationally to cover news. It is tough to do authentic reporting in this current climate and dispensation," Beerjurekha Samom, editor of Imphal-based Heeyai Newn told DW.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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Published: 09 Aug 2023, 2:44 PM