Monday, 18 January, 2010

Not Just News - The Hindu, 17th January 2010

I like this piece in the Hindu on journalism in Nagaland by Sevanti Ninan. With the rash of newspapers, channels and magazines that have cropped up in the past decade, covering news has become a mechanical activity. It is often a dilemma when you are out in the field to do something different about a story that 50 other reporters are covering and yet remain relevant. Much is stressed on about the freedom of the press, which is what is responsible for the state of journalism today, but after reading this article one feels that good journalism really thrives within constraints, especially when you think of the Emergency or the post independence period when newspapers like Amrit Baazar Patrika and Statesman were at their peak. The point I make is a little flawed and biased maybe considering news from conflict zones or periods makes for more interesting stories than reading about BMC corruption scandals yet again , but the article will explain better the idea of covering local news interestingly.

Not just news

- In a close knit society like Nagaland journalism can get personal and is like a village diary...

If you want a break from sensational media you need to go to Nagaland. While everywhere else newspapers shriek about conflict, here they urge peace, and in Biblical terms, at that. In a region that has had conflict since the 1950s and a peace process currently in the works, the rules the newspapers here live by are rather different from the rest of the country. Far from probing scandals or corruption, or proactively interviewing all concerned on Naga issues, those who run newspapers here say that they have to constantly tiptoe around sensitivities in a close-knit society. Nor is there any shrieking from competitive TV reporters because the only television produced here is out of a headless Doordarshan Kendra. Cable or satellite TV does not exist.

There are four English dailies, all published from Dimapur. In sharp contrast to the rest of the country, as much as 50 per cent of the newspaper readership in urban Nagaland is in English.

Scrutinise the reporting here and you find that the reporter carefully gives one side of the story, and then the other. Inverted marks open and close, with nary a sentence in between. The correspondent's voice never surfaces. Is that because he is not skilled or because of self censorship because of the UG (Underground) you ask Geoffrey Yaden, editor of the highest circulated daily The Nagaland Post. Both, he replies.

Starting out

Journalism is young in Nagaland. It did not have a seven-days-a-week daily ( Nagaland Page) till 1999. For several years before the Postcame in 1991 there were only political party affiliated periodicals. Nagas have an oral tradition, Nagamese has no script, so newspaper narratives are still an underdeveloped skill. The regional language press uses the Roman script. And from decades before the 1997 ceasefire there has been a powerful censor around — the Underground, or UG. The fact that reporters are inexperienced and unskilled also accounts for the timid reporting.

Today the more effective determinant of what should constitute journalism is Naga society, replete with its own tribal etiquette. Clan, range — all the social institutions come into play. It's not just about news, editors tell you. Here the way people perceive a newspaper is like a village diary. After every function the organiser sends a note saying we appreciate his coming (about the chief guest.). Or we congratulate so and so. He has brought good name to our village. Village communities are quick to take offence if you do not print their handouts. “There are 30 to 40 a day and if you don't use one the village will send its representatives to ask, are you angry with our village?” says Akum Longchar who founded the Morung Express.

He also describes why you cannot risk experimenting with exposes. “We carried a news item related to an officer. Accusations against him. A few days later the village representatives came and said you have insulted our village. ‘When you write about him you write about the village.' There is a very fine line between the individual and the collective here. And once it's out in print you cannot retract. You have to solve it culturally.” So in this case Longchar and his bureau chief, accompanied by their respective fathers and an intermediary, had to negotiate with the village's representatives to make peace.

Similarly Monalisa Changkija, the feisty editor of the Nagaland Page has had tribal elders approach her father-in-law in an effort to get her to reveal the name of an anonymous writer in her newspaper. Reporters and sub-editors in the papers have their own take on what inhibits journalism here. “We cannot write anything against anybody, Dimapur is a small world. And Kohima is a very small world,” says N. Jagoi who works at the Eastern Mirror, owned by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio.

Naga newspapers have several distinctive features, one of which is the space they give to Naga society. From Naga students at distant Jawaharlal Nehru University, to members of the underground, retired bureaucrats and church pastors, everybody sends their views to the press, and every paper carries them. We are giving the space for people to tell their stories,” says Longchar. “A special feature of Naga papers is these articles by people,” says Yaden. “They think it is their right to have this space. But Naga society has to get over this business of being proud of being Naga, etc,” he adds in a reference to the agonising over Naga identity that appears almost daily in the press.

Changkija says this space was created in the days when different factions of the underground wanted their versions carried. “We call it your page, the space created where people's statements are carried. Specially those of different groups. It is safe, it is convenient, it is a protective measure for us. Whoever wants to read it reads it.” The same piece is often carried by all the newspapers.

Distinct flavour

Part of Nagaland's rather original approach to journalism is that people who “give” news also urge its early and frequent use. Says Changkija, they ring up and say, I kindly request you to publish it on page one, and three or four times, okay. This man was a doctor. So I said, will you repeat an operation three or four times on a person?”

And finally there is the Christian framing of issues in a state where the church is a powerful social institution. About the ongoing Naga Reconciliation movement attempting to bring together factions of the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) an editorial in the Nagaland Postdeclares that the first step towards reconciliation is repentance before God, seeking forgiveness from those who have been wronged and willingness to forgive by those who have been wronged. “There is a Biblical requisite for reconciliation with God and therefore, the willingness of all factions to meet and talk with each other inspires hope,” it adds.

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