Journalists Take the Brunt of Violence in Assam

On March 25, as Anil Majumder, the 38-year-old executive editor of the Assam-based regional daily Aji [Today] arrived at his home after a day's work, five gunmen suddenly surrounded him. Hit five times at close range, Majumder was rushed to the hospital in the capital of Guwahati, where he was declared dead.

Majumder, who left behind a wife and two minor daughters, is the latest casualty in a war that gunmen have declared on the press in Assam, in the trouble-torn finger of India that lies between Burma and Bangladesh. In the last six months, three have been gunned down by unknown assailants, sending shock waves across the media community. A total of 22 editors and reporters have been murdered since 1991 when Kamal Saikia, an editor, was killed for criticizing the ideology of the United Liberation front of Assam, which has been waging an uncertain war for independence from India for decades.

The Northeast is the home for more than 30 active groups that have been waging war against the Indian Union government and sometimes each other for a plethora of conflicting and sometimes bewildering demands varying from autonomy to self rule. Assam's hundreds of journalists, who are paid almost nothing and have almost no job security, have been the target of their frustrations. However, not a single perpetrator has ever been booked under the law. The latest before Majumder was on November 22 when another young editor, Jagajit Saikia, who worked for an Assamese daily, Amar Asom, was also targeted by gunmen from point blank range. He too left behind a wife and a minor daughter. Konsam Rishikanta, 22, a young reporter for a Manipur newspaper, was killed at almost the same time.

"The militants display a common tendency to defy the democratic values of the country. But the media fraternity, working in the region, does their best to pursue all the values that India stands for," the Journalists Action Committee of Assam wrote in a letter to India President Pratibha Devisingh Patil. "It remains the duty of the government to ensure the safety of these sentinels of the society. Otherwise India's claim as the largest democracy in the globe will be in stake."

Journalists have been holding rallies and protests ever since Majumder was killed. Most of the Assamese dailies were published with blank editorials on March 26 as a mark of protest against the assassination. Hundreds of editors and journalists from Assam's huge media expressed anguish at the failure of the authorities to ensure protection.

But the editor's murder wasn't as straightforward as it looks. The ever-conspiratorial press corps has blamed either government agencies or militants although neither theory works very well. His colleagues say that while he was brave and prolific, he was also biased. Starting as a local media correspondent in Nalbari, he moved up the ladder to owning a daily newspaper in Guwahati, a demonstration of his ambition. He made enemies from across society including the media itself, his colleagues say. The Congress-led government was friendly with Majumder and militants sometimes counted him as an ally. The daily neither enjoyed high circulation nor the support of influential readers. The theory gaining momentum is that he was killed as a result of a personal vendetta involving a land dispute case.

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The police, who picked up a few youths for interrogation, calling them suspects, have no clues. The department has only issued a sketch of one of the suspected killers, which was prepared with the information fed by Majumder's driver.

Whatever theory is correct, none of them justifies killing a journalist. The Journalists' Action Committee recently submitted a memorandum to the State chief minister urging him to take personal initiative to arrest the killer and the perpetrators. Protests been raised by media bodies, student organizations, civil society and advocacy groups with political organizations in Assam. The chief minister condemned the killing and directed the State police chief GM Srivastava to take necessary actions to arrest the culprits at the earliest

Working journalists face tremendous challenges in the region. They are subjected to numerous threats from insurgents, surrendered militants and even anti-insurgent security personnel The region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh and a long way from New Delhi and the government's attention, has witnessed a media boom in the last decade, but journalists have continued to be exploited by their respective employers. Student agitation in the 1980s changed the face of journalism, driving up readership and emboldening reporters Guwahati is the home of more than 20 morning dailies, half in the Assamese language. Three claim 100,000 daily circulation. Now three satellite TV news channels have added 100 more working journalists.

Print journalism became more aggressive and focused on investigative reportage. Amid all the turmoil and social chaos, the local media flourished. Today, almost all the prominent Assamese dailies have multiple editions to reach more readers in remote areas. Both the print and visual media have created 8,000 direct jobs, and provided indirect employment to 20,000 throughout the state with a population of 26 million. Over 400 working journalists live in Guwahati.

But even though the print media boom is spectacular, there are people who are apprehensive about the outcome.

"We have witnessed a boom since the early 1990s, but quality journalism remains elusive," said Hiten Mahanta, a Guwahati-based journalist. "I agree the local media is facing a tough challenge from both national newspapers as well as the electronic media. But still there is room for regional newspapers to play a constructive role. Unfortunately the existing dailies have failed to make any mark in this respect." "This is very unfortunate that media persons have to work with a salary starting with even Rs2,000 [US$40] with absolutely no job security. Over 70 percent of newspaper employees in Assam are deprived of basic minimum facilities such as appointment letters, leave, provident funds or medical facilities. Many times they are also used by the proprietors of media groups for other business interests. So in such a chaotic situation, we can hardly expect a fair journalism in the State," said Rupam Baruah, the president of the Assam Journalists' Forum.

Now the journalism fraternity is concerned that things are going to get worse. With polls approaching in mid-April, militant groups are becoming more violent. Political parties as well have begun to accuse each other of trying to use muscle to win the polls. The killing of Majumder may not have directly involved a political angle, but the timing is significant. The perpetrators have chosen the time just before polls, thinking that the police and authority would have little time to go for an in-depth investigation to find the killers, as they are engaged with the security of the politicians during the campaigns. Despite the protests, nobody expects Majumder's killing to be solved anytime soon

Nava Thakuria is president of the Guwahati Press Club and an Asia Sentinel correspondent.