Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a television journalist in Imphal, was arrested on Thursday night after he was accused of writing inflammatory posts on social media. Wangkhem works as an anchor and sub-editor at Information Service Television Network—one of the two cable television networks in Manipur—and hosts a popular discussion programme covering politics and society.
“We live in a democracy where everyone is entitled to express their views,” said Ranjeeta Elangbam, Wankhem’s wife. The journalist was produced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal West on Friday, and was sent to a 15-day police custody.
The Imphal Police Station filed a suo moto case against the journalist on Thursday, charging him under IPC sections 505(2) and 506. According to Ranjeeta, the police called her husband to the police station on the day of his arrest to have a word with him. However, she was later informed that he had been arrested and would be released on bail soon. Ranjeeta says that as per police instructions, she rushed to Thoubal district hospital, where she is a government employee, to collect the documents required for the bail. Later, she claims, police officials asked her to look for someone who was close to the Chief Minister as it would help in securing her husband’s release. “They say he committed a cybercrime without even specifying the posts for which he has been arrested,” she said.
According to the FIR registered against Wangkhem, he was arrested for posting pictures with captions which intend to “cause fear or alarm to sections of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquility and incited any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community, promoting enmity or hatred between classes on ground of religion, caste or community.”
Speaking to 101 Reporters, Sub Inspector Ritu Oinam, the investigating officer in the case, said Wangkhem had been arrested for two Facebook posts, dated August 7, since “they can create communal tensions”. One of these posts abbreviated BJP as ‘Budhu Joker Party’.
On Saturday, a group of journalists took out a protest rally from Manipur Press Club to the official bungalow of Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh, an ex-journalist himself, demanding an immediate release of the arrested journalist. The editor-in-chief of the cable network where Kishore works tendered an apology on his behalf and the CM agreed to release him. Many among the media fraternity are not happy with the decision of the editor-in-chief, who also happens to be the president of All Manipur Working Journalists Union.
Referring to the arrest as ‘arbitrary’, senior reporter Paojel Chaoba of the Imphal Free Press said the government is making a mockery of democracy by arresting people for posting something on a social networking site just because they did not toe the line of a political party. “The government is only being vindictive and should refrain from continuing with its dictatorial stance,” the correspondent added.
Erendro Leichombam, convener of the regional party Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA)—who was arrested in May—said that the strategy of the government is to influence media through unfair means and by providing certain financial benefits. “Those journalists who cannot be bought are intimidated, oppressed and punished. I think Wangkhemcha Wangthoi is a victim of that strategy. So far, several people have been arrested for posting something on social media, including myself,” Erendro said.
“Another problematic sign is the discontinuation of the news analysis and discussion programme that was aired at 7.30 am every day on Imphal All India Radio under the orders of the Chief Minister. These are the classic examples of a fascist and dictatorial government which does not tolerate dissent,” he alleged.
Wangkhem has been an outspoken critic of the BJP-led state government. The 39-year-old journalist had been a key critic of Professor Adya Prasad Pandey, the Vice-chancellor of Manipur University, who is on a leave after students, professors and other staff of the varsity sought his ouster more than two months ago. A fact-finding committee is currently investigating charges against Pandey who is facing allegations of misdemeanour by protesting student bodies.
The state unit of BJP had organised a counter-rally against the protestors demanding an end to the agitation. Commenting on those developments, Wangkhem slammed the state government for failing to remove Pandey. The journalist also raised questions when Pandey was included in a UGC team which inspected St Joseph’s College, Jakhama in Nagaland, despite the ongoing investigation against him.
The arrest comes at a time when multiple journalists have complained of government interference in their work and a stifling of free expression in the newsroom. On August 2, TV anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai quit ABP News blaming the government of using censorship tactics. Just yesterday, Cartoonist Satish Acharya wrote on his website how the editor at Mail Today “shut his voice“.
Update: Wangkhem has been sentenced to a 12-month jail term.
(Reported by Armstrong Chanambam. He is an Imphal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)