Meghalaya Police goes after Northeast Now to remove a news report and divulge sources

Meghalaya Police goes after Northeast Now to remove a news report and divulge sources

Northeast Now’s editor-in-chief gives a blow-by-blow account of what happened, which includes a police notice saying journalists need to divulge sources 'as and when required'.

By Anirban Roy

Published on :

The Meghalaya Police has been caught on the wrong foot for trying to train its guns on the media. On August 13, it launched an attack on the media by serving a notice to Northeast Now, a Guwahati-based news portal, to remove a news report related to former state chief minister Mukul Sangma.

MGT Sangma, special superintendent of police, sent a notice under Section 91 of the Criminal Procedure Code to Northeast Now, and not only asked for the removal of the news report, but also to provide the “authenticity of the source of information”. Read the notice here.

On August 10, Northeast Now reported that Mukul Sangma may join the BJP on the basis of credible information from sources who cannot be identified because it would affect them adversely. Northeast Now is a hyper-regional news portal and covers the eight states in northeast India.

As Mukul Sangma was initially not available for comments, the news report added his Twitter reaction, where Sangma had described it as “misinformation”. In his tweet, Sangma had also said “I am asking Cyber Crime Cell @MeghalayaPolice to investigate and track the source of this misinformation with criminal, malafide and defamatory intent”.

The news report was in the context of a membership drive by the BJP in northeast India as part of which many leaders, including former Assam Pradesh Congress chief Bhubaneswar Kalita, had recently joined the saffron party. Subsequently, former Assam minister Gautam Roy and former Rajya Sabha member Santiuse Kujur also joined the BJP.

Surprisingly, the police officer issued the notice to the media organisation without registering any case. The police officer apparently acted on the basis of Mukul Sangma’s tweet. Moreover, it should be noted that no provisions of the Constitution of India allow the police force to order a journalist to reveal his or her source.

On August 14, another officer of the Meghalaya Police, G.K. Iangrai, assistant inspector general, went one step ahead and issued a statement to claim that “no journalistic privilege can protect the media from disclosing their source of information”. Iangrai, a Meghalaya Police Service (MPS) official, said journalists would need to divulge their source “as and when required”. The police statement further said that “publishing of the report/alarming news contains rumors which may incite hatred or ill will between different communities”. Read the full statement here.

It’s unclear why two police officers are taking arbitrary decisions to protect the political interests of a Congress leader and former chief minister. Meghalaya is ruled by the National People’s Party led by Conrad Sangma, in alliance with the BJP which has two MLAs, and other local parties. The Congress is the principal Opposition party.

Annoyed with the behaviour of the two police officers, on August 15, journalists of Northeast Now registered formal complaints with multiple authorities, including the Press Council of India, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, Indian Journalists Union, Editors’ Guild of India, Digital News Publishers Association of India and Journalists’ Union of Assam.

The complaint said that successive insistent communications from the Meghalaya Police have raised a serious question about the state police force’s intentions to gag the media. “We fear that a section of the police officers are preparing grounds for the assault on the media with a political game-plan,” this writer had said, as editor-in-chief of Northeast Now.

The journalists from Northeast Now requested the authorities to take cognizance of the Meghalaya Police’s arbitrary move to muffle the media, and also bail out the members of the media fraternity from the situation. Within hours of registering the complaint, the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) condemned the “high-handedness” of the Meghalaya Police to “browbeat” Northeast Now to remove a news item and disclose its sources. 

The IJU, which is the largest body of journalists in India, said that the issue has led to apprehension among the region’s media fraternity wherein they fear police reprisal and misuse of power. The IJU statement said the Meghalaya Police’s notice was a “misuse of power” as the news item was far from “inciting hatred or ill will”.

The journalists’ body said to persist and ask for the media to disclose its source was unfair and arbitrary. It also urged the Meghalaya Police to withdraw its order against Northeast Now.

Political scientists often say media’s role in the Northeast (described as South Asia’s longest insurgency theatre), is not easy. Media professionals are more like the unarmed foot-soldiers of the insurgency theatre. Journalists often face the wrath of both the underground outfits and government agencies.

And it is always shameful for a state actor when it is caught for bullying the media.