Manipur has a sensitive government: Grace Jajo, scribe barred from assembly for Facebook post

Grace Jajo, an independent reporter from Imphal, was barred from entering the Manipur legislative assembly on 22 February. MAHESH BHAT/courtesy GRACE JAJO
20 April, 2021

Grace Jajo, an independent reporter from Imphal, was barred from entering the Manipur legislative assembly on 22 February, the last day of its most recent session. Without prior notice, she was informed at the assembly that her permit to observe the session was revoked and that she would not be permitted to enter the premises. The next day, Raju Yanglem, the public relations officer of the legislative assembly issued a press release stating that the assembly security prevented the entry of Grace Jajo on the ground that she demeaned “the Privilege of the House” in a Facebook post. Privilege of the House refers to the assembly’s right to regulate its own proceedings.

On 19 February, the state’s legislative assembly secretariat issued a notice saying that the Imphal-based online news portal The Frontier Manipur had breached the privilege of the house for a piece on recent remarks by N Biren Singh, the state’s chief minister. The next day, Jajo shared the link of a report titled, “The Frontier Manipur offers explanation on breach of privilege and contempt of House Notice,” on her Facebook account, with the caption “Drama from the assembly.”

The breach of privilege motions are part of a wider crackdown by the government of Manipur on journalist in the state. On 2 March, a talk show hosted by Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a journalist presently with The Frontier Manipur, in which Jajo participated, was served the first notice under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021. The Rules were passed only a week before, and have been criticised by activists for severely curtailing press freedom and digital rights. Later that day, the notice was withdrawn after a directive from the ministry of information and broadcasting. Kimi Colney, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, spoke to Jajo about the events of 22 February and press freedom in Manipur.

Kimi Colney: Can you describe the events of 22 February?
Grace Jajo: I had been covering the budget assembly session every day and I went to cover it on the last day, 22 February. After coming inside the gate, at the frisking point, I was asked if I had brought my ID cards. I thought it was only for verification so I showed them my ID cards and my assembly entry pass. Then suddenly, the head of the security, E Thomba, came and took my entry pass away and kept it inside his pocket. I was stunned for a moment but I managed to dig it out from his pocket and asked him how dare he do that. He told me that he has an order to bar me from entering the assembly, and asked me to leave the premises.

I was shocked and I said that I was not aware of any such order. Nobody had informed me over the phone nor had anyone texted me, so I asked him to show me the order copy. He then called the chief security officer who I spoke to on the phone. She didn’t tell me why my entry was barred and asked me to call Mr Raju. I told her that Raju, being the joint secretary of the assembly secretariat, is always seated inside the assembly and unlikely to pick up any calls. But she snapped the line. I was totally shocked, so I tried calling Raju several times, and he did not pick my calls or reply to my texts.

Another lady offered me a chair so I sat down right there. I was very nervous and I was very shocked so I tried calling everyone. I first called the president of the Manipur Hill Areas Journalist Union and I also called some other senior journalists in town. Some picked and were very comforting. They told me to get the order and see what is written and maybe have a press conference later. Throughout this, the head of security kept coming and asking me to leave the campus. I said I was waiting for the order and as soon as the order arrives, I am willing to leave. They said the order is on the way and I can wait outside the gate.

As I was speaking to the security officers, a lot of additional security came towards the gate. I was surrounded by security on both sides. A sub-inspector who came from outside started shouting at me saying a lot of unpleasant things. There was no option so I went out, but even after I went out all the security behind me kept pushing me, touching me. Even after I came out, the sub-inspector was still shouting and treating me like that and there was lot of security outside too. I told her “Please don’t treat me like a criminal, please don’t treat me like a terrorist, kindly calm down, I will explain to you how I got in. I have a valid card.” She was trying to touch me and the whole neighbourhood had come out and was watching me from the balconies from their windows and their terraces.

At that moment I almost blacked out. I then gathered my senses and made a call to a high-ranking police officer. And I told him to immediately come. Once I made that call to the officer, everyone began behaving more politely. Then a police officer came and I was still shaking and nervous so he gave me water and I told him what happened. He called for the order because I told him that I was waiting for it. The people inside the gate said that it was on its way. We waited for ten minutes. Then for hours and hours. In fact, the police officer sent his junior officer twice to ask for the order but it never came. By the late evening when it didn’t come, I left from there.

KC: Have you received any written order till date?
GJ: On the day I was barred, I asked for the order copy and I also asked for the reason. I was not given the order or even told the reason verbally on that day so that also increased my confusion and anxiety. They also said my entry pass is already revoked without any prior information to me.

KC: Do you think you were targeted specifically?
GJ: I think it’s apparent from the legislative assembly press release on the following day. The release cited my choice of the word “drama” in my Facebook post as the ultimate crime. They interpreted that to suit their narrative.

I think it would be absurd for a state assembly to charge anyone with breach of privilege for using the word “drama.” I think they are just using this as a pretext to get back at me for accurately reporting the debates from the assembly.

KC: How has this incident affected you?
GJ: I was very shaken because of two things. The first was that I didn’t want the government to tarnish my image as a journalist. I don’t want them to put a remark on my name and deny my access to my spaces of reporting in the future. The other thing is, they have made everyone very mindful of their connection to me. So, it is like you are either with the government or with Grace. Even the fraternity was scared to support me locally because they feel that in the process, they will get the disapproval of the government. It’s actually fragmenting the fraternity in that sense. It’s also denying and dwindling my access to my own fraternity.

KC: Have you received support from journalist associations and fellow journalists in Manipur?
GJ: Individually, yes. A lot of moral support, a lot of phone calls checking on me, supporting me. So yes, individually it has been amazing. But, as a fraternity, it has been disappointing. But I am not very surprised, because I know this is what the government has designed. They want to break the media fraternity here. Media houses here depend on government advertisements for survival. Things are playing out accordingly. So, I am not very surprised how the government has handled the aftermath of this incident.

KC: Can you share your thoughts on the chief minister’s attitude to critical news stories?
GJ: The only reports where I have even remotely mentioned the chief minister during this budget session is regarding the church eviction notice that was given by the government in recent months. [The Manipur government had ordered the eviction of several churches, managed by the state’s predominantly Christian tribal population.] This is related to nine churches in Imphal. That particular conversation [on the notices] inside the hall made the chief minister uncomfortable. In fact, in his speech, he also said it is a sensitive subject. I was the only one in the whole state who wrote about that particular story, but I did include his views fully. If the chief minister is directly angry with my reporting, that is likely why. 

KC: How has been your journey as a tribal woman journalist so far? Have you faced anything like this in the past?
GJ: It’s been difficult, but nothing like this has happened in the past. I keep getting information from reliable sources that the state government is not happy with me for the stories that I have done. But upfront confrontation, singling me out and harassing me in this manner was just not expected.

KC: How has press freedom in Manipur been since the assembly session?
GJ: The situation has not been any better after the incident with me. In the following days, I was invited to a talk show where we discussed the problems that we face as reporters in the state, squeezed between the militants and state actors. Immediately after it was aired, you must be aware of how the state government reacted. The embarrassing way with which they tried to use the new rules [Information Technology Rules] on us. So, they are out to find fault. This is not a very reassuring profession, particularly with such a sensitive government in place.

This interview has been edited and condensed.