The Assam Rifles have a mandate to fight terrorism in the northeastern states. That does not, however, empower the paramilitary force to tell the media what it can publish. The notice sent by the Assam Rifles headquarters to five newspapers in Nagaland, in which they claim that publishing articles mentioning the demands of the NSCN(K) is tantamount to violating the provisions of an anti-terror law, is a clear case of overreach and a deliberate misreading of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The Union government must step in and instruct the force to keep off the media and let the latter decide what is best for readers. The Assam Rifles, undoubtedly, have a tough task in a region with a long history of insurgency, but it must stick to its core competency — which certainly does not include news judgement and selection.
The Assam Rifles’ gag order attempts to draw legitimacy from a section in the UAPA that says that “whosoever advocates, abets, advises or incites the commission of any unlawful activity”, or assists the operations of a banned organisation, is liable for punishment. But what constitutes advocacy, abetment and incitement to unlawful activity? Does mere reporting of the activities of a banned organisation or one of its members fall into any of these categories? The now-repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, included a section criminalising anyone who “invited support” for an organisation banned under the anti-terror law. The vagueness of the provision had enlarged the scope for abuse and, with the state targeting activists and politicians, Parliament was forced to repeal the act.
The NSCN(K), though a banned organisation, is a factor in Nagaland’s public life, and no serious media organisation can ignore or suppress news about it. The report that appears to have triggered the ridiculous diktat was on the death threat issued by the NSCN(K) to lawmakers whom the terror outfit deemed to be collaborators of the Indian state and opposed to Naga sovereignty. Newspapers could not possibly ignore news that the most dangerous insurgent group in the region was planning to target the state’s legislators. How to report the NSCN(K) is a task best left to editors, who are stakeholders in Nagaland’s public affairs as much as, or even more so, than the Assam Rifles. The Assam Rifles mistake the role of the media if they think that the latter ought to serve as dutiful handmaidens to the paramilitary forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations.