The good news has taken a long time to come – 132 days to be precise - but none presumably will complain since it is always better late than never. That Kishorechandra Wangkhem, the Manipuri journalist thrown into jail for criticising the state chief minister on social media posts, will finally walk out free after the High Court revoked the ostensibly ridiculous charges against him under NSA, is one that certainly anyone considered to be sane will welcome.
Wangkhem will expectedly be a free man again soon, reunited with his wife and children. More importantly, his release will also ring the curtains down on one of the most sordid and bizarre episodes related to free speech, the abuse of state power and our collective inability to stand up to something that was so brazenly wrong.
To cut a long story short, Wangkhem was well within his rights to criticise the chief minister N Biren Singh, something that he did in several Facebook posts. Every citizen of this country is entitled to do that. Where he overstepped was when he also threw in a few invectives against the chief minister. His more than three-month stint in jail have hopefully now allowed Wangkhem to contemplate and realise that his right to speak freely also comes with some responsibility. Abuses and personal attacks have no place in a civilised society, however free it is.
But the manner in which the Manipur government responded to Wangkhem was no less abusive. Having been arrested and then freed on bail by the court, the state detained him under the draconian NSA and threw him in a jail. By the time the legal process could kick in and a remedy provided, the journalist has spent no less than 132 harrowing days in jail.
Before long, this entire Wangkhem story will be forgotten and life will continue as if this episode never happened. It will be a tragedy though, since expectedly no lessons would be learnt. Few of us would realise that our right to free speech has limitations and we cannot, and should not, hurl abuses at others. The state also in all probability will not be chastised. Having slapped the NSA for verbal abuse – since when did abusing an official come to be equated with threat to the nation? – the Manipur government has got away lightly. The officers who thought of invoking the NSA are still in their positions. The chief minister also hasn’t publicly expressed any contrition.
As for the media, the less said the better. But for a few odd voices, journalists in Manipur stayed silent as Wangkhem spent his time behind bars. Media organisations at the national level also generally kept quiet. There were some occasional statements expressing concern over Wangkhem’s jailing, but the murmurs never transformed into collective outrage. Our inaction allowed the Manipur government to carry on with its excesses.
We at Outlook did our best in highlighting the jailed journalist’s plight. Besides regularly reporting his incarceration, we also ran a tracker on our website, counting the days he spent in jail. But it was clearly not enough to shame the Manipur government and it did continue to punish the journalist until the court finally stepped in. That the media as a fraternity failed to shame those in power in Imphal is our matter of shame.