COVID-19: 75-year-old northeast newspaper and its fight against “cruel hands of law”

North-East India’s oldest English-language daily newspaper The Shillong Times which started as a tabloid-sized weekly on 10 August 1945, is not seen on the newsstands for the first time of its 75 years history.

On 23 August, the East Khasi Hills district administration of Meghalaya state imposed a 10-day shutdown of the newspaper after four of its staffers tested positive for the Covid-19. The administration, also accusing the newspaper of violating Covid-19 health protocols, sealed the newspaper premises and declared the newspaper’s office in Rilbong a containment area.

The newspaper’s management however notes that their voice being ‘stifled at the cruel hands of the law’ as they had diligently adhered to Covid-19 protocols.

The Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim accuses the government of issuing the order without conducting a proper and objective inspection of the building and the activities of The Shillong Times staffers.

“We are only questioning why an ‘essential service’ listed by the Union Government, of which the media is one, was barred from coming up with its publication for four days because it was treated as an inessential item in Meghalaya and the premises suddenly shuttered even before alternative arrangements for printing etc could be made,” Mukhim wrote in The Shillong Times editorial (web) on Thursday.

“But guess who the real enemies of the media are. They are people who hold power and want to exercise it arbitrarily. And there are many such in Meghalaya with its several layers of governance,” reads the editorial titled “Media, government, Covid and the public.”

The Shillong Times editorial further said that they are not sure if critiquing anything related to the handling of Covid-19 would land them in trouble under one of the two stringent laws that have been invoked to counter Covid – namely the colonial Epidemic Act which has just been tweaked to suit the times but still does not look at the Indian condition and certainly does not take into account the need to safeguard the migrant workers after the declaration of a lockdown. The second is the Disaster Management Act which empowers the Government to come down heavily on so-called Covid protocol violators – a term that is as subjective as it is imperious.

“Covid has certainly empowered the bureaucracy like never before,” reads the editorial.

Manas Chaudhuri, the newspaper’s owner and former editor, accuses the government’s decision of being “presumptuous.”

The publication is headed by Patricia Mukhim as its editor, who succeeded Manas Chaudhuri in 2008. Chaudhuri had been editor of the paper since 1978.

The shutdown order, the first of its type in India, issued by the government outlined that the newspaper violated all protocols of social distancing, wearing of face masks and hand sanitization among others.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its Indian affiliate the Indian journalists Union (IJU) are concerned by the government’s forced shutdown and urge the authorities to allow the media outlet to continue operations as an ‘essential service’.

 “The ad-hoc order to close the newspaper sends wrong message to public. The authorities should have discussed the issue with the newspaper’s management before. Therefore, the IJU urges authorities to heed to the newspaper’s request to allow continue its operation,” the IJU Secretary General Sabina Inderjit said.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists’ statement reads: “The abrupt closure notice by the administration is a violation of press freedom and the rights of workers. We urge authorities to withdraw the order and allow the newspaper to continue its operation while maintaining adherence to Covid-19 health protocols and safety measures.”