As 10 years go by, we open up The Morung Express to our readers
Morung Express Feature
Dimapur | March 3
15 of us are huddled into one of the three rooms that make up The Morung Express head office in Dimapur. We are at the first work plan meeting of the year 2017. The Editor, Dr. Aküm Longchari, alternatively called ‘Boss’ and ‘Chief’ in office parlance, is gearing the staff up for the year ahead.
“Let us develop respect for each other, as individuals and professionally. Even as we need to be constructively critical of each other, we are required to develop deep trust towards one another. Let us take care of each other.”
As the message is absorbed, undisturbed until now, we maintain a keen eye on the clock. It is 5:00 pm; deadline is at 9:00 pm—everyone needs to get back to work. The silent panic is communicated through the room using eye signals. Someone cracks a joke. Chief gets the point. The meeting is brought to an end.
The team spreads out into the three newsrooms from where the next edition of The Morung Express will be produced. Press releases are distributed among sub-editors, reporters begin to file their stories and the graphics team lays the framework out for each page of the 12-page daily broadsheet newspaper. It is a well oiled machine, and everyone is aware of their delegated duties; the Editor is an omnipresent mentor for the independent team. Contrary to a machine though, peals of laughter, sunflower seeds, songs, meals, philosophy, analysis of news, disagreements over content and placement—and many bits more—mark the journey the Morung team makes on a daily basis.
Respect, trust and care are ingrained aspects of sharing space through the 24 hours news cycle followed every day for almost 360 days of the year. From its physical roots here, The Morung Express spreads out its branches into engaging with the society and people.
This piece attempts to offer a glimpse into the various spokes of the multiple wheels that carry the Morung Caravan through its journey.
Spectrum of truth
The Morung Express was established in 2005. It was conceived by a group of young people who had travelled extensively through the Naga areas; people consistently talked of their missing voices from the Nagascape. Truth was a prerogative of the State. The Morung thus rose from the “Naga people’s historical realities” and sought to be “guided by their voices and experiences,” states its webpage.
While this was a veritable idea, it was no easy task to reconcile the world of objective news with people’s struggles and still arrive at the truth while affecting change. People in the Naga lands have a voice and institutions to bring them forward as a collective, but they rarely hold the “objective” legitimacy of scientific data, government documents, military might or corporate numbers. Years of State oppression in the Naga areas had led to a bottling of people’s voices, ideas and evolution. The Morung Express wanted to become the site where these voices could find base to give form to a people’s truth, in turn becoming a tool for social change.
“We are in an era where we have a lot of information but struggle to connect it with reality,” reflects Aküm Longchari. Information must “crystallize” into awareness, which is when the process of transformation begins. For this, journalists need to become involved with the society; in a way that they can relate to issues in terms of justice.
A great deal of innovation was required in its “style of functioning” thus, both at the organizational level as well as in content management, says Along Longkumer, the founding Editor of The Morung Express. He became a major part of this innovation for the first foundational years of the newspaper. Different models of functioning were experimented with to refine the process of news production in Nagaland to cater to social requirements—sometimes keeping track, sometimes losing it.
At its heart is the Morung team, whose interplay often resembles a prism—our energies (light) gather all at once, and go through a prism (the Morung) to produce the spectrum of truth.
Almost all workers at The Morung leads a double life—they are journalists by night but teachers, students, cultivators, entrepreneurs, producers, writers and trainers by day. Human resources at The Morung Express form a kaleidoscope drawing light from the community. Someone teaches economics at a college while another teaches sociology – one is a student of sociology; someone teaches at a school for underprivileged children, couple of others have written and published books, some are human rights activists, another a cultivator and an entrepreneur. There is a graphic designer, one teaches at a computer institute while another runs a music studio. A number of journalists have completed fellowships from prestigious forums, while others have collaborated on research work with scholars, freelanced with regional and national media houses, or are in various stages of higher education. On any given day, any one of us is guiding an intern, or a visiting scholar or a journalist in unraveling the Naga context.
Everyone is well entrenched in the pedagogy of transformation. The Editor himself has been a long standing peace trainer—he has conducted several workshops during conflict situations at multiple forums with numerous stakeholders in the Naga areas. He has taught at various educational institutions of the region like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, and the Clark Theological College, Mokokchung. He has published his PhD thesis as a book in 2016, titled ‘Self Determination: A Resource for JustPeace,’ through the Heritage Publishing House in Dimapur.
The “finished product” called The Morung Express is not just a newspaper. It is a confluence of love, labour, social and political engagement with a passion for truth and justice. We are journalists, teachers, researchers and activists all at once, and separately. Truth is often murky but at least we are on a path to finding its power.
Moving forward, holding hands
Equipped with these resources, the Morung set out on a journey to find and narrate stories of the people. “The idea is to evolve news with the people, for the people,” says Aküm Longchari, “but it is a struggle.”
As the Morung moved through its journey of the past ten years, there were major dilemmas the newspaper had to wrestle with. From the reports that journalists collected, it was difficult to verify much of the information provided by the people, and narratives could become one sided. Governments, whether in the State or Centre, cooperated marginally with the local press. Slowly, through meticulous exercises, and several lessons, a template to capture people’s voices was devised. The platform was extended from news reports to a designated section – Public Discourse.
However, as reports continued to appear, it rarely materialized into public action.
In an attempt to forge deeper relationship with people on issues, The Morung Express came up with the concept of ‘Media Partnerships’ in its initial years. The newspaper would partner with a collective on topics that could invoke change. Though the concept gained popularity, it remained bottled in events, and relationships did not go further than the news.
“We wanted to do news of a different sort where we partner with the people on issues, not just events,” narrates the Editor. But the general trend was to have an event, which would then be reported by the news media, and along with the shelf life of the newspaper, the life of the issue would end too.
For the Morung team, this had to change. Social issues had to go beyond events to create awareness and result in action. News had to go beyond the news industry.
The Morung Express, in the year 2006, decided to ask People Living with HIV/AIDS to hold its hands in building a meaningful people-paper relationship.
The world of People Living with HIV/AIDS had always been a struggle. While a robust movement existed for integration of affected people into society, the human rights lens had not yet fallen in the right hands.
“There was a need to strengthen the movement by recognizing it as a human rights issue,” notes Longchari.
The newspaper began to research and write stories, and even collaborated on a documentary film, that would use the lens of human rights to inform the HIV/AIDS movement in Nagaland. On other avenues, the Morung worked with individuals and organizations to fine tune the HIV/AIDS rights’ framework. The intervention led to a number of victories for both sides—The Morung Express won its first news award and the HIV/AIDS movement made considerable headway with new leaders and energy.
This gave the Morung confidence to mobilize its resources, both within and outside, to begin working with other people’s initiatives, like the Love Burma project.
The Love Burma Mission
The newspaper, albeit bound by time, plays an essential role in the Naga context. It becomes a journal/record of day to day affairs—a “village diary” of sorts.
“We had to make an attempt at core learning; understanding the world through the eyes of the grassroots,” explains the Morung Chief. Journalists of The Morung Express are encouraged to travel the hinterland, finding voices and issues—over the years, the newspaper has been able to amalgamate voices of Naga people living in the far flung north, south, east, west and even in multiples cities around the world.
Its ethics were always clear. The understanding of news had to be expanded through “deliberate engagement” with the grassroots. With the Love Burma Mission (LBM), this course gained momentum. “Naga humanity has to evolve together. The Naga areas in Burma have been denied all forms of humanity through denial of infrastructure and facilities. Till date they live isolated lives. Our work with them is a symbol of our solidarity as Naga people,” reflects Longchari on choosing to work with the Love Burma Mission.
The LBM was conceived by the Chang Baptist Association in collaboration with the Eleutheros Christian Society, Tuensang—a brainchild of Rev. Chingmak Chang and his family. They brought together a number of faith-based and secular institutions, like The Morung Express, to work in three major areas that remain severely underdeveloped in the Naga areas in Burma—education, healthcare and leadership.
“We have been focusing on five villages as part of this Mission,” says Kedo Peseyie, Pastor of City Church Kohima, which is a partner institution of the LBM. The project set up a hostel for students to have a place to study in, health workers were trained in every village through the Christian Institute of Health Sciences & Research (CIHSR) Dimapur, and leadership training was imparted to the young and old. Health and sanitation conditions were improved—“we gave solar lamps to every household that was able to construct toilets using some basic material we provided,” informs Peseyie. This was the only form of night light entering the villages; electrification remains a distant dream.
“The students who stayed at the hostel brought 100% result at school. This has encouraged us to take more initiatives,” says the Pastor. Though the project came on the back foot as tension in the border areas escalated in 2016, there were several lessons to be learned. “We often think of mission work in terms of sending money to the mission field. Here was an opportunity for our young people to be on field and understand the lives of people in the border areas,” he notes.
The collaboration of several churches and NGOs along with The Morung Express brought us into fresh grounds. As Peseyie puts it, the norm till now has been for separate institutions to mobilize resources and work on a project, but the Love Burma project brought different institutions and people with different experiences together and transformed the way development projects work on a micro scale.
Education & Leadership
Among all forms of development, education has been a critical aspect for The Morung Express. Truth gathering and truth telling, the fulcrum of its work (with the motto ‘Speak Truth to Power’), require journalists to be equipped with informed knowledge. And what applies to a journalist applies to all members of society.
This aspiration led The Morung Express to work closely with the Sinai Educational Centre (SEC) and the R5 Leadership School, also run by the Sinai Ministry.
“The SEC was established in 2009 to impart basic education to children who do not have the opportunity to go to school,” says Dina Longchari who has been running the School, going door to door asking daily wage workers, both from Nagaland and Assam, to enroll their children to the SEC in Dimapur.
Till date, the three teachers at the Centre have managed to impart basic education to more than 300 children in the age group of 4-12 years, many of whom have gone on to study in government schools.
“Many new openings have come through our collaboration with The Morung Express—we have been able to sort out teacher’s salaries, infrastructure, meals etc.,” lists Dina Longchari.
The R5 Leadership School, run by the Sinai Ministry, extends to youth training in leadership skills. For 30 days, young people come together under one roof to learn, cook, eat, play and live together. Professionals from the world of entrepreneurship to music play mentors for the students. The Morung Express has been part of the School in building future leaders, partaking particularly in teaching.
Learning and teaching, however, is not restricted to one school. The Morung Express houses a number of staff who are teachers and trainers, focusing on traditional subjects like political science and economics, enlarging their horizon to include nonviolence, conflict transformation and peace building. Within the office itself, this gives rise to an eloquent juggling of ideas every day. The Morung decided to extend this to the public arena.
The Morung Lectures
Being argumentative can be a virtue. People from different schools of thought and various degrees of persuasion converge under a single roof at the Morung. The Editor, also the Publisher, is persuasive on one of the many guiding aspects of the in-house relationship at work—we are not employers and employees coming together every day. We are independent thinkers; let us discuss, debate and dialogue.
This does not necessarily get the voice out of everyone in office. Weekly meetings are seen as an overbearing, albeit necessary, space where little participation from the staff is forthcoming. The Chief leads meetings, laying out our weekly, monthly or annual aspirations, past gains and failure. Once the meetings break up though, people participate in extended discussions in smaller groups. Reflection and decision making sometimes happens only at the Morung kitchen dinner.
Like pumpkin vines, a dialogic culture spirals in odd directions; the good news is that it exists, and firmly so.
If this process is to take shape in Naga society, it has to begin somewhere. Much like the Morung weekly meetings, media houses have become monolithic structures that remain relatively impermeable for the society at large. Few people constructively engage with media houses to deliberate on content. Yet for each to affect change in the other, a “two way traffic” of learning needed to emerge.
Thus came the idea of The Morung Lectures.
“Critical interaction between the people and the Morung is very important for us to grow. The Lectures, in the Naga context, are intended to evolve a shared understanding—a space where there is no politically right or wrong, where people can agree to disagree without having to pass resolutions,” explains Aküm Longchari.
The Morung Lectures are, essentially, non academic discussions on day-to-day subjects, interspersed with specialised matters, which seek to bring people from all walks of life to participate and contribute to these subjects. Limited time is given to speakers, followed by a longer open public discussion. Till date, topics have ranged from tracing a Naga’s ancestral journey through DNA studies to human rights and the future of the Naga economy. The concept borrows from the traditional Morung system of yore, of storytelling and discussion for informed decision making. In this case, the physical Morung has been the Dimapur Ao Baptist Arogo’s Elim Hall for the most part, with the hope of extending the platform to other districts.
“I like the fact that The Morung Lecture is not a campaign to demand an immediate change, but rather it has carefully understood that what we need to do first is to learn (and unlearn). I think we desperately need, like The Morung Lectures, more civilized approaches and platforms to discuss and understand the issues we face,” articulates Arien Jamir, a regular participant at the Lectures, who has often posed thorny questions with no easy answers.
While he feels that many of the issues already taken up need a ‘stage two’ of discussions to materialize into something substantial, he shares The Morung Express perspective that it is up to the people where they take The Morung Lectures from here.
“There is a lot to learn from it, and it has opened doors but at the end of the day, what matters most is what the attendees do with that learning. I think the Morung Lectures seek to impart good lessons that matter in the shaping and re-shaping of our common future. A mistake we make perhaps is to look at it (The Morung Lectures) the other way around and expect it to start a revolution overnight,” says Jamir.
The hope remains that a “critical mass” will emerge leading to social or political transformation. In the meantime, though, the Lectures have informed the tone and content of the news in significant ways that helps the Morung Caravan to continue its journey forward.
The Morung Caravan
Lines that make the truth are often distorted in a society that has struggled with political conflict for almost a century. The Morung Caravan traverses this line every day; sometimes we move forward a little but many days we are just grappling with the reality of day-to-day news.
Engaging with socio-political processes helps the Morung make sense, and locate itself, in the Naga context. But our gaze is not fixed merely inward. While active engagement is not possible with the various movements for human dignity and justice around the world, The Morung Express remains plugged in to these movements through its core editorial pages (6 and 7); indigenous peoples’ movements, universal human rights, nonviolence, youth development and related modules from the region and worldwide find regular voice through these pages. It is a cherished hope that movements at home can be informed from lessons drawn by peoples around the world. On the other hand, the Morung website helps ensure that the struggles and responses of the Naga people can be shared with other peoples of the world, thereby creating an interactive process of critical thinking.
Along Longkumer compares the reader of The Morung Express with a person driving a car.
“When I drive, I am most comfortable if the sideview and rearview mirrors are present. Otherwise I don’t get the whole picture of the road ahead. I feel more secure to drive using these mirrors as aid to reach my destination. I think this is the case with The Morung Express. It has given a different perspective of the world around us and helped people to think differently and appreciate, in particular, the importance of dialogue and discussion. We have brought a lot of issues to the public domain and as is the duty of a newspaper, we have also raised a lot of questions,” he projects.
In a democracy it is always healthy to have political alternatives. For Longkumer, The Morung Express gives that choice for people to be informed and in this way “play our role along with the other newspapers in collectively strengthening the voices of democracy and making it more vibrant.”
He hopes that the newspaper will continue to build on its strengths and at the same time remain relevant to the changing nature of both the media environment and the ‘people’ and ‘discourses’ that it serves to uphold.
This aromatic galho, however, is not easily prepared in the Morung Caravan. It is a topsy turvy ride. Wheels break loose at inopportune moments, carriages malfunction, drivers go missing, resources run dry. The Morung Express continues to struggle with business and marketing. We struggle with State actors taking us to the courts to settle scores. We are stretched out between the Freedom of Speech on the one hand, and the Press Council of India’s guidelines on the other. We are pulled between hundreds of narratives, all projected as the truth. We make glaring mistakes, leaving paragraphs undone and spellings floating in the air.
We struggle, but as the Chief once said, “Don’t be demoralized. Sometimes we are called to lead the Caravan and sometimes to follow; at times to push, then to pull, or just walk along. As long as we support each other, even if slow, we move forward.”
The move forward, an evolution, is a pertinent aspect of life; indeed the life of a newspaper. As ‘social media’ becomes a per-second-updated reality in Nagaland’s web connected spaces, the point of reference to news and the way we project news changes. To the swathes of unconnected spaces and peoples in the Naga lands, the written ‘village diary’, the newspaper, remains a significant and reliable document to turn to—and to many it remains inaccessible to date; poor infrastructure and high costs keep us from timely and wide distribution of the paper. The Morung Express carries on its attempt to put forth the local, regional, national, international into perspective through a Naga lens hopefully providing a number of other lenses to understand the situation of humanity today.
It is now up to the readers of The Morung Express to crystallize the information passing through these pages into awareness and action. This will determine how we use the power of truth to fuel our rugged journey towards a shared future.
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