Where would Delhi’s 20,000 something journalists turn to?

In Indian media organisations there is no one to turn to for redressal of grievances. Trade unions are dead in almost all newspapers. Majority of magazines and news channels do not even issue appointment letters. And more and more journalists are being pushed into contracts where they just have their duties and no rights.

Worst … hundreds of thousands of stringers and part-timers across this South Asian nation do not have any proper designations. Their names do not figure in their company’s muster roll and they are paid just few hundred rupees… yes, not even 10$.

If you read this with non-believing eyebrows, ask our journalists what degree of freedom of expression they enjoy in their organisations. And if the answers do not dishearten you and dispel all kinds of illusions regarding the press, complain to me. Awfully, fear and panic in the India media houses have grown so much so that no one, even on the condition of anonymity, will open his mouth before you. Bet.

Ironically, these media institutions do raise issues related to the working conditions at other places as also the related judgments by the courts. But you would notice a characteristic in the such reports:

  1. Though judgments on labour are both ways, the media singles out only those which go in favour of the managements and against the workers. Any court order granting relief to a journalist is never reported.
  2. There is no report about the working conditions prevailing in the media organisations where journalist and non-journalist employees are increasingly being silenced by way of illegal and malafide transfers, suspensions and dismissals.

This epidemic has led to the birth and phenomenal success of websites like bhadas4media and mediakhabar where journalists mostly moan and connect with each other, though anonymously at times.

Illustration by Owain Thomas

Take the case of Indian news agency Press Trust of India (PTI). Its executive head M.K.Razdan is accused of converting the entire establishment as his personal fiefdom and exploiting the staff members as bonded labourers in the absence of any rules and regulations or Standing Orders in the company even after over 60 years of its formation. PTI house journals are testimony to the fact that over 700 journalists have quit the company since Razdan became the general manager of the organization about 15 years ago. There, the 70-approaching Razdan retires people at the age of 60 and distributes unmerited job extensions to his stooges. Such episodes are being chronicled on-line in PTI Diary.

Interestingly, Razdan is head of a media company where the Board of Directors are owners or editors of topmost Indian news organisations where also the journalists and other staff members find themselves no less helpless, demoralized, frustrated and depressed. The Human Resource Departments and the Personnel Departments merely issue threatening memos to the journalists instead of strengthening management-journalist relations. As a result every now and then Indian journalists keep on surrendering to the dictates of their managements; and it is very sad that trade unions in the Indian media companies have also surrendered to their managements while the neo journalists totally lack awareness about their rights. Straightforwardly, the youngsters have no time to acquire knowledge of their rights and labour issues. They do not open their mouths even if they are not given appointment letters. In some cases, they get huge salaries and perks to keep their eyes closed vis-à-vis their rights. Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Condition of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, would surely be a surprise booklet of 30-odd pages for them; what to talk of Industrial Disputes Act. Another news agency UNI or the United News of India has reportedly not paid salaries and allowances to its journalists for over four months now and has been doing away with several other perks but not even a cat cries in its sprawling 9, Rafi Marg Building near the Indian Parliament.

Take the example of India’s national daily Hindustan Times which has been accused of retrenching about 300 workers at its head office in New Delhi’s plush Connaught Place some years back. Do not forget that these very employees and their trade union had failed to even protest symbolically the much-publicised statement of their boss Shobhna Bhartia when she was quoted by the Businessworld magazine as saying: “She has decided to take on HT’s militant unions, tackle growth problem, and make organisation changes that will alter the genetic code of the company.” The magazine had further quoted Bhartia while praising her achievements: “That is not to say that Bhartia hasn’t made some significant gains – like taming the unions, for one.” (17 September, 2001)

Globalisation and rapid technological changes were not meant to dwarf the journalist workforce. Neither they were to undermine the trade unions. But ask any trade union leader representing the Indian media if he or his association is equipped to deal with the downside of globalisation? Most of these leaders are either not working journalists or are spent forces. Many continue to claim representing ‘lakhs of journalists’ while others assert themselves being ‘largest media trade union’. As a matter of fact, not a single such trade union leader in the media actually represent any journalist and even the Indian capital Delhi’s 20,000 something journalists have no one to turn to for redressal.

Sadly, labour rights in Indian media remain buried as deep as the labour unions today want them to be, for most of the trade unions in the media appear more fond of trading in unions than actually being engaged in a trade union. Consequently, media trade unions have lost their face and are being looked down by one and all, including their own members.

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