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Paid news menace and underpaid media employees of Northeast India
Nava Thakuria Senior Journalist
Paid news menace and underpaid media employees of Northeast India
PHOTO : Cartoon courtesy Mr Nava Thakuria

Whenever India runs an electoral battle, the ‘paid news’ syndrome continues to hunt the general populace as well as the election authority. A number of cases were already registered against various political parties for allegedly bribing some selected media houses of the largest democracy in the globe for facilitating the campaign related favourable coverage in expenses of cash (or kinds).

The year 2014 was in real sense the polling time for the populous country, where 814 million Indian voters experienced the electoral battles to form India’s lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha). The world media focused on India as the nation with over a billion population progressed for a new regime in New Delhi. A robust & vibrant Indian media was virtually glued to the poll battles across the country which was estimated to be an affair of Rs 30,000 crore ($4.9 billion).

Understanding the growing influence of newspapers & news channels on millions of electorates, the Election Commission of India took some strict measures that could prevent the unsolicited use of media command by various political parties for their selfish interest.

Even the exit polls for 16th Lok Sabha election were banned by the Commission as the polling began on April 7 and continued till May 12.
The then chief election commissioner VS Sampath, in an interview even asserted that the paid news practice by some media enterprises should be recognised as an offense under the country’s electoral law like
Representation of the People Act. The Commission was monitoring thecandidates' expenditures for campaigning in the polls as the limit for each candidate was fixed on Rs 70,00,000. The election related
campaigning through the advertisements in newspapers, television channels, radio service and even on internet outlets that might have cost millions of Indian rupees was also on the rather of the
In the practice of paid news, the owners of a newspaper/news channel demand money from the political party leaders with some hidden understandings. Hundreds cases have been registered with the Commission with the allegations that politicians spend huge amount of money to manipulate the media house managements for their good coverage and if possible spreading negative news regarding their opponents.
The arrangement helps the political parties to prepare a relatively lower electoral budget with the advantages of those ‘bought media space’. “Simply put, paid news is a form of advertising that masquerade as news,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a scholar on Indian mainstream media adding that the corruption in the Indian mass media is a complex phenomenon where ‘the paid news entails illegal payments in cash or kind for content in publications and television channels that appears as if it has been independently-produced by unbiased and
objective journalists’.
Speaking to this writer Guha Thakurta also added claimed that the black money, which is difficult to track, is usually involved in paid news. Today much of the media is dominated by corporate conglomerates that have a single goal of maximizing profits. The autonomy and the independence of the media get compromised because of corruption within, asserted the media commentator based in New Delhi.
Amidst the wave of national polls, India’s apex court on April 9 made a strong ruling that the journalists and non-journalists newspaper & news agency employees of the country should get their pay hike under
the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board. Dismissing the plea of various media house owners seeking review of its earlier judgment in this respect, the Supreme Court of India directed them to implement
the recommendations of the new wage board from November 11, 2011.
Mentionable is that the latest report of national wage board for working journalists and other newspaper employees under the guidance of Justice GR Majithia was presented to the Union government in New
Delhi on December 31, 2010.
“A fine, fair and judicious balance has been achieved between the expectations and aspirations of the employees and the capacity and willingness of the employers to pay,” said Justice Majithia in an
interview. He further added that the report has made some suggestions for the consideration of the government on issues like post-retirement benefits, a forward looking promotion policy, measures to improve
enforcement of the wage board etc.

As far as social security measures are concerned possibility of granting paternity leave to male employees, extension of retirement age up to 65 years, exploring pension scheme possibilities were suggested going beyond the mandated wage structure revision, he added.
The wage boards for newspaper & news agency employees including journalists, constituted under the working journalists and other newspaper employees (conditions of service) and miscellaneous provisions act 1955 are statutory in nature.

The prime responsibility for implementing the recommendations of the wage board rests with the concerned province governments and Union territories of the country.
“Journalists are paid a lump sum without any welfare benefits and they can be dismissed at will. Except for some newspapers the mainstream publications had, ever since the wage board’s award came out in 2010,
conducted only diatribes against the award,” said an editorial of Economic & Political Weekly, a credible publication of India in its March 29, 2014 issue.
It also added, “The burden of opinion pieces by either the owners or top executives (usually in their own publications) was that small newspapers would be forced to close down while the bigger ones would
be crippled. While five journalists’ trade unions and federations fought the challenges in court, there was nary a word from journalists or any form of public protest. The entire scenario illustrates well the working conditions of journalists in the country today.”
Even the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia and advocates for justice, expressed concerns over the salary and working conditions of media persons in India. “In the last few years there has been a major change in the profile of media houses, with an increasing number of high profile business persons/organizations making an entry.
Yet, working conditions for media personnel remain close to the same,” said an AHRC statement issued from its headquarter in Hong Kong, adding that the salary of newspaper employees is ‘minimal with no
chance of raise no matter how many years one has been on the job’.
Referring to India’s apex court’s decision to uphold the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board for journalists and non-journalists on their pay structure, the AHRC urged media houses to honor and implement the recommendations of the latest wage board as a matter of priority. It also called upon the State governments to
ensure a safe working atmosphere for journalists and make provisions for social benefits like health and life insurance for the media employees.
The Assam Tribune group of newspapers based in Guwahati was the first media house in India to implement the recommendations of the latest wage board since January 2012.

Unlike those big newspaper groups of India which went to challenge the constitutionality of the Majithia
Wage Board in the Supreme Court, the 70 years old media house in Guwahati did not wait for the apex court’s verdict.
The editor of The Assam Tribune, PG Baruah, also the managing director of the media house that publishes an Assamese daily (Dainik Asom), an Assamese weekly (Asom Bani) and an Assamese literary magazine
(Goriyosi) besides the English daily, was candid when he spoke about the wage board implementation, “We have given the employees their due.
It is our duty and also the gesture to them.”
All Assam Media Employees Federation (AAMEF), while addressing the matter of livelihood for media workers in northeast India has meanwhile urged the newspaper house managements to show their respect
to the Supreme Court by implementing the new wage board at the earliest. Appreciating the Assam Tribune group for implementing the latest wage board recommendations for the first time in the country, the AAMEF declared, “It is now time for other media groups to show their gestures to their own employees.”
“We have a model media house (The Assam Tribune) that has survived successfully for two years with the new wage board facilities to the employees. Now we will not accept any logic that the Majithia recommendations are not implementable. Ultimately one has to have the minimum commitment to the medium,” said Hiten Mahanta, president of AAMEF.
Speaking to this writer, Mahanta, an Assam based senior journalist, expressed with dismay that most of media groups in the country have made it a habit to show a loss-making balance sheet every year with an aim to avoid paying proper salaries to the employees. “But except few, it's a common practice for all the media barons to divert the funds from the collected amount of money from the advertisers to other non-media enterprises owned by their families,” he asserted adding,
“With this evil practices, the newspaper owners  continue siphoning away the essential resource of the media groups for  their selfish interest to establish the media business as an  unprofitable enterprise.”
Meanwhile, Electronic Media Forum Assam (EMFA) urged the Union government to facilitate the media persons engaged with privately-owned satellite channels with systematic pay hike like their counterparts in newspaper & news agencies. EMFA pointed out that nearly 80 per cent television employees of India are still performing their duties with pitiable salaries, unlimited working hours and without any facilities recommended by the country's labour laws, not to speak of any statutory wage board’s guidelines.
Journalists' Forum Assam (JFA), on the other hand, raised voices for a social media audit of newspapers & private news channels of the country such that the readers & viewers can have a transparent picture
of the financial dealings involved in their favourite media outlets.

“When we talk about the paid news menace, it creates the impression that a huge amount of money from the politicians comes to the media groups. But the greatest irony is that the deals are not being fixed
by the journalists or other employees, rather it’s the prerogative of the owners. And quite naturally, the financial benefits from the exercise are sucked by the managements alone, where as the concerned
media house has to face the crisis of credibility because of the corrupt practice,” said Rupam Barua, president of JFA.
Barua, also a veteran journalist of Assam, asserted that a social media audit of newspaper groups, addressing all vital financial issues, would thus establish how some media barons in India continue exploiting the medium for their selfish interest and it would ultimately help the media employees to get their due benefits supported by the law of the land.

[ Mr. Nava Thakuria is a Senior Journalist, Environment Journalist based in Guwahati, writes on various issues to Media across Asia, Secretary of JFA (Journalists’ Forum of Assam ) ]

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