WANTED : A NEW MEDIA COUNCIL OF INDIA AND A WIDE SPECTRUM MEDIA COMMISSION OF INDIA
The National Alliance of Journalists(NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), in an open letter to leaders of both houses of Parliament, today 9 Dec, 2021 has called for the setting up of an expert National Media Commission, to look into the manifold ailments that the media suffers from today. The entire wide spectrum media faces twin dangers increasingly from both the government and monopoly press barons. They seem to be working hard to kill both press freedom and all forms of job security and permanency in the profession. Journalists face prosecution and persecution for reporting on issues inconvenient to the government.
There have been repeated attempts to devalue the two premier National News Agencies, the Press Trust of India (PTI) and the United News of India (UNI). The national broadcaster Doordarshan as well as the Rajya Sabha TV have been turned into virtual drumbeaters of the Central government. Financial pressures and layoffs have been used to control all these institutions.
For the first time, in post independence India, after the appointment of the First Press Commission and subsequent Press Councils, and the coming into existence of the Working Journalists Acts, the media has been severely battered and bruised. Our service conditions have been destroyed, throwing hundreds of journalists, press workers and other employees on the roads. Job permanency has vanished. The Central Labour Codes have repealed the two laws that had been enacted by Parliament in the post-Independence decade to provide security and decent service conditions for all newspaper employees. The Labour Codes are a death knell for us, besides the working classes, all over the country.
Those media persons who have managed to find alternative employment and fora to raise independent voices through the new digital media are now facing increasing government pressures to control, censor and finish all forms of digital media.
We submit that:
1.Attacks against press freedom have increased manifold, so have physical and verbal attacks on journalists. India stands at 142 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. Increasingly, charges are being filed against journalists for doing their job. Cartoonists have been charged for their jokes. Reporters are being prosecuted for reporting events inconvenient for the government. Many are being trolled. Many are being prosecuted for a tweet or a facebook post. Some are in prison, for instance Siddique Kappan is languishing in jail for over a year. These are ominous signs for any democracy. We demand that a separate law be enacted for the protection of journalists from arbitrary arrests and prosecution. This is not just an issue of journalists. The Indian Parliament should worry about this as a free press is essential for a vibrant democracy.
2.We stress that approximately 3,000 journalists lost their jobs in the lockdown during the first wave of Covid 19. Many of them were pushed towards poverty. Some legal challenges to these arbitrary and often illegal retrenchments are pending in the courts and will take years to yield results. There need to be fast track courts to decide such labour matters. As law makers, we expect your help in raising the issues of rampant job and wage losses in the media sector, besides burning issues of freedom of the press and connected issues, leading to a new era of undeclared press censorship.
3.Several hundred journalists and coworkers, who braved the pandemic to report on events during the lockdown, doing their duty to inform the nation, lost their lives to Covid. It is a tragedy that there was little insurance for them and not much compensation to their kin. Only families of select accredited journalists have received compensation, the rest await relief.
4.We repeat, as we have in several memos before previous Parliamentarians and various connected ministries, that the past few years have seen the repealing of the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955 and the Working Journalists (Fixation of Rates of Wages) Act, 1958 and their merger into the Labour Codes. A major consequence is the demolition of the wage fixation machinery mandated by these Acts.
5.Today journalists are left to the mercy of employers and advertisers by this step. This is not good for the country. We request you to bring back a wide spectrum wage fixation machinery, this time for the entire gamut of media from print to electronic to the newly emergent digital portals. Ironically, a new wage board for the print media was overdue as was an announcement of interim relief. Instead, newspaper barons used the Covid period to throw out a large number of employees and enforce huge paycuts for the rest. The pretext of work from home is now being used to kill more jobs. Newspaper offices are being run by administrative officers and advertisement staff, with a handful of journalists forced to work overtime and bring out editions. Editorials are being reduced to advertorials and press freedom reduced to a mockery.
6.There are new government attempts to appoint just an ornamental Media Council, under the present Press Council setup which is full of dummy bodies. What is necessary is a full Media Council to replace the old Press Council, not just hogwash to please some journalists. Both legacy media and the digital media must be represented, alongside media experts, including unions that have raised such demands.
7.Over the years bodies like ours have also been demanding the setting up of a more autonomous Media Commission, on the lines of earlier Press Commissions, to study developments and compile a report on the status of the media today. It should go into the entire issue of monopolies and cross-media holdings to uphold the independence of the media. It must also be a wage fixing Commission which examines the financial status of media enterprises and recommends fair wages. The Media Council should not be government’s responsibility but the responsibility of media professionals, experts and parliamentarians.
Finally, we stress that the government’s Labour Codes should go lock, stock and barrel as they act against not only us but the working classes all over the country.
S K Pande