(Un)Free and (Un)Paid Media in North East

A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission,

In an Indian election, campaigns are heavily dependent on the media. Yet, however risk ridden the life and livelihood of Indian media personnel may be, their security is not an issue for political parties, governments, or owners of media houses. The north eastern region is no exception to this.

North east India is a seat of unrest, fermenting in states of failure. All of its seven states are in perennial conflict. These conflicts and frictions manifest not only between these 7 states but also between tribal groups and against the central government. Several armed groups are active with different goals ranging from secession to greater political autonomy. This diverse territory constitutes manifold cultures, histories and identities, all struggling for recognition or for mere survival.

Journalists Protest outside Guwahati Press Club [File Photo]
Journalists Protest outside Guwahati Press Club [File Photo]
These complexities and insensitive government policies have unfortunately resulted in multiple underground outfits operating in North East India. At present, militancy activity is present in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura. The militaristic response of the Union and the state government, with laws such as the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, further aggravates the situation. The AFSPA allows security forces to use any means necessary.

AHRC has covered several issues of human rights violations in the region over the years. The media has provided valuable insight and information along the way. An important element of covering and exposing human rights violations is press freedom.  Life and livelihood issues of the media professional are also important to uphold press freedom. Numerous concerns arise, if one considers the status of free media in conflict-ridden north east India.

One concern is that of working conditions. 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. There are still no shift systems, which mean that most journalists sometimes begin as early as 5-6 a.m., ending their work day late at night. The salary paid is minimal, with no chance of raise no matter how many years one has been on the job. Though a petition policy has been recently initiated by the Government in collaboration with All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU), there are no health insurance or accident related schemes provided by the media houses or the state government, and getting any sort of affordable life insurance for seniors is usually out of the question.

In order to bring such concerns to public debate and in order to seek support of the political candidates promising better life to citizens, the All Assam Media Employees Federation (AAMEF) has addressed matters concerning livelihood of media professionals in north east India. AAMEF has expressed serious concern at the sudden closure notice issued by the management of Sangbad Lahari, a Bengali Daily published from Guwahati and Shillong. This has rendered over 50 direct and 100 indirect media employees jobless. The General Manager of Shilling Times has stated that the management has decided to close down the publication from April 1, 2014, due to reasons beyond its control. Unconvinced with such explanation, Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) has appealed to all the media organisations of north east India to raise voices against the sudden closure notice of the Sangbad Lahari management.

This case, unfortunately, does not stand alone. Four media houses have shut shop in recent times, resulting in around 2000 unemployed media personnel.

Prior to the closure of Sangbad Lahari, in 2013, Assam witnessed closure of several newspapers and satellite news channel. Sakaal Bela, a Bengali daily, and Seven Sisters’ Post, an English daily, was closed down following the collapse of Kolkata-based Saradha Group of Companies, which owned both the media outlets.

Soon Prime News – a satellite news channel based in Guwahati, initially owned by Jiban Surakhya Group and Dainik Pratibimba, an Assamese daily owned by RB Publications – met the same fate.

Employees of three newspapers did not receive any compensation from the management, with the exception of the employees of Prime News, who, after a series of protest, were able to compel their management to pay three months compensatory salary.

Narrating the unstable conditions of numerous media professionals in Assam, President of the Journalist Forum of Assam, Mr. Rupam Barua, in a statement issued 13 March 2014 said, ‘that the reporters and camera persons, engaged with the satellite news channels of Northeast India, have to work in a vulnerable atmosphere with low wages, more than 8 hours working period in a day, without weekly off-day, no leaves in need and with no facility for life & health insurance coverage’.

Whenever the demand for improving financial benefits for employees in privately-owned television channel employees is put forward, owners argue that they are running a loss-making business. Similar statements are also made by newspaper owners from time to time, i.e. that income from the media business is insignificant.

The views of the owners of media outlets in the region have been contradicted by the Assam Media Employees Federation (AAMEF), which alleges that most of the news channels & newspapers managements prepare loss-making balance sheets to hide huge amounts of money. “Except few, it’s a common practice for all the media barons to divert funds from the collected amount of money from the advertisers to other non-media enterprises owned by them. Thus the owners continue siphoning away the essential resource of the media groups for their selfish interest only to showcase the media business as an unprofitable endeavour,” asserted Hiten Mahanta, president of AAMEF.

Welcoming the recent Supreme Court verdict upholding the constitutionality of the Majithia Wage Board for journalists& non-journalists, the AAMEF has advocated for full implementation of the recommendations of the statutory wage board in every print media house in northeast India. On 9 April 2014, the Supreme Court of India upheld the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board for journalists and non-journalists on their pay structure by rejecting a review petition filed by the media house management. The Court directed that the revised salaries be granted to the employees.

Assam has over 25 morning dailies and a number of periodicals published in different languages. Moreover, it hosts seven privately owned satellite news channels with programs in various languages like Assamese, English, Hindi, Bengali and other regional languages to cater the needs of nearly 60 million that live in north east India.

Being a journalist in a conflict area has its risks; nevertheless, the media community of north east India has been working to fulfill its responsibility as watchdog for society. The media platform has, throughout the years, grown stronger and is nowadays defined as the 4th pillar of democracy. The power the media has is attractive to vested interests. This is threatening press freedom. Now both state and non-state actors try to generate and control the flow of (mis)information.

Harassment of media persons in the form of killings, bombings, threat to life and property, assaults, and arrests has become common. Since 1991, in the state of Assam alone, 26 journalists had been killed by militant outfits, the timber mafia, criminal gangs, and ‘unidentified killers’. However, no single person has been brought to book for these crimes. Journalist associations and journalists working in Assam have informed the six-member Sub-Committee of the Press Council of India (PCI) about this. The PCI Sub-Committee on Safety of Working Journalists panel chairman and its other members requested the journalists to give them details of the murders and other information relating to attacks and threats to media persons. The Assam Press Correspondents Union (APCU) submitted a list of journalists killed by miscreants and militant outfits since 1991 and urged the PCI’s intervention to help fast-track investigations in all such cases.

Similarly, from 1993 till date, seven journalists have been shot dead in Manipur. Vicious attacks and bombings have become a part of their working environment. Media personnel live with harassment and threat on a daily basis. This has resulted in suspension of publication, blank editorials, and demands to the government for a safe working environment.  In the case of five of the seven deceased journalists, no action and no arrests has resulted. From September 1997 to August, 2013, 29 FIRs in connection with harassment of journalists by underground groups have been filed in Manipur out of which 24 of the cases remain unresolved. In terms of harassment of journalists in Manipur by State/Central forces, 18 cases have been registered and 11 of these cases remain unresolved.

The figures paint a grim picture of the scenario in the north east, it illustrates the inability of law enforcement agencies to take stringent action against the culprits. Exposing criminals and other sorts of anti-social activity is a big part of the freedom of expression and the right to inform the public.

AHRC is much concerned about the message being sent out to criminals – that they can not only get away with their crimes but also kill journalists who may dare to expose them.

Taking the recent Supreme Court judgment as a standard, the AHRC urges the media houses to honour and implement the Majithia Wage Board recommendations as a matter of priority.

The State governments must take measures to ensure a safe working atmosphere for journalists and make special provisions for social benefits like health and life insurance. Additionally, AHRC urges the respective state governments and the Government of India to strengthen protection for journalists and to act swiftly to investigate and prosecute those responsible for killing and assaulting journalists in the region.

For further information, contact: Anjuman Ara Begum, [email protected]

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.