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South Asia Media Solidarity Network’s Ten-Year Anniversary

August 17, 2012

SAMSN’s Ten-Year Anniversary Observed with Resolve to Meet New Challenges

The South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) held its annual meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, between August 3 and 5, marking an eventful decade in existence and planning for future campaigns to meet the urgent challenges that journalists in the region face.

An annual conference at which common problems are discussed and agreed strategies worked out for cross-border information exchanges and solidarity actions, has been part of these ten years. And while the agenda has varied over the years, this year was an occasion for taking stock of a number of vital areas of media freedom and journalists’ rights. SAMSN had a crowded agenda for its ten-year anniversary meeting, including issues of rising concern such as:

• Physical security of journalists.
• Wages and working conditions.
• Legal threats and harassment of journalists.
• The economic downturn and impact on job security.
• Media ownership issues: growing corporate ownership and concentration.
• Ethical challenges of the growing public concern over media regulation.
• The opportunities of online organising.

These elements are linked in various ways. Safety aspects for instance are known to be negatively influenced by the relentless push towards commercialisation, which often pressures journalists to deviate from established ethical norms. Journalists in turn are known to be more prone to these pressures because of a loss of collective strength at the work-place and the continuing disregard by media owners, of the need for fair wages and secure terms of employment. Growing corporate ownership and concentration makes the profit the foremost imperative, rendering journalism the most vulnerable function within the media in times of economic downturn. The responses to these multiple and related challenges, involves perhaps as the foremost priority, the restoration of journalists’ collective strength at the workplace.

For justifiable reasons, physical safety has gained attention as a necessity for press freedom in the South Asian region, today among the most hazardous for journalism. Pakistan has in a global sense, been the epicentre of the hazards that journalists face. The murder of Saleem Shehzad in May 2011 caused massive outrage and the persistence of Pakistan’s journalists led to an unprecedented act of accountability by the country’s military intelligence agencies. The outcome of the judicial inquiry that Pakistan’s journalists compelled the authorities to institute, has not been satisfactory. It has however, contributed to valuable public insights into the manner in which the security and intelligence agencies act to suppress the public right to know.

The security challenge in Sri Lanka and Nepal, very acute during their years of civil war, has now abated, though the failure to arrive at a consensus for national reconciliation since has created new hazards, most apparent in the May 2012 sequence of attacks in Nepal, when journalists seemed to be specially targeted for acts of vendetta by protesters demanding a new federal constitution for the republic.

To meet growing challenges of this kind, SAMSN resolved to promote programmes of safety training, covering threat assessment skills, safety protocols and support systems for journalists working in hazardous situations.

Experiences over the year just past have underlined SAMSN’s belief that aside from physical safety, security of employment and the assurance of decent wages and working conditions – the often neglected dimensions of press freedom – are of extreme urgency in the South Asian context.

A number of journalists’ struggles for fair wages and decent working conditions are currently underway in South Asia. Notable triumphs in recent times have included the constitution of a wage board for reviewing journalists’ compensation levels in Bangladesh in June 2012, and the Pakistan Supreme Court ruling that the seventh wage award for journalists and other newspaper employees, determined in 2001, was entirely legitimate and should be implemented.

Despite laws guaranteeing security of employment and decent wages, journalists in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have been struggling for over a decade to obtain basic entitlements. Nepal’s journalists similarly, have had to approach the country’s Supreme Court to demand that the government implement the law, at a minimum, in media houses that it directly controls.

In Sri Lanka, similarly, a statutory wages board has laid down minimum levels of compensation for journalists that barely meets basic subsistence needs. Though media houses invariably pay well above the statutory minimum, they are believed to do this on a selective basis, to reward conformity rather than true journalistic merit.

Sri Lanka has also witnessed certain heavy-handed efforts by the authorities to clamp down on free speech over the internet, particularly in the matter of restraining news reporting on matters of political sensitivity.

Restrictions on online content are, apart from insecurity in wages and working conditions and physical safety, the new threat for journalism in South Asia. In all countries in the region, there are increasing instances of government attempts to enact legislation to curb content, block websites, and make it mandatory for news websites to register with statutory authorities. Where these have failed, physical attacks on online journalists and the offices of news portals have not been uncommon.

Unions and associations that are part of the SAMSN network plan to put together a comprehensive report on internet regulations in their respective countries in the near future, as the first step towards evolving common strategies to fight for internet freedom.

Techniques of using the internet and various social media platforms for mobilising and campaigning were discussed at SAMSN.

All South Asian countries have witnessed severe ethical violations by prominent media platforms in recent times, as in the airing of video footage of the molestation of a young girl by a mob of twenty or more men in Guwahati, principal city of the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, in July 2012. SAMSN has committed itself to advancing the cause of media ethics since that alone would constitute a sound basis for joint action in the defence of journalists’ rights.

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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