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India’s journalists resolve to campaign for a new deal

August 16, 2012

India’s journalists discuss key professional challenges, resolve to campaign for a new deal

India’s main journalism unions held a day-long consultation on August 8, on key professional challenges. The action plan that emerged seeks to bring the struggle for a new deal for journalists to the very foreground of a public campaign for restoring quality and credibility in India’s news media.

First among the three principal challenges discussed on August 8 were the threats to the integrity of news gathering and dissemination, as represented currently in the practice of “paid news” or “cash for coverage”. Despite action by the Election Commission of India to check the abuse which has been closely studied in the context of the media coverage of election campaigns, news that is directly paid for is believed to be spreading at an alarming pace, under various guises.

The meeting identified the declining quality of employment in journalism, best represented by the continuing disregard by India’s main news organisations of the provisions of the Working Journalists’ Act (WJA), as one of the reasons for the growing trust deficit in the media. Employment is now predominantly on the basis of short-term contracts, and the statutory recommendations of “wage boards” periodically constituted to determine levels of compensation in the news industry, are for the most part, flouted by even the most profitable news organisations.

Insecurity of employment and the decline of collective strength within the work-place have eroded editorial autonomy and made journalism increasing susceptible to the pressures of advertising and commercial departments.

Employment contracts, it was reported at the meeting, frequently stipulate that journalists need the prior consent of management before joining any union or professional association. This manner of restriction, it was argued, is in violation of international covenants on core labour standards that India is party to, and also contrary to the basic right of freedom of association granted under the Indian Constitution.

Print, electronic and online media have grown rapidly over the last decade in India in a regulatory vacuum. In recent years, civil society groups, political parties and legally empowered bodies such as the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), have been joining the debate on regulation, responding to widespread public concerns over media content.

Participants at the August 8 meeting identified a number of recent instances where existing laws had been misapplied to harass and victimise journalists who had brought to light important information that served the public interest, while causing some embarrassment and awkwardness to powerful organised groups. The first priority of ongoing debates on regulation, it was pointed out, should be to ensure that the laws are applied consistently and in accordance with the best precedents both in India and abroad, to safeguard the right of journalists to report freely and fairly.

The meeting reaffirmed the longstanding union demand that a fresh review be conducted of the regulatory framework of India’s media, and that the PCI be reconstituted on a fresh basis, so that it is equal to the complexities of the new media environment.

Another priority for journalists’ unions was to intervene forcefully in ongoing litigation over the legitimacy of the WJA and the validity of the most recent wage award for journalists and other newspaper employees. A Kolkata-based newspaper group has filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India, challenging the constitutional validity of the WJA. The body representing the entire newspaper industry, the Indian Newspaper Society, has also filed a very similar petition, in which various influential media groups have joined.

These petitions, legal experts invited to the Delhi meeting argued, did not advance any fresh grounds for holding the WJA invalid. Rather, all the pleas advanced by the newspaper industry have been dealt with by Supreme Court judgments in 1958 and 1988, holding the WJA to be entirely consistent with constitutional provisions on the fundamental rights.

Wolfgang Mayer, honorary treasurer and member of the administrative committee of the IFJ and Jacqueline Park, director of the IFJ Asia-Pacific, welcomed the mood of unity that India’s journalists’ unions displayed in affirming their intent to struggle and campaign for a new deal.

“We extend our support and solidarity to India’s journalists who are seeking to retrieve some of the great traditions of their profession from the erosion suffered as a consequence of the growing dominance of commercial and advertising interests”, said the IFJ Asia-Pacific.

The Delhi Union of Journalists, a constituent unit of the IFJ-affiliated Indian Journalists’ Union (IJU), hosted the meeting. The top leadership of the IJU and other IFJ affiliates, the National Union of Journalists (India) and the All-India Newspaper Employees Federation, participated and spoke. Journalists’ unions from the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, which have faced the additional challenges posed by widespread conditions of armed insurgency, were also represented.

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

Find the IFJ on Twitter: @ifjasiapacific

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