Poorly paid, Insecure in North East

IN Media Practice | 09/07/2004
Poorly paid, Insecure in North East



There was no upward mobility both in terms of promotion and pay scales. And special facilities for women journalists in terms of maternity leave etc, are mostly non-existent. 



Extracted from  Status of Women Journalists in India, produced  by the Press Institute of India, under the aegis of the National Commission for Women




Linda Chhakchhuak



Executive summary


Of the 35 questionnaires handed out,  which was about the total number of women working in the print media in the North East -  22 women responded. There were six respondents from the regional press and 16 from the English media.  The age group of the 22 women who responded was between 20 to 40. Only three were above 40.


The major area of concern that emerged out of the survey was job security, low pay and lack of prospects.

  • Only 35 per cent worked as permanent full time employees. The rest worked as permanent part timers or on contract basis.
  • None of the respondents were in senior positions, the highest being a senior reporter and sub editor
  • 72 per cent of them got salaries ranging between Rs.1500-Rs.5000. Of  this 7 per cent received salaries below Rs.1500.
  • 40 per cent said that they had never been promoted, while 31 per cent said that they had been promoted once.
  • There was no mechanism for addressing grievances or making appeals and even where there was such a mechanism it was inadequate.

·        Only 27 per cent were members of some superannuation scheme.


North East, a World Apart


The number of women in the field of journalism in the states of north-east - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura is minuscule. Not more than 35 women scribes work in the region, a majority of them at the desk. This is not surprising as journalism in general is still at a nascent stage in most parts of the region, barring Assam where its premier English daily, The Assam Tribune, is more than a century old.


The survey showed that most of the newspapers of the region are in the tiny scale (1000-10,000) and small sector and organised in an ad hoc manner. The bigger newspaper houses are based mainly in Assam. There are four of them and they do not have anything substantially better to offer to the journalists in general, leave alone women journalists.  Barring one House implementing the Bachawat Award, none of the others are implementing the wage board recommendations. Even among those media houses ‘partially’ implementing the wage board recommendations, the management have a structure which DIVides journalists into two categories: one section of the few who are shown on the official records as permanent staff getting all the recommended benefits of the wage board and the other section of workers who are not shown on the official employees rolls, but are maintained separately as some kind of semi-permanent-temporary workers, not given the wage board recommended salaries, though they may have worked in the same media house for several years.


Metropolitan newspapers (some call them ‘national newspapers’), such as The Telegraph, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Asian Age etc which have their headquarters outside the region either in Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai, have a multiple (based on the place of recruitment) employment policy. The northeast editions of these newspapers recruit journalists locally in the states on a yearly contract with a consolidated take-home pay. In some other cases the journalist works without a contract of any kind as a stringer for a small, consolidated monthly payment, which keeps the journalists on tenterhooks. In many cases there is no system of getting reimbursements for telephone bills, transport used for reporting etc. These newspapers maintain their regional bureau offices at Guwahati where they have built up good infrastructure. However, the outstation reporters and correspondents, functioning from the other states of the region, work on a measly consolidated payment from which they are supposed to meet their living expenses as well as work-related expenses such as use of phone, emailing, transport, stationery etc. This is an important reason for the big struggle for most journalists.


In some cases, if the journalists had a ‘good’ relationship with the ‘manager’ (who is usually a senior journalist) at the bureau headquarters, the payment of the phone bills, transport and other expenses could be negotiated. But these are not available to the journalist worker as a matter of job expenses. There are examples of the management not clearing the bills of their correspondents for covering important happenings, which they had been assigned to cover. One of them had been asked to cover the last Lok Sabha elections in Garo Hills, Meghalaya. The expenses incurred during the field trip including hotel bills, travel, hiring vehicles etc are yet to be reimbursed and the correspondent has given up in disgust. This is not to speak of the amount of money already spent on telephoning the head office for clearing these bills. But all the reports filed from the location were published prominently by the daily.


The wage board recommendations, as far as these newspapers are concerned, are applicable only to workers recruited at the head office of the newspaper wherever that may be, whether Delhi, Kolkata or elsewhere. This has led to a clear differentiation between staffers on the one hand and contract workers and stringers, based in the region.


Moreover, the contracts signed with a local manager of the edition, and these contracts remain confidential so that none of the journalists knows what the other person is being paid.  The ‘secret’ contract system is used to play up one journalist against the other and this was experienced in many of the newspapers houses of the region. During the survey journalists said that this was highly discriminatory, promoting sycophancy, creating an unhealthy working atmosphere and heightening job insecurity.  Journalists interviewed said this chaotic and unfair system of employment is at the root of the lackadaisical journalistic culture.


The survey showed that journalism was a low option as a long-term career. The pay packet is extraordinarily small. It ranges largely between Rs.1500-Rs. 3000 even for those who had worked for more than two years. Another journalist, from the same organisation, who had worked for 15 years as a permanent staffer was receiving a salary ranging between Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000. The survey showed that there was no upward mobility both in terms of promotion and pay scales. As for special facilities for women journalists in terms of maternity leave etc, they are non-existent in most cases.


Journalists are underpaid and most of the time work on undignified terms and conditions. They can be fired at the whim and fancy of the proprietor. In some of the ‘better’’ newspaper houses journalists work on a one year contract basis, "temporary permanent," while in most others they are not even issued proper appointment letters outlining their job, pay scale etc.


Chayamoni Bhuyan illustrates the problem of journalists in general. In her mid-twenties Chayamoni, worked for a Guwahati-based Assamese daily, claimed to be the highest circulated daily. She had been working there for about three years when she was chosen along with nine other journalists of the country to cover the September 11 anniversary functions in the USA under a United States Information Service programme. She found to her dismay when she returned home that she was out of job. She was refused her salary for the month when she was on tour on the ground that she was "absent’ from work. It did not make any difference to the management that she had filed more than a dozen stories from the various locations they had visited all of which were carried prominently in her newspaper. The newspaper management did not even think it necessary to reimburse the amount she had spent getting her stories faxed from the various locations in the US to her newspaper. Moreover, when she stood up for her rights she was given the cold shoulder by the management and had to quit.


There was no mechanism for any kind of redressal or compensation. She did not have any appointment letter but had been working in good faith that all these would be provided sooner or later. She had joined a new daily, launched around that time, where it was clear that a proper salary could not be expected for a long time to come. But despite all the drawbacks in working conditions and lack of recognition, she is not prepared to leave the profession, which she has grown to love and respect.

All the women journalists interviewed were graduates or post-graduates, with several of them holding diplomas or professional degrees in journalism and mass communication.  However, despite holding high degrees and having experience in the media their pay scales were not commensurate with their qualifications.


While most of the journalists said that there was no gender discrimination at the work place, there was a general feeling that the existing general male bias in the larger society was all-pervasive. These are manifested in various ways such as the kind of beats women are traditionally assigned to cover. Some newspaper houses have an unwritten policy not to employ women reporters as they bring ‘lot of trouble’ in the sense that they do not want to do night shifts, need to be dropped home at night, need special rest rooms, and so on.


Most of the women interviewed did not consider their gender a handicap, but definitely felt that the general view that women were handicapped because of their gender hampered their aspirations But of far more concern was the lack of training, exposure and hope for better employment opportunities which continued to be a major drawback for them as well as for their male colleagues. 


Experience during the survey


All the journalists were very happy that such a survey was being undertaken. They hoped that it would help better their professional lives. However, almost all of them found the questionnaire "inadequate" or ‘confusing’ and some of them said that the "questions did not apply to them."  The paucity of funds hampered travel as transport is costly in the north eastern states. Added to this is the time consuming nature of hill travel as all transport is by road. Several times appointments fixed were put off as the interviewees had to rush off to cover a spot story. About fifty questionnaires were distributed but few were returned.


It is also to be noted since the questionnaire did not correspond to their prevailing situation; the interviewer took the liberty of doing the survey through question and answer sessions with the journalists.


Journalism in the North-East Region:


It is important to remember that the growth of journalism in the region has taken off at a somewhat different tangent from the way the news business has grown in other parts of the country or even the world. Because of its peculiar history and experience, the region is one of the high-intensity conflict zones not only within the country but globally. There are more than 300 different tribes and communities inhabiting the region scattered across state and international boundaries. Scores of tribal and ethnic armies fighting for homelands based on the theory of self-determination, preserving their identity etc. against each other and with the Government in a tangled web of discords. All these have made the region a zone of strife where journalism has been spawned in the fires of activism for these various causes. One of the many questions, which were raised during the survey, was how the style of reporting and the intense focus on sensational scoops in such a scenario could be contributing to the strife in the region. 


The journalist reporting in the region has a tough task of maintaining some semblance of journalistic ethics and objectivity amidst this cacophony of conflicting causes and still manage to write the ‘news as it happens.’ Therefore besides the need for general training, special capacity building for conflict reporting is an urgent requirement here.


The total readership has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. So has the number of newspapers hitting the stands. But this has not meant better working conditions for the journalists.


Another aspect of the growth of the newspaper industry in the region is that while there is a market boom, with four metropolitan newspapers often referred to as ‘national newspapers’ setting up north-east or Guwahati Editions, the northeast editions of these newspapers sold in the seven states are 50 to 100 % costlier than the other editions sold in other parts of the country. Paradoxically there is no reflection of this prosperity in the working conditions of the journalists in these newspapers, nor is there wider information flow as is to be expected. In fact, the finding of this survey is that these media houses have looked upon the north-east region purely from the market point of view, casting aside their social responsibility i.e. disseminating information. The information generated from north-east correspondents is published only in these north-east editions, leading to a situation where the northeast is effectively blacked out in their ‘national’ editions. The alienation of the people of the region, and the ignorance of the rest of the nation about the region, has only been compounded by this market-based media policy.


A study could be made on the advertisement policy of these newspapers which garner advertisements for all-India publications from the north-east governments under the garb of being "nationally circulated newspapers," at exorbitant rates. This ‘unfair’ trade practice is slowly strangling the local newspaper houses which are finding it difficult to compete with the slick production and unabashed market strategy of these "north-east editions".


At another tangent reflecting the DIVersity of culture and languages in the region, there is a proliferation of tiny scale newspapers all over the region to serve the reading needs of these DIVerse populations. These newspapers are usually far from economically viable but have a powerful role to play in society.



Contact: pii@ndf.vsnl.net.in


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