Assam: journalists living on the edge

IN Regional Media | 23/05/2010
Despite a phenomenal growth in the media, journalists here have to put up with poor wages and working conditions, and the hazards of working in an insurgency troubled state.
Journalists~ organisations are now no longer willing to stay silent, says NAVA THAKURIA.
In Assam it is now a widely acknowleged and accepted fact that media persons are burdened by a tremendous work load but receive low returns in terms of salary and other legitimate facilities. The Northeastern state witnessed a media boom in the last decade, but media persons including journalists continue to be victims of exploitation by their respective employers. Moreover, lack of support from managements have made them more vulnerable.

The Assam Union of Working Journalists, affiliated to the Indian Federation of Working Journalists has organized a journalist's convention on May 29 and 30 in Guwahati, where all these issues are expected to be raised. The meet plans to place resolutions and take decisions in the presence of hundreds of journalists and editors from different parts of Assam.

Working in insurgency stricken Assam is becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists. The ongoing insurgency and unrest among the youth of this region --- where a number of armed outfits have been fighting New Delhi for various demands varying from sovereignty to self rule -- has thrown up tremendous challenges for working journalists based in the State. Journalists are subjected to numerous threats from insurgents, from surrendered militants and even from anti-insurgent security personnel.

Statistics show that the trouble-torn State has lost over 20 dedicated editors/journalists in the last two decades. The victims include Kamala Saikia, Deepak Swargiary, Kundarmal Agarwala, Manik Deuri, Parag Kumar Das, Ratneswar Sarma Shastri, Nurul Haque, Jogesh Uzir, Dineswar Brahma, Girija Das, Monikan Das, Ranbir Roy, Prahlad Gowala, Maslimuddin, Bodosa Narzary, Jagajit Saikia and Anil Majumder besides others. And surprisingly enough, not a single perpetuator has been punished to date.

It is ironic that journalists -- who often highlight the exploitation faced by workers in other sectors -- have to work in an exploitative situation themselves. Media persons are denied even economic benefits recommended by statutory wage boards constituted by the government. Relevant labour laws are flouted. As most journalists work without proper appointment letters, they enjoy little job security. Similarly, insurance coverage for media persons continues to be abysmal.

Understanding the need to support media persons the Guwahati Press Club has taken a significant initiative. It has recently appealed to media group owners in the State to provide health and life insurance coverage to their employees. In a formal letter to media houses, the press club has argued that such a benefit would encourage employees including, journalists to work with more commitment and dedication.

"We observed that not more than 10% journalists and media persons in Assam are being entitled for the benefit of health and life insurance coverage," it stated, emphasising "the importance of such insurance benefits to media persons in the present socio-political context of the region". The letter also stated that if for any reason, managements were not ready to take the initiative immediately, they could support a similar attempt being made by the press club in the coming days.

Amid troubles in the region, the media witnessed a rapid boom in the 1990s. Today Guwahati has more than 20 morning dailies, half of them in the Assamese language. Most dailies are published from more than one centre, whereas three Assamese daily newspapers claim to enjoy a circulation of one lakh. Lately, three satellite television news channels have emerged from the city, adding hundred more working journalists to the media corps.

Until 1979, newspapers and magazines in Assam were largely focused on social issues, with the editor and the reporter treating journalism as an instrument of social change. The student agitation of the 1980s changed the face of journalism. Print journalism became more aggressive and focused on investigative reportage. Both print and visual media have created 8,000 direct jobs, and provided indirect employment to 20,000 throughout the state with its population of 26 million. It is estimated there are over 500 working journalists in the city.

Though the print media boom is spectacular, there are some, who are apprehensive about the growth. "We are witnessing the boom since the early nineties, but quality journalism remains elusive in our region. I agree the local media is facing a tough challenge from both national newspapers as well as the electronic media. But still there is room for regional newspapers to play a constructive role in the socio-economic growth in this part of India. Unfortunately the existing dailies have failed to make any mark in this respect," says D N Singh, columnist for the popular portal Assam Times.

Ajit Patowary, a Guwahati-based senior journalist makes a different point. "Journalists here have to work under tremendous pressure from managements. As we do not have different beats in reporting, journalists have to cover all the important issues including political, economical, social, and cultural. So it is quite impossible for a journalist to juggle so many assignments."

Several meetings have reflected the increasing demands for basic minimum salary and other economic facilities for journalists. Anger has been mounting over the disappointing conditions that media persons in Assam work in. Most are compelled to work without the relevant facilities, recommended by various statutory provisions including the Indian Labour Act.

"This is very unfortunate that media persons in Assam have to work with a salary starting at even Rs. 2000 with absolutely no job security. Many times, journalists (including editors) are used by media proprietors for their business (other than media) interests. So in such a chaotic situation, we can hardly expect fair journalism in the State," says Rupam Baruah, the president of Journalists' Forum, Assam.

"You can find more than 70% newspaper employees in Assam, who are deprived of basic minimum facilities such as an appointment letter, leave, provident fund, ESI etc," Hiten Mahanta, a senior journalist based in Guwahati points out. "They are emotionally exploited by the management and subjected to job insecurity. There is no other way out but fighting for our dues as recommended by the statutory wage board", he adds.
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