Kashmir's government-dominated news culture

IN Regional Media | 13/04/2012
As long as sub-editors cum government servants continue to rule Kashmir journalism, we will continue to lose promising journalists to the government.
This long era of government journalism in the Valley has to end, says NASEER A GANAI

Try to interact with journalists working with local newspapers in Srinagar, and you will come to know how harsh, conditions are in the newsrooms of Kashmir.

It is so bad that every young, capable and honest journalist wants to run away from these newsrooms. It is not that they don’t have any passion for journalism, or they don’t love the job, or that they don’t want to be journalists. They have passion for journalism. And over the years, by staying in the local newsrooms, they have proved that they can excel if provided better working atmosphere. Many of them who moved to national and international news agencies and newspapers, have proved themselves.

Some frequently write in international publications which indicate that they can be better reporters and excellent writers. But then why this urge to run away from newsrooms of local newspapers?

Recently State Information Department, University of Kashmir and the Central University came up with advertisements seeking applications for posts of Public Relation Officers. Almost all journalists who were working with local media applied for these posts. And a number of them are expected to be selected. These people had worked with the local media for more than five years. Had they applied for accreditation, they would have easily got it.

Don’t accuse them of greed. After completing Masters in Journalism from University of Kashmir and other Universities, once these boys and girls join local newspapers, at first they are being paid nothing. They are recruited as interns, and during internship nothing is being paid. This bounded labour in the name of internship can last for a year or more. After a year newspaper owners feel that they should now post them as 'staffers'. They employ them, but for a paltry sum of Rs 2000 to 3000. This 'salary' however, remains constant for years together.

It is increased to 8000 to 10,000 after many years and countless pleas. You have no health, medical insurances, no PF and no GP fund. Nothing. Anytime an editor or the owner of the publication, can shoot you the termination letter. These days such orders are passed on by one email, saying you are no more a reporter. Thus having no proper recruitment and termination policy, the newspapers in the Valley have rendered journalism a useless profession. They have rendered it so vulnerable that politics at times seems far decent profession.

In most of the newspapers it is the government employee, who work as sub-editor, has more say over decision making than the reporter who breathes journalism 24/7. Government employee as journalists? You might be surprised at what I am saying. In Valley-newspapers, owners have employed government employees as sub-editors.

These government employees draw double salary and have secure jobs at both the places. They never use their bylines, and thus are free from any trouble and tension. This has caused a lot of tension among the regular reporters. And they see the government job, where a teacher or an information officer or clerk in bank draws salary of over Rs 30,000 with all other benefits, as much more secure than working in a newsroom. So reporters here have got a notion that they could work as government servants and at the same time be sub-editors in newspapers. They think being an 'evening-journalist' and a government employee by day increases your sphere of influence.

What is Kashmir losing in all this? It is losing a breed of honest and dedicated journalists, who think it is better to become a secure government employee and a journalist, rather than an insecure reporter who could be sacked anytime. For the past one year many good reporters left reporting and joined the government services in the Valley. Some are working in the banks. Ironically, after joining the government, they come back to newspapers, seeking job of 'sub-editors' in the evening.

This has marred journalism in Kashmir. As long as sub-editors cum government servants continue to rule Kashmir journalism, we will continue to lose promising journalists to the government. You have to end this long era of government journalism in the Valley. And as long as the newspaper owners in the Valley continue to think that they have hired not reporters but bonded labour, journalism in local newspapers for graduates of mass communication department will continue to be a last option.

Young journalists should fight for their rights. They should seek decent wages and raise the issues that confront them. Newsrooms of the Valley play havoc with health of reporters. I have not seen any journalist being given health insurance. If a journalist is not under any health insurance scheme, he is financially and psychologically vulnerable. If someone has to go through eye surgery due to working on computers for prolonged hours, he allows it to deteriorate rather than spending Rs 25000 to Rs 30,000 on surgery.

In the corporate sector here people are given health insurance for entire family and here they don’t give it to their employee. In case of accidents, bullet injuries or beating by police and security agencies, it is family of journalist who bears health expenses rather than the organisation. At times an organisation simply disowns a reporter if due to a health related problem he has stay at home for a month or two.

On an average a journalist working in the local dailies earns about Rs 4000 per month. One can understand what he or she can do in case of other exigencies. Their dependants can never depend on them. If the collective salary of a government journalist (government employee and evening journalist) is nearly Rs 55000 per month, why can’t newspapers owners pay regular reporters decent wages?

The regular reporters should take a call. And say no to this endless exploitation, which drains them physically and emotionally. In a conflict situation reporters have extra-tension and endless responsibilities without having any say in decision making. And if at the end of the month, he is not getting decent salary, then what is all this tension and endless responsibility for? It is due to this reason that most of the reporters feel it is better to be an administrative services officer rather than a reporter. You have to work hard for three months for an administrative service job and then you have no worries once you get selected. Here you have to prove yourself everyday! Here you have to come up with news stories every day and at the end of month you don’t even get a salary. Sometimes you get your salary after two months or three months.

Newspapers can get columnists from anywhere, who can write whatever they wish on opinion pages. Nobody is interested in that trash. But reporters do a different job. They collect news, write features, look for investigative stories and break stories, take on government, talk about corruption, and at times bring down governments. It is reporters who run the paper. And it is reporters that Valley newsrooms are losing to the government. That should worry newspaper owners.

The newspaper owners should come up with job policy that could be lucrative for young reporters. They should bring professionalism in newspapers officers by denying employment to the government employees in the newspaper offices. There is no dearth of talent in the Valley. But you cannot harness the talent by endless exploitation. If a journalist applies for a teaching job in University and gets it, he will realise what he has been doing as reporter in newsroom. As Assistant Professor, he or she will draw a good salary. And we know what teachers do in the Universities. Except teaching and reading they do everything from backbiting to plagiarism.

In the journalism departments of University of Kashmir, Islamic University of Science and Technology, and the newly established Central University you will not find any teacher with a journalism background. Except one teacher in the Mass Communication Department of Kashmir University no one has worked as reporter. They have been either bank clerks, or information officers. Unlike reporters who straightaway join a newsroom after doing Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism, the faculty in these three Universities had adopted a different course. After securing an MA in Mass Communication, they take the National Eligibility Test and then join a government service until the Universities advertise posts for Assistant Professors. Because only NET qualified persons can apply for job and they get it. And then they draw hefty salaries and pass judgment on copies of the reporters who despite meagre salaries and hard work come up with news stories every day. That is why all graduates of Mass Communication and Journalism Departments will tell you that they learn journalism in newsrooms rather than in universities. There they teach something which they themselves don’t know or understand.

There should be a change the way faculty is being recruited in journalism departments. Journalism departments should have no regular faculty. Journalism cannot be taught by those who have never been in the newsrooms. Instead Universities should hire senior journalists on contract basis for a year as faculty members. That would bring some journalism into journalism schools.

The present model is faulty and it will not produce any good result. It only discourages young reporters to remain in newsroom for long. They would prefer to be a teacher in journalism schools rather than reporters. They would prefer to be Government employee and bank clerk rather than being full time journalists.They would prefer to be PRO's in a government department. That is why as long as full-time journalists are not given decent wages and preference over government employee-cum-journalists, journalism will not flourish in the Valley.

The time has come when newspapers owners should do some rethinking about the issue. And the time has come when full time reporters should bring this point forcefully and tell newspaper owners that those days of bonded labour have gone.

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