In Defence of Press Freedom in South Asia: Journalists Organise for a New Deal

 

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and partners in the

seven-country South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), affirm their mutual

solidarity as the campaign for decent wages and working conditions for

journalists in the region gathers momentum.

 

World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was marked by journalists’ unions and

associations in the region with diverse observances. SAMSN would like to

underline while the mood lasts, that all the sentiments expressed and

resolutions adopted on the occasion will have little substantive impact, as

long as journalists continue to be denied their rights.

 

Physical safety has justifiably gained attention as a necessity for

press freedom in a region which has proven among the most hazardous for

journalism. SAMSN reaffirms at this juncture, that security of employment and

the assurance of decent wages and working conditions – the all too often

neglected dimensions of press freedom – are also of extreme urgency in the

South Asian context.

 

A number of journalists’ struggles for fair wages and decent working

conditions are currently underway in the region. Most recently, Bangladesh’s

journalists forged a common platform, the Sangbadik Shramik Karmachari Oikya

Parishad (SSKOP, or United Committee of Working Journalists and Newspaper

Employees) and organised in early March to demand the formal notification of a

new wage fixation body by March 10.

 

This followed the failure of Bangladesh’s Ministry for Information to

formally constitute the Eighth Wage Board for the newspaper industry through

gazette by the end of February, despite an assurance given by Information

Minister Abul Kalam Azad to the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ)

on January 22.

 

Within days of Bangladesh’s journalists resolving to press their demand

for a new wage deal, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB)

mobilised in opposition. "Forming a new wage board three and a half years

after the seventh wage board award will put the newspaper industry into a big

crisis," NOAB said in a statement issued on March 19.

 

The SSKOP responded within a day with the suggestion that the newspaper

owners, rather than resist the formation of a body mandated by law, should

adopt a strategy of cooperation in a spirit of transparency and openness.

 

Seven wage boards have been formed so far under a law adopted by Bangladesh’s Parliament

in 1974. The newspaper industry has resisted each of these and only complied

with the statutory wage awards decreed after losing legal battles that have reached

the country’s highest courts. The record of compliance remains patchy and

uneven, with several of the new media outlets that began operations in recent

boom years choosing to ignore the imperative of decent wages.

 

The Eighth Wage Board was announced by the Government of Bangladesh

after representations from the country’s journalists about increasing costs of

living and growing job insecurity. A chair has been nominated for the board and

the various stakeholders from the side of news industry employees, including

both sides of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), have named

their representatives for the board.

 

Yet the formal notification remains to be issued and the news industry

owners continue to resist.

 

SAMSN calls on the Government of Bangladesh to do what is fair by the

country’s media professionals and act as a force for positive change.

 

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), a SAMSN partner and

IFJ affiliate, recently won a

significant victory when the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the body

charged with implementation of statutory wage scales, to submit a report on the

level of compliance in the news industry within a month.

 

The decision was handed down by a three-member bench of the court,

headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, on March 22. At the urging of the

PFUJ, the bench summoned the chairperson of the Implementation Tribunal for

Newspaper Employees (ITNE), Nasir Hussain Haidri, to explain the situation. The

report that the Supreme Court has asked for, remains to be filed.

 

On May 31 last year, the Sindh High Court in Karachi, dismissed identical petitions filed by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) – the

apex body representing the industry – and the Herald Media group, which sought

to quash the Seventh Wage Award for journalists and newspaper workers,

announced in 2000.

 

In welcoming this decision, SAMSN and the IFJ had called on the newspaper

industry to accept the judicial ruling in good faith and implement the

long-delayed wage award. The South Asian collectivity also endorsed the PFUJ

demand that the Eighth Wage Board be constituted without further delay.

 

The matter though, has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan,

which has declined to issue any form of temporary restraint against the

implementation of the Seventh Wage Award. While hearings proceed, the ITNE

would be authorised to ensure that the fair wage mandate is implemented,

without prejudice to the final judicial outcome.

 

Nepal’s journalists gained significant recognition with the major amendments

to the Working Journalists’ Act (WJA) that were enacted in 2007. The law as amended has important provisions on

security of employment and periodic wage revisions for media workers. A basic

minimum wage can be specified under the act, subject to periodic revision. The

law also makes it mandatory that working journalists be issued letters of

appointment by all media establishments, assuring them of security of tenure.

Short-term contractual employment would be permitted when circumstances

warrant, but would not under any circumstances, exceed 15 percent of the total

number of working journalists in the news organisation.

 

A committee formed

under the WJA pointed out in a report submitted November 24, 2010, that 37

percent of the country’s journalists are paid below the prescribed minimum

wage, while 45 percent are working without letters of appointment. Among the

media houses surveyed, 48 percent had failed to introduce basic measures such

as retirement and welfare funds, medical cover and insurance.

 

Among the media

groups reported by the FNJ to be in default on basic obligations under the WJA

is the government-owned Gorkhapatra. Though statutory wage levels are formally

notified within this group, which publishes the Nepali language Gorkhapatra and the English-language Rising Nepal, a large number of working

journalists – well beyond the 15 percent limit sanctioned under the WJA – are

believed to be employed on contract.

 

SAMSN partner and

IFJ-affiliate, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of Nepal on January 26, seeking a

direction to government to fully implement the provisions of the WJA in

state-owned media organisations.

 

The FNJ petition highlighted

that state-owned media enterprises in Nepal have been conspicuous defaulters on

their obligations under the law. The media organisations named in the FNJ

petition are the broadcasters Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, the

newspaper publisher Gorkhapatra Corporation, the news agency Rastriya Samachar

Samiti, and the Office of the Press Registrar.

 

No fewer than 45

percent of the journalists working in government owned media houses and 37

percent of the entire community of journalists in Nepal still do not enjoy the

minimum salary fixed by a duly empowered committee. Only 14 percent of Nepali

journalists have been receiving regular salaries.

 

In India, where the

process of wage fixation through statutory bodies began as far back as 1958,

the status of the most recent wage award remains ambiguous. On October 25 last

year, India’s

Union Cabinet formally approved the recommendations of the G.R. Majithia Wage Boards for Journalists and

Non-Journalists, which laid the ground for an all-round increase in wages for

newspaper workers.

 

India’s newspaper

industry, both individually and collectively through the Indian Newspaper

Society (INS) filed a petition before the Supreme Court of India, claiming an infringement of their

fundamental rights in the statutory wage fixation process. It emerged at the

first hearing of the petition in May 2011, that the administrative ministry of

the Union Government dealing with the matter, had not provided copies of the

report, submitted in December 2010, to the INS.

 

In July 2011, the

Supreme Court declined to order a stay on the implementation of the wage award,

preparing the ground for its formal acceptance by the Union Cabinet.

 

The record of

implementation though, remains indifferent so far, with only two newspaper

groups – Assam Tribune in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and Madhyamam

in the southern state of Kerala – having done so. The Assam Tribune group has

had a tradition of maintaining an open and cooperative relationship between

management and unions. The state government in Assam has also been proactive in

ensuring that newspaper managements remain accountable in terms of their

statutory obligations.

 

In September 2010,

the Assam state government constituted two “joint inspection teams” to survey

the newspaper industry in the state and assess the level of compliance with the

wage board stipulations. Each team comprised representatives of the larger

newspapers, those belonging to the small and medium category, the government,

as also the main journalists’ unions in the state – the Journalists’ Union of

Assam, the Assam Union of Working Journalists, the Assam Tribune Employees’

Union, among others. All newspapers were given a date when they would be

visited by the inspection teams and told to keep relevant records ready.

 

Following a

comprehensive process of inspection and assessment, the two teams concluded early

in 2011, that barring two – the Assam Tribune and Prantik – no other newspaper

had implemented the wage scales proposed by the R.K. Manisana Singh wage board

as far back as 2002. They recommended that the state government initiate

measures, if necessary by withdrawing advertisements and other forms of

implicit support, to induce a more cooperative attitude on the part of the

newspaper industry.

 

Other sanctions were

recommended against the newspaper groups that had failed to provide the needed

information to the inspection teams.

 

Alarmingly, news

agencies such as the Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News of India (UNI),

have departed this time from their tradition of being among the first to

implement wage awards. On April 20, 2012, employees nation-wide at PTI went on

a day’s strike to protest this unexplained delay.

 

The Maharashtra Media

Employees' Union (a composite union, i.e., one that includes both journalists

and other employees of the Mid-Day group of publications) has filed suit in an

industrial court in Thane, near Mumbai, asking for immediate implementation of

the new wage award. And the Indian National Press Group Employees' Union

(representing the Free Press Journal and Navshakti publications) has filed

another in the Mumbai Industrial Court.

 

The National

Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees, meanwhile, continues to

argue its case before the Supreme Court.

 

As a positive

incentive for honouring the wage award, the state government in Goa announced a

matching grant to newspaper groups that implement the wage board award. This

incentive was worked out after negotiations with the Goa Union of Journalists

and is supposed to help media groups overcome the initial dent in its financial

balances till the revenue streams adjust to the rise in employee costs.

 

The record of

implementation of the Majithia wage award – especially the example set by the

Assam Tribune and Madhyamam – which are both on the lower side of the medium

newspaper category --  shows that it is

not revenue that is the constraint here. Rather, the insistence of the bigger

newspapers that they will not implement the award is more about their

determination to keep independent journalism on a tight leash.

 

SAMSN and the IFJ

believe that these struggles of South Asia’s journalists for decent wages and

working conditions have a wider resonance, most notably in Sri Lanka. In other

countries of the region – Afghanistan,

Bhutan and the Maldives –

media industries remain weakly institutionalised, though the enforcement of core

wage and labour standards should be an integral component of any effort to

legislative an enabling and regulatory environment for media development.

 

SAMSN believes that

the campaigns and struggles underway in South Asia

have much to learn from each other. In the years ahead, SAMSN intends to

function as a platform coordinating strategies and sharing experiences between

its member countries.

 

For

further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on

+612 9333 0950

 

The IFJ

represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

 

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