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



Insecurity of employment and the decline of collective strength within the

work-place have eroded editorial autonomy and made journalism increasingly

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 Wolfgang Mayer.


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.



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