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
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
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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