Northeast India: Media persons in trouble

Now it is widely discussed and accepted that the media persons in Assam have to perform their duties under tremendous work load but with low return in terms of salary and other legitimate facilities. The Northeast Indian State witnessed a media boom in the last decade, but the media persons including the journalists continued to be the victim of exploitation by their respective employers. Many times, the low patronage from the management put the journalists in most vulnerable situation.

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

The statistics reveal that the trouble torn State has lost over 20 dedicated editor-journalists in last two decades. The victims include Kamala Saikia, Deepak Swargiary, Kundarmal Agarwala, Manik Deuri, Prarag Kumar Das, Ratneswar Sarma Shastri, Nurul Haque, Jogesh Uzir, Dineswar Brahma, Girija Das, Monikan Das, Ranbir Roy, Prahlad Gowala, Maslimuddin, Bodosa Narzary, Jagajit Saikia, Anil Majumder, etc. And surprisingly enough, not a single perpetuator had been punished till date.

There is no denying fact that the journalists, who remained vocal against the exploitation faced by the workers in other sectors, have to work in most unsafe ambience. They are denied their due economic benefits recommended by the statutory wage boards constituted by the government and even the relevant labour laws. As most of them work without proper appointment letters, they enjoy little job security. Similarly the insurance coverage for the media persons continued to be awful.

Understanding the importance of such support for the media persons, the pioneer pressmen’s organization of the region, Guwahati Press Club has taken a significant initiative. The forum for the working journalists in the prehistoric city has recently appealed the media group owners of the State to provide health and life insurance coverage to their employees. In a formal letter to the media houses, the press club argued that such a benefit would encourage the employees including the 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," said in the formal letter to the media groups, adding that they were ‘fully aware of the importance of such insurance benefits to media persons in the present socio-political context’ of the region.

The letter also informed that if for any reason, the managements were not ready to take the initiative immediately, they might join supporting such an attempt to be taken by the press club in the coming days.

Amid troubles in the region, the media however witnessed a rapid boom in Nineties. Today Guwahati witnesses the publication of more than 20 morning dailies, half of those are in the Assamese language. Most of the dailies are published from more than one centre, whereas three Assamese daily newspapers claim to enjoy around 1,00,000 circulation. Lately, three satellite Television news channels have emerged from the city, adding hundred more working journalists to the team of the sentinels.

Until 1979, newspapers and magazines in Assam were largely focused on social themes, 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 the print and visual media have created 8,000 direct jobs, and provided indirect employment to 20,000 throughout the state with a population of 26 million. One can guess there are over 500 working journalists in the city.

Though the print media boom is spectacular, there are people, who are apprehensive about the outcome. "We are witnessing the boom since 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 socio-economic growth in this part of India. Unfortunately the existing dailies have failed to make any mark in this respect," says DN Singh, a columnist of the popular portal Assam Times.

However, Ajit Patowary, a Guwahati based senior journalist makes a different point, "Journalists here have to work under tremendous pressure from the 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."

Various meetings of media persons in the State are raising voices for the basic minimum salary and other economic facilities to the journalists. Anger has been poured at the disappointing condition of the media persons of Assam, where most of them are being 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 with even Rs. 2000 with absolutely no job security. Many times, the journalists (including the editors) are used by the proprietors of media groups for their business (other than media) interest. So in such a chaotic situation, we can hardly expect a fair journalism in the State," commented 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 appointment letter, leave, provident fund, ESI etc," says Hiten Mahanta, a senior journalist based in Guwahati. He also added, "They are emotionally exploited by the management and subjected to no job security. There is no other way than fighting for our dues as recommended by the statutory wage board."