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18.02.2009 Asia

Northeast India : Where Media Persons work with No-financial Security

By Nava Thakuria

Media persons in Assam and Northeast India have to perform their deities under tremendous work load but with low return in terms of salary and other legitimate facilities. The trouble torn region has 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- region is becoming increasingly dangerous for the journalists. The ongoing insurgency and unrest among the youth of this region, where over 30 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 region. 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 region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh has lost over 20 dedicated editor-journalists in last two decades. And surprisingly, not a single perpetuator had been punished till date.

The bygone year witnessed two assassinations of reporters in a single month.. The brutal murders of a Manipur based scribe, Konsam Rishikanta on November 17 in Imphal and an Assamese reporter, Jagajit Saikia by miscreants in Kokrajhar on November 22 came as shocking news for the media fraternity of the region. Condemnations were poured from various international organizations like Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters sans Frontiers, International Federation of Journalists with Editors Guild of India and other Northeast based media persons organizations.

The Journalist's Action Committee, Assam, an umbrella organization of scribes sent a memorandum to the Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil asking for justice. The media rights body also organized a massive protest rally on the premises of Guwahati Press Club on November 25. Soon after the meeting, hundreds scribes and other attendants joined in a procession to the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup (Metro) to hand over the memorandum to the President. Following the callous approach of the DC, the agitating journalists even staged a brief demonstration in front his office.

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, signed by its secretary and disbursed on January 9, 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.

The virtual capital of Northeast, 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.

Christian Missionaries initiated journalism in Assam in 1845 with the launch of 'Arunodoi'. Till 1979, the print media in Assam was merely another facet of social work. Two pioneers of Assam, namely RG Barua and Deveswar Sharma, published the dailies Assam Tribune', Dainik Asom' and 'Dainik Janambhumi' till the seventies. The historic Assam agitation in 1980s' changed the social life and living of the Assamese community, which resulted in many new values confronting the people of Assam. Amidst all the turmoil and social chaos, the local media witnessed a rapid boom in Nineties.

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. Amidst all the turmoil and social chaos, the local media flourished. Today, almost all the prominent Assamese dailies 'Asomiya Pratidin', 'Dainik Janambhumi', 'Amar Asom', 'Dainik Agradoot', 'Asomiya Khabar', 'Dainik Batori', 'Dainik Janasadharan', 'Dainik Asom', 'Edinor Sangbad', 'Aji' - have multiple editions to reach more readers in remote areas.

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, most of whom are associated with Guwahati Press Club.

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 Ajit Patowary, a Guwahati-based journalist.

However Prakash Mahanta, the general secretary of Journalist's Action Committee, Assam 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."

A recent meeting at the press club, organized by the representative of National Federation of Newspaper Employees, demanded a basic minimum salary and other economic facilities for the working journalists of Assam. Speakers including Hiten Mahanta, Ranen Kumar Goswami, Mukul Kalita, Naresh Kalita, Pankaj Dutta, Sabita Lahkar (all are Guwahati-based senior journalists) expressed anger at the disappointing condition of the media persons of Assam, where most of them were compelled to work without the relevant facilities, recommended by various 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 DN Singh, an Assam based senior journalist.

"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 Rupam Baruah, the president of Journalists' Forum, Assam. 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."

The author is a Guwahati, India based independent journalist. He may be contacted at [email protected]