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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

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.

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) published the statement on 08 May 2012

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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