The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) expresses its deep distress at the spate of job losses, salary cuts, furloughs and closures in the media industry in the midst of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We also denounce the harassment and multiple cases lodged by the State against journalists covering the pandemic and uncovering unpalatable truths about anti-people actions by governments and exposing administrative failures. We are deeply concerned about the lack of safety for journalists in the field and stand in solidarity with those who carry out their duties at immense risk to themselves.
Paying the ultimate price
Even as journalists across India are daily risking their lives to report on the pandemic, two journalists – Roshan Dias of TV 9 in Mumbai and Pankaj Kulshreshta in Agra have succumbed to the virus. The entire staff of the newspaper the latter worked for has tested positive and are under quarantine. At least a hundred journalists have tested positive for Covid-19 in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi.
With news media designated as an essential service, journalists have had to ‘work from home’, do field reporting and travel to their workplaces. Indeed, these ‘messengers’ have been working gruelling hours without a break for the last several months. They have had to struggle to get personal protective equipment (PPE) and the equipment provided to them has in most cases been highly inadequate. In some establishments, journalists have been forced to make their own arrangements for PPE.
Shooting the messenger
NWMI deplores the arrests and filing of cases against journalists across India since the pandemic began. The draconian actions of the State amount to censoring news that does not follow the ‘official’ narrative – in blatant disregard of the right to freedom of expression and the public’s right to know – do not bode well for media freedom.
This clampdown on journalists includes cases of sedition, criminal defamation and alleged violations of the Disaster Management Act, for questioning official data and actions, or reporting on the appalling humanitarian crisis of migrant workers, driven to hunger and destitution and forced to walk home, several losing their lives in the most horrific manner. While the Union government’s plea before the Supreme Court in March, to direct media organisations to first ascertain the official version before publication of news related to the coronavirus was not granted, the drive to control the narrative is clear.
More than 15 FIRs have been filed against journalists, including Rahul Kulkarni in Mumbai, Dhaval Patel in Gujarat, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian in Tamil Nadu and Zubair Ahmad in Andaman, some of them multiple cases against the same journalists, by various arms of the government intent on suppressing information about administrative failures.
The NWMI is shocked that, in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, media organisations have unleashed a fusillade of retrenchments, wage cuts, delays in salary payments, enforced furloughs (leave without pay) and closures of establishments. Journalists have been summarily dismissed very often with little or no communication. More than 350 journalists across the country have lost their jobs since the pandemic began earlier this year.
Managements of mainstream media have reacted in the most egregious manner by justifying the job losses, wage cuts and furloughs. They have even gone so far as to term the government advisory on payment of wages as illegal and ultra vires the Constitution. Sections of the media have forced employees to report for work, even if they have tested positive for Covid-19, in total disregard of safety and legal regulations. Despite exhortations to “stay home” and “work from home” (WFH) some media companies have effectively penalised staff for WFH with 30 per cent pay cuts, even though work and production were not affected. Big media houses who have profited from the hard work and initiative of their employees are now seeking to renege on statutory and contractual obligations under the cover of the crisis due to the pandemic. That they have chosen to turn their backs on these employees in an already anxious and uncertain time is unethical and disgraceful.
Big media houses have sent out emails on salary cuts ranging from 10-30 percent, without prior dialogue with employees, many of whom may have dependent family members or special challenges. Those sent on furlough have no guarantee that there will be jobs after the furlough period and are left to fend for themselves during an already debilitating lockdown. Freelancers, a majority of them women, already face tenuous arrangements for assignments and poor and erratic payment schedules and have been further pushed to the margins.
The NWMI launched a series of initiatives as a quick response to the job crisis in the media industry. These included a helpline for our colleagues where two network members opened their DMs to enable affected journalists to get in touch and a google survey to document job and pay cuts. The team has collated and shared a list of mental health resources that journalists can access, mindful of the extreme stress triggered by such a sudden upheaval in their career.
The NWMI is acutely aware that the pandemic and accompanying global and national lockdowns have plunged the world into a major economic crisis. The media industry is not untouched by this upheaval. NWMI reminds the media industry that media employees are the backbone of the media and disregarding their plight will sound the death-knell for the independent media.
In the grim present scenario, the NWMI demands that:
- Media managements stop illegal job and wage cuts and closures during the pandemic and lockdown.
- PPEs be provided for all media employees and safe working conditions ensured.
- All medical expenses of journalists who fall ill while working during the pandemic and lockdown be met by media organisations.
- The Union government and various state governments drop all charges filed against journalists for reporting the pandemic.
The Network of Women in Media, India