Paid news in India and underpaid media employees

Whenever India runs an electoral battle, the ‘paid news’ syndrome in radio and television continues to haunt the general populace, as well as the election authority. A number of cases are already registered against various political parties for allegedly bribing some selected media houses of the largest democracy in the world or for facilitating campaign related favourable coverage in expenses of cash (or kind).

The year 2014 was in a real sense the polling time for the populous country, where 814 million Indian voters experienced the electoral battles to form India’s lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha). The world media focused on India as the nation with over a billion population progressed for a new regime in New Delhi.

A robust and vibrant Indian media was glued to the poll battles, which were estimated to be worth $4.9 billion (Rs 300 billion). Understanding the growing influence of newspapers and news channels on millions of electorates, the Election Commission of India took some strict measures that could prevent the unsolicited use of media command by various political parties for their selfish interests.

Even exit polls for 16th Lok Sabha election were banned by the Commission as the polling began on April 7 and continued till May 12. The then Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath, in an interview even asserted that the paid news practice by some media enterprises should be recognised as an offense under the country’s electoral law, the Representation of the People Act.

The Commission was monitoring the candidates’ expenditures for campaigning in the polls as the limit for each candidate was fixed on $112,600 (Rs 7 million). The election related campaigning through advertisements on radio, newspapers, television channels and even on internet outlets that might have cost millions of Indian rupees was also on the radar of the Commission.

In the practice of paid news, the owners of a newspaper/news channel demand money from the political party leaders with some hidden understandings. Hundreds of cases have been registered with the Commission with the allegations that politicians spend a huge amount of money to manipulate the media house managements for their good coverage and if possible spreading negative news regarding their opponents.

The arrangement helps the political parties to prepare a relatively lower electoral budget with the advantages of ‘bought media space’.

“Simply put, paid news is a form of advertising that masquerade as news,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a scholar on Indian mainstream media adding that the corruption in the Indian mass media is a complex phenomenon where “paid news entails illegal payments in cash or kind for content in publications and television channels that appears as if it has been independently-produced by unbiased and objective journalists.”

Speaking to this writer, Guha Thakurta also claimed that black money, which is difficult to track, is usually involved in paid news.

“Today much of the media is dominated by corporate conglomerates that have a single goal of maximizing profits.  The autonomy and the independence of the media are compromised because of the corruption within,” asserted the media commentator based in New Delhi.

Low journalist wages is also a factor in media manipulation by politicians. Free food and ‘expenses envelopes’ are common for reporters covering elections and other events in India, offering incentives for a more favourable angle and compensating for low wages.

Amidst the wave of national polls, India’s apex court on April 9 made a strong ruling that journalist employees should get their pay hike under the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board.

Dismissing the plea of various media house owners seeking review of its earlier judgment in this respect, the Supreme Court of India directed them to implement the recommendations of the new wage board from November 11, 2011.

Mentionable is that the latest report of national wage board for working journalists and other newspaper employees under the guidance of Justice G R Majithia was presented to the Union government in New Delhi on December 31, 2010.

“A fine, fair and judicious balance has been achieved between the expectations and aspirations of the employees and the capacity and willingness of the employers to pay,” said Justice Majithia in an interview.

He further added that the report has made some suggestions for the consideration of the government on issues like post-retirement benefits, a forward looking promotion policy, measures to improve enforcement of the wage board etc.

“Journalists are paid a lump sum without any welfare benefits and they can be dismissed at will. Except for some newspapers the mainstream publications had, ever since the wage board¹s award came out in 2010, conducted only diatribes against the award,” said an editorial of Economic & Political Weekly, a credible publication of India in its March 29, 2014 issue.

Referring to India’s apex court’s decision to uphold the recommendations of Majithia Wage Board for journalists and non-journalists on their pay structure, the AHRC urged media houses to honour and implement the recommendations of the latest wage board as a matter of priority.

It also called upon the State governments to ensure a safe working atmosphere for journalists and make provisions for social benefits like health and life insurance for the media employees.

The editor of The Assam Tribune, P G Baruah was candid when he spoke about the wage board implementation, “We have given the employees their due. It is our duty and also the gesture to them.”

All Assam Media Employees Federation (AAMEF), while addressing the matter of livelihood for media workers in northeast India has meanwhile urged media house managements to show their respect to the Supreme Court by implementing the new wage board at the earliest.

Appreciating the Assam Tribune group for implementing the latest wage board recommendations for the first time in the country, the AAMEF declared, “It is now time for other media groups to show their gestures to their own employees. We have a model media house (The Assam Tribune) that has survived successfully for two years with the new wage board facilities to the employees. Now we will not accept any logic that the Majithia recommendations are not implementable. Ultimately one has to have the minimum commitment to the medium,” said Hiten Mahanta, president of AAMEF.

Speaking to this writer, Mahanta, an Assam based senior journalist, expressed dismay that most media groups in the country have made it a habit to show a loss-making balance sheet every year with an aim to avoid paying proper salaries to the employees.

“But except a few, it’s a common practice for all the media barons to divert the funds from the collected amount of money from the advertisers to other non-media enterprises owned by their families,” he asserted adding, “With this evil practice, media owners continue siphoning away the essential resource of the media groups for  their selfish interest to establish the media business as an unprofitable enterprise.”

एशिया रेडिया टुडे डॉट कॉम में प्रकाशित नवा ठाकुरिया का विश्लेषण. साभार: AisaRadioToday.com

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