Journalists’ unions unite in Assam

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Media Practice | 27/03/2010
Journalists' organizations in the state recently came together to rally for their joint concerns.
TERESA REHMAN does an overview of their demands and woes.

For a change, journalists in this trouble-torn state have woken up to demand for their rights. Recently, 10 different organizations of journalists and newspaper employees of Assam staged a sit-in demonstration and demanded early implementation of the wage board recommendations in all newspaper houses. 

The 53-year-old Assam Tribune Employees’ Union, one of the oldest employee’s union and probably the only active employees union in a media house in Assam took a leading role in the campaign. The Union is also affiliated to the All India Newspaper Employees Federation. Saifuddin Ahmed, president of the Union rues, "It’s a general impression that unions agitate and oppose the owners which in turn lead to the closure of the organization. But how can we survive if our organization closes down?" 

Ahmed explains that their first priority is growth of the organization as they are dependent on it. "We co-operate with the owners with regard to any measures taken to increase circulation, advertisement or procurement of new machinery. But we are also aware of our legal rights and we hold discussions with our proprietors," he says. He however, admits that The Assam Tribune is an ideal media house in the sense that it has so far implemented all the wage board recommendations.  

Evolution of a joint platform by newspaper employees to demand for their rights dates back to 1994 when the All Assam Newspaper Employees Federation was launched. The Federation had staged agitations when employees of newspaper organisations like ‘Natun Dainik’ and ‘Aajir Batori’ did not get their salaries, PF or gratuity. "Many employees were sacked at will and were not even issued appointment letters. We agitated and some of us were even jailed," adds Ahmed.  

Gradually the functioning of the Federation slowed down. This latest attempt is a renewed effort to evolve a joint footing to fight for their rights. The organizations that joined hands this time are the Assam Tribune Employees’ Union, Sangbadik Karma Parishad, Journalists’ Union of Assam, Asom Bartajibi Sangha, Assam Press Correspondents’ Union, Assam Photo Journalists’ Association, Journalists’ Federation of Assam, Journalists’ Forum, Assam, National Federation of Newspaper Employees and All India Newspaper Employees’ Federation.  

These organizations voiced their concern about the apathy of the authorities towards resolving the grievance of the journalists as well as the non-journalists. "Some media houses claim that they follow the wage board recommendations but in reality they don’t. Though most of the employees are aware of their rights, they are scared to raise their voice for the fear of losing their jobs. Also there is a lot of discrepancy with regard to the salaries of one rung of employees and another. These are deliberate tactics to make the employees refrain from being united in fighting for their rights," says Ahmed. 

The organizations also expressed their concern over the plight of the correspondents in the mofussil towns and villages. Most often they don’t get paid though there is a provision for them under the Wage Board that they should get 1/3rd of the salary of a sub-editor with all benefits like PF, gratuity etc.  

Keshab Kalita, president of the Assam Union of Working Journalists rues, "These correspondents get paid even lesser than the ones with job cards under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Most often they don’t get paid. Some media houses give a fixed monthly payment which ranges from Rs 200 to Rs 1000. And they are paid Re 1 to Rs 2 per column/cm. But they do get the press card which is often misused." 

Kalita feels that these circumstances literally force a correspondent to corrupt practices. "They are literally being used as guinea pigs by the media houses. We want to bring the mofussil journalists under the ambit of the wage board," he says. These organizations also feel that the increasing tendency to hire all employees under the contract system have absolved them of all their rights and benefits. 

Photojournalists too suffer the same fate. There are no adequate technical back-up or facilities from the media houses. There is no provision for division of beats for photojournalists unlike in national media houses. Chinmoy Roy, president of Assam Photo Journalists’ Association says, "We are in a bad shape. Most often our proprietors are themselves in a bad financial shape and we cannot expect them to provide us with adequate facilities. Inspite of that we are doing good work. Its more of a passion that is driving us."  

Roy, a senior photojournalist has been working without salary for more five months now. "I joined in the demonstration not for myself but for my fellow photojournalists," he says. 

Economic, social as well as security of life for journalists as well as non-journalists is something (for which) which this joint campaign is planning to strive for. They wanted an assurance from the government to compensate the family of the journalists and non- journalists killed while on duty. Till date more than 20 journalists and non-journalists have been killed in the State and the killers are yet to be identified and booked. The organizations also expressed concern over the soaring prices of all essential commodities including food items which has hit the common people hard.  

Bhabesh Barua, Advisor, Assam Press Correspondents Union wants to carry on this campaign as a sustained movement with these common demands. "The proprietors don’t even care to follow High Court directives forget about wage board recommendations. The ultimate step we can take is ‘Pen Down’ for a day," he says.

 

Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at www.teresarehman.net

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