Scores of journalists and non-journalists, governed by the respective statutory Wage Boards, are up in arms against the alleged ‘malicious campaign’ unleashed through the Indian Newspapers Society (INS) by a few Media Houses opposing the recommendations of the latest Justice G.R.Majithia Wage Board constituted by the Centre.
They are awaiting with bated breath the verdict of the Supreme Court bench that had, on July 18, 2011, informally directed the Centre not to go ahead with the implementation of the recommendations for two weeks while hearing Anand Bazaar Patrika Group’s petition which contended that the recommendations were sought to be implemented without the group getting a copy of the awards.
The scribes wonder how the big guns of INS, representing 1,017 small, medium and large members, have suddenly got united to stall the implementation of Wage Board recommendations.
In just the first 15 days in June 2011, the Times of India published four articles on the subject: On June 2 the paper’s CEO, Ravindra Dhariwal, wrote an edit-page article titled “Muzzling the Media“. Another one appeared on June 4 titled, “Wage Board proposal will force many newspapers to shut down: INS”.
On June 6, the story, “Wage Boards challenged in Supreme Court”, on the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group filing a petition in the Supreme Court, was followed by INS president Kundan R. Vyas’ piece on June 9, “Future of Press at stake?”, followed by some ads in the TOI and Economic Times against the Wage Board recommendations.
Interestingly, Ashish Bagga, the India Today group’s CEO and a prominent functionary on INS, wrote an opinion piece titled “How to kill the print media” in the magazine while the Hindustan Times had a report titled, “Wage Board outdated: experts”.
It must be recalled that The Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955 (45 of 1955), an outcome of the journalists’ struggles in immediate post-independent era, provides for regulation of conditions of service of working journalists and non-journalists newspaper employees.
Sections 9 and 13 C of the Act, inter-alia, provide for constitution of two Wage Boards for fixing or revising rates of wages in respect of working journalists and non-journalists newspaper employees, respectively. The Central Government shall, as and when necessary, constitute Wage Boards.
The struggles had also resulted in the constitution of the Press Council of India following the recommendations of the First Press Commission headed by Justice Rajashyaksha even as the Second Press Commission headed by Justice K.M.Mathew had made various recommendations for improving the status and upholding the Press Freedom.
“How can these big newspapers talk of the threat to press freedom when journalists and non-journalists have been getting the Wage Board awards, while the barons spare no effort at taking the lion’s share of the ad budget of the Centre, starving thousands of small and medium newspapers and periodicals?”, the community points out.
Media houses often conveniently forget that the Wage Board was a tri-partite arrangement and the recommendations were a consensus outcome. The current Wage Board was constituted 13 years after the earlier Wage Board headed by Justice Manisana Singh.
On the other hand, media houses continue to recruit journalists and non-journalists on “contract basis” bypassing the statutory Wage Board structure. Some had been denying their employees the statutory contributory provident fund and other benefits by securing undertaking letters saying the workers had voluntarily agreed to the condition.
Unfortunately, the Centre and the States had, till date, failed to evolve a mechanism to oversee the implementation of earlier Wage Board recommendations, leave alone punishing the delinquent newspapers, for obvious reasons.
The newspapers, which blatantly justify “paid news” syndrome conveniently resort to unilateral “pay cuts” during the so-called recession, muzzling the voice of the employees, as the former do not like erosion of their profits. Being capital rich cross-media holders, they ask the Centre why the electronic media was not brought under the Wage Board purview.
Unfortunately, successive governments, for various reasons, failed to constitute “Media Council of India” replacing the toothless Press Council of India, leave alone the third “Media Commission” covering all media.
This is apart from failing to concede the long pending demand for “constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the media” on the lines of the first amendment of the American Constitution as against the existing ” Right to Information” under the RTI which has also fallen under the “dilution list” of the Centre which had removed the CBI from its ambit recently.
M L Talwar, General Secretary, All India Newspaper Employees’ Federation, averred that the INS campaign through the media houses was nothing but “calumny indulging in a vulgar show of strength and money power with their own set of rules against their employees”.
Hundreds of pages of evidence by employees and employers were placed before the Wage Boards that took three years to come out with the recommendations submitted to the government in December 2010. Now that the Government is about to issue a notification, the media houses have started spreading these “lies to mislead the public and the Government”.
INS is being misused by a few powerful media companies. They had their own representation on the Wage Boards and they should not raise such objections at this stage, Talwar said.
Debunking the INS argument that Wage Boards are a threat to media freedom, Talwar said employers are only trying to secure more freedom to hire and fire. The current moves hints at an attempt by the big media houses to weaken press freedom.
The Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) Secretary General Parmanand Pandey, also a senior Supreme Court advocate, points out that there had not been a single instance in the last 60 years when the newspapers had buckled under the pressure of the government because of the Wage Boards. On the contrary, they have robustly opposed any attempts to regulate them.
Constitution of Wage Boards is a procedure adopted across the world for formulating any policy for the workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been following this method to prepare its own conventions. Newspaper employees and employers make their submissions before the Wage Board. Representatives of proprietors virtually grill the employees and their advocates during the hearings.
At the same time media houses continue to be silent on issues like paid news, Medianet (in which anybody can buy his or her way into the paper), cross-media ownership (which results in monopolies shutting out choice), dubious ownership in which shady characters become media barons and predatory pricing, which strangulates small newspapers.