Op-Ed: Media Owners Have Outsourced Their Problems to Govt

By Sandeep Sahu

Journalists in the state never had it so good. All of a sudden, the government has chosen to shower bounties on this neglected community working under the most difficult conditions. No wonder Naveen Patnaik has earned the lasting gratitude of the fraternity after announcing a slew of welfare measures for journalists, including health insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh, Rs 4 lakh ex-gratia in case of death, Rs. 2 lakh assistance for permanent incapacitation and 3% interest subvention for buying houses, cars and two-wheelers.

But cynics, being cynics, only see a political motive in the exercise rather than a genuine concern for the plight of the journalists. They point to the fact that the move comes at a time when elections are just months away. And it comes on top of a virtual torrent of full page, colour advertisements splashed across most newspapers over the last few months that have sent their cash inflow soaring. Having secured the silence of the owners, the government has now turned its attention to ‘buying’ the support or, at the very least, their silence, the naysayers insinuate.

There certainly is some merit in the criticism. After all, one cannot take a favour (and the benefits announced on Thursday certainly are favours) from the government and still take it to task for its acts of commission and omission. Even when a particular move is criticised, it would be of a mild and superficial nature that the government can take in its stride.

But I have a problem with the sops for an altogether different reason. While the benefits in themselves are unexceptionable, they should have come from the media owners rather than the government. It is, in fact, the bounden duty of the owners to extend the benefits of health insurance to their employees or provide for the education of children of deceased working journalists. In outsourcing their problems to the government, the owners have ensured the perpetuation of the existing system that forces journalists to work without demanding their legitimate dues from their owners. I have a feeling that more than the journalists themselves, it would be the owners who will be indebted to the government for the announcement. And a grateful owners’ class, reeling under the weight of the bounties, can hardly be expected to take up cudgels on behalf of the people against the government, can it?

If the government is really keen to improve the lot of the journalists, it should have, instead of announcing sops for them, forced the owners to discharge their responsibilities as employers. The plight of the average journalist in Odisha is pathetic. They are hired and fired at will, without an appointment letter at the time of joining or a dismissal letter at the time of sacking. Instead of the pay and perks recommended by the wage board, most scribes in the state, especially those working in the vernacular media, get a pittance. Most media houses now prefer to engage journalistic staff on contract, renewable at the mercy of the employer, rather than hire them as regular staff with all the attendant benefits.

The other problem I see is has to do with the definition of the term ‘working journalist’. In the absence of a proper definition, conferment of the status of a working journalist would depend on the whims of officials in the Information and Public Relations (I & PR) department. That is because most media houses have not responded to repeated requests by the department to furnish a list of journalists employed by them. Since most journalists do not have an appointment letter, they would have a tough time establishing their credentials as working journalists.

Then there is the question of the humble sub. Is s/he a working journalist or not? There is no clarity on that. If the benefits announced are cornered only by the reporters, it is bound to further exacerbate the bad blood between them and those who work in the ‘desk’, besides being a grave injustice to the latter.

Blissfully unaware of their real plight, most people see journalists as a privileged, pampered class. They are bound to resent the sops since the expenses incurred on them by the government would be paid for by the taxpayers. There is a possibility of other sections of people coming up with demands for similar benefits.

Last but not the least, at least some of the benefits announced appear to be meant for the ‘creamy layer’ among journalists. After all, how many journalists can aspire to buy/build a house in a state where they find it tough to even provide for the children’s education?

Notwithstanding these misgivings, however, I welcome the measures for journalists. There may be a dispute about who should pay for it. But there is little doubt that they deserve them to do their work without worrying about what they would do in case of a sudden illness or death, more so because unlike others, scribes don’t get pension.

One can only hope that journalists would not allow their sense of gratitude to the government to overwhelm them into compromising on their elementary duty to play the alert watchdog.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)