ecently, when Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray visited various places journalists and camera men escorted him without any special safety. During this pandemic and long lockdown, they are with the government covering and conveying the news unconditionally. Media lived up to its agenda of circulating news and bridging the communication between people and governments. Indian media is an old institution but the upcoming channels have all young scribes and camera persons, most of them are goal oriented and enthusiasts. In the race of breaking news, this clan gets compromised due to survival issues. Amid coronavirus pandemic these journalists across India, many of whom are putting their health and, for some, their lives at risk in order to cover the pandemic from the front lines. When it comes to TV channels, one cannot remain in isolation or self-quarantine. Going to the spot or field for visuals is must for them. The health risks are primary because journalists are experiencing what everybody else is experiencing in terms of social distancing, self-isolating, quarantining. But it’s particularly forceful for journalists because they have to put those risks aside in order to do their jobs. There is pressure on journalists because in the recent past, there is financial slowdown, newsrooms across media houses have been seeing layoffs and reducing. Journalists across print, television and digital media are being given notices. Many say this has been the worst phase of job losses in the business of news, ever since the global slowdown hit the Indian economy between 2012 and 2013. Close to 1,000 journalists across the country have been handed termination notices. The English language media has been the worst hit. Almost all leading channels, newspapers and digital news portals have seen mergers and sackings in the last three months. Most media companies are top heavy and overstaffed. A lot of media houses took audacious decisions in terms of product launches and hired journalists at extremely high packages of anywhere between Rs 25 lakh and Rs 30 lakh and unfortunately it turned out to be an unmaintainable model now. However, alongside layoffs there is also a hiring freeze across media houses and some like one of the leading financial dailies have also announced that the employees would not be awarded any increments for the year. Apart from the layoffs, the industry has also been in a state of gloom because of a number of newspaper editions from leading media houses being forced to shut down, leaving several journalists jobless.
There is fear of loss, many journalists breaking all the boundaries and reaching to get coverages so that they can sustain in the job. But the importance of physical and mental health risks is not going to get better and is not going to go away. That’s the reason we see lots more adjustment in agreements that are putting journalists at risk. And, of course, one has to mention that freelancers are experiencing the biggest health risks because they’re going out and getting the story, and then trying to find some publication to pick it up later for publishing by granting the journalist with perks. It’s not like they have any organization that’s behind them or that’s giving them health insurance, so the health risks remain particularly large for them.
On April 20, around 53 of 167 television journalists in Mumbai who underwent tests for COVID-19 tested positive. Most of them are young reporters and camerapersons, who have been spending several hours every day reporting on the extraordinary impact of the COVID19 on people and the economy. Most media houses have shut their offices and have not provided any protective gear, or special insurance to these frontline personnel. However, they continue to demand reports and visuals and expect the journalists to move around the city risking life and extremity. In these circumstances, the Mumbai Press Club had taken some initiative to provide some logistical support as well as accident insurance, etc but that is not enough. As can be seen the pandemic shows no signs of dying away, and journalists are forced to continue to work to provide news and information to the public. While some of us have the privilege of working from home, many journalists have still to venture out in hazardous zones and common spaces, and require immediate protection. As journalists and news media are declared as ‘essential services’ we request you to take the following immediate steps to safeguard our lives and profession. Government should ensure that all media companies immediately provide proper transport, safety equipment and sanitized space to work. Where it is not possible for the media companies to provide the above, the state government should ensure necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitized space to those venturing in the field. They should be provided with immediate testing facilities who are suspecting symptoms, or who have been in proximity of colleagues who have tested positive. There should be no time lost in this, and the testing location must be a captive facility without crowding and only for journalists. The state government has been providing special insurance cover for all emergency and essential category of workers who are tackling the coronavirus pandemic for the sum of Rs 50 lakh. Since journalists are performing an ‘essential service’, it is requested that the category of working journalists be brought under the same umbrella with a cover of Rs 50 lakh and provided the protection of an essential worker. This is a very crucial time; the journalists are facing a lot of challenges in their personal and professional lives.
The families are helpless because, the scribe is the bread earner and they have no choice than allowing him to risk his life and go out, the coldness and detachment shown by editors and news channel owners towards reporters, who are literally putting their lives in danger, is disheartening. There is nothing brave in going every day on the field without proper protection. Hyperactive news channels, with a constant hunger to better their Television Rating Points (TRPs), have been pushing journalists to report from the ground, even in cases where the reporter is clearly reluctant. In most cases, the reporters are on their own, with little to no support from the organization. In some cases, the television channels have issued advisories, segregated teams and strictly banned the two segregated teams from inter-mingling. But such measures are meaningless. These advisories only ask them to take care. It doesn’t tell how. Also, they are not provided with any personal protection equipment from the organization. Every day they walk on thin rope, to sustain a job, to fulfill the hunger of news channels with content and at the same time feed the families. Being media person, nothing seems to be in his/her favour, one has to really rest upon their own fate.
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