The Working Journalists Act of 1955 does not apply to TV journalists.

Under Indian law TV journalists are not really journalists and thats a problemRepresentational Image, by Roberto Ferrari via Wikimedia Commons
Flix Tuesday, September 08, 2015 - 17:26

On December 9, 2013, the dreams of a group of journalists working out of a makeshift office on Barakhamba Road in New Delhi came crashing down. The announcement, that SRM group-owned New Generation Media’s English news project will be wrapped up even before it barely began, was in the works for some time. But to finally hear that the project was scrapped was massive let-down for the journalists.

The bigger disappointment was that they were jobless. A half-month severance package was initially offered to everybody to walk away and find new jobs. That was clearly not enough, especially for those who left behind vibrant careers in established news channels for a start-up. “This is about our right. We must fight for it and get them to pay more,” said one of the senior journalists during an informal staff meeting.

So lawyers were approached to file a petition at the Madras High Court, and that's when the journalists hit head-on with a crucial hurdle – they were not ‘journalists’ as per law. They had no protection nder that law and had to seek shelter under the labour laws.

The problem is with the definition of a ‘working journalist’ in the Act, which defines it as “a person whose principal avocation is that of a journalist and who is employed as such, either whole-time or part-time, in, or in relation to, one or more newspaper establishments, and includes an editor, a leader-writer, news editor, sub-editor, feature-writer, copy-tester, reporter, correspondent, cartoonist, news photographer and proof-reader”. (emphasis added)

“The law has not kept pace with the times. Since the word ‘newspaper’ has been used, broadcast journalists are not under the ambit of the Act which seeks to protect the interests of journalists,” says lawyer R Vaigai.

SRM’s case was not the first such case in the Indian broadcasting sector, and it would certainly not be the last one. Several news channels, especially vernaculars, have come and gone, and journalists have suffered without jobs.

LiveLaw reports that a writ petition has recently been filed at the Delhi High Court by a journalist working with a North-east based news channel asking that the Union Government amend and widen the scope of the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Condition of service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1955 to include journalists working with in the electronic media too. The petitioner has reportedly pleaded that the act otherwise be declared unconstitutional as it violated the rights of electronic journalists.

The lacuna exists in the law because it went unchallenged by the TV journalists for a long time, since the initial years of TV journalism were the ‘boom period’, when jobs were secure and salaries were high. Until recently, the market was rapidly expanding presenting newer opportunities for journalists even if they were summarily fired for no fault of their own.

But now, things are changing. “There is immense flux in the media industry. The digital age is here and media companies are rapidly changing the nature of their work. At such a time, journalists who have put in years if not decades into their career need safety nets as envisaged in the Act,” says Kunal Shankar, a journalist with Frontline magazine, who was also a part of New Generation Media’s initial team. Shankar adds that newspapers too are trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities under the act by hiring journalists on contracts, and that all journalists across media need protection.

The extension of the legal protection for electronic journalists is even more important in lieu of the fact that burn-out rate in television journalism is high. News is delivered at break-neck speed and the job is physically and mentally demanding.

But that the Act needs to be extended to electronic journalists does not mean however that the Act itself does not need reform, says Shankar, “The laws are indeed archaic, but the intentions behind them are not. We need legislation which is more up-to-date with the roles of journalists in the present landscape, but the safety net is still required for all journalists.”

The writer was a part of the group of journalists who joined SRM’s English news project which never took off.