Some journalists who work for the publication house believe certain members of management have ulterior reasons in halting two periodicals.

Employees of Muslim Printing & Publishing Company Limited protestiung against the shutdown of periodicals.
news Media Friday, July 01, 2022 - 14:50

The Muslim Printing & Publishing Company Limited, publisher of the Kerala-based Chandrika daily and periodicals, three weeks ago, announced the closure of two of its publications, Chandrika weekly and Mahila Chandrika, citing financial constraints. The management 'temporarily halted’ the periodicals as part of a plan to 'cut costs’ and urged employees to take advantage of what it refers to as an exit scheme which allows them to draw gratuity amounts for the next few years.

The Malayalam language daily published from Kozhikode, Kerala, is the mouthpiece of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the state. Started as a monthly platform in Tellicherry — now Thalassery — in 1932, it took the shape of a daily newspaper in 1939 and moved its base to Kozhikode in 1946. For several years, the company has reportedly been plagued by financial difficulties, which has often resulted in employees' salaries being delayed. Even now, the employees' salaries have been delayed for at least three months, according to a journalist working with the daily.

The periodicals had stopped print editions in 2020 due to the pandemic and were producing only an online edition, while the newspaper closed its editions in the Gulf countries of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. According to a letter from management, seen by this reporter, the online editions of the periodicals will also be suspended starting July 1. Soon after the announcement, several employees and well-meaning readers started to outrage against the decision on social media, following which the management issued a statement 'denying reports concerning the closing of the periodicals’. It read that Chandrika would strengthen its daily’s online version, but without specifically referencing the timeframe for relaunching the periodicals in digital forms.

Chandrika, like many of its competitors, has long struggled with financial difficulties. Employees have staged strikes outside the office on various occasions due to non-payment of salary, PF and gratuity amounts. Some former Chandrika employees are currently on a strike outside the Kozhikode office, demanding gratuity, which has completed more than 200 days with no end in sight.

The Exit Scheme is available for all staff under Muslim Printing and Publishing Ltd. So far only less than 10 employees have availed the scheme. Among them are two journalists who were on probation for more than 10 years. But journalists working for the publication house do not consider the financial crisis as the reason for the latest decision on ‘halting’ publications.

Rich heritage

CH Mohammed Koya, former Kerala Chief Minister and the prominent leader in the party's history was the editor of the Chandrika. The weekly has been a significant presence in the cultural and literary landscape since its launch with renowned authors such as MT Vasudevan Nair, S K Pottekkatt, and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer writing for the weekly in the early days of their careers. Shihabuddin Poythumkadavu, a well-known Malayalam writer, was the editor of the weekly during its revamp in 2014. So, what happened to bring us to this point? A journalist associated with the weekly, says that the current situation at Chandrika, which has resulted in the halting of periodicals, is more than just a financial crisis.

"Primarily, some members of the board of directors made the decision to close the magazine on their own, and we, the staff, were not consulted or notified beforehand. We found out about the decision via a notice placed on the bulletin board in the office," he said on condition of anonymity. The sudden and unexpected closure of the magazines, according to the journalist, will have an impact on the contributors with whom we have already made commitments and who have been contributing on a regular basis. “The management has not provided any clarification on how to deal with the problem and remuneration for the writers,” the journalist said.

There are only six employees who are losing jobs by shutting down both publications. The weekly has two sub-editors, one graphic designer, and one proofreader while Mahila Chandrika has one sub-editor and one graphic designer. Both magazines hire one person from the daily for DTP work. The senior-most journalist draws a salary of a little above Rs 30,000. They had been serialising four novels as a series and had collected at least 60 short stories to be published in the following weeks. “This is in addition to the commissioned copies and other elements like poems. If they shut magazines down all of a sudden, it's unclear what will happen next,” he said.

According to the journalist, the team approached the board members, including Managing Director Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, who is also the state President of the party, to discuss the sudden announcement, to which he responded that he had not been briefed about the plan to shut it down. Three other senior party leaders, part of the board, also said that they were not intimated about the move. "What led the management to make such a hasty decision remains a mystery. I believe certain members of management may have ulterior reasons in terminating the magazines,” he stated.

Chandrika had previously come under investigation by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on allegations that former Public Works Minister VK Ebrahim Kunju transferred Rs 10 crore from ill-gotten money to the daily’s account. ED has questioned PMA Sameer, Chandrika’s finance director following allegations.

The current crisis in Chandrika

"As a prominent political party with enormous influence in Kerala, especially in the Malabar region, Chandrika's current financial problem is not insurmountable and it is not a genuine reason to close the magazine which has a circulation basis that goes beyond the political affiliation," another journalist working for the daily who did not want to be named, said.

“Chandrika's financial problems are not that worrisome given the party’s deep influence in the region. It often raises huge sums of money for charities such as Baith al Rahma, a housing initiative founded by the Muslim League and CH Center, a body that oversees the distribution of medicine and ambulance services to the underprivileged.” The party has been spending millions of rupees on the implementation of such schemes.

"The current problem is more than a financial one and the root of it is some vested interests who are unaware of the mouthpiece's rich history and heritage, as well as its role in reforming the society," he said adding: “They want to use the daily as a cover to avoid scrutiny of financial irregularities. For example, the party had previously collected funds from members to address financial concerns and had even sold land owned by the newspaper. Despite this, the crisis has stretched on and no one knows where the money has gone," said the journalist.

A journalist source said the team had put forward suggestions and action to make the weekly profitable multiple times, including publishing special publications during occasions like Onam, Eid, and Independence Day, to which, he says, the management paid no attention. “The management has to spend very little money on publishing online editions. The real reason is that certain members of the administration don't want the weekly, which is one of the few remaining publications critical of the fascist regime in power, to survive," he explained.

There is also an allegation that some board members want to sell the land at YMCA Road in Kozhikode where the office is located, and construct a shopping centre or a commercial building there.

Elsewhere, PMA Sameer stated that the allegations levelled by the employees are unfounded. "We haven't said anywhere that Chandrika is closing; it's a temporary arrangement and the publications will be relaunched in a digital format immediately," he said.

"Once we relaunch the magazines, the novels, short stories, and other pieces that the periodicals have been publishing in parts or that have already been collected from writers will be published," Sameer continued.

Sameer refuted the charges that all board members were not briefed. "It is impossible for one individual to make such a decision for a public limited company; we have followed all of the necessary procedures. It was discussed with all of the stakeholders. This is only a temporary arrangement as part of Chandrika's modernisation and search for a sustainable running solution," he said.

He emphasised that the magazine will be released in a digital format immediately. Since 2020 both the magazines are regularly uploaded on Magzter. Their PDF copies are circulated among WhatsApp groups with at least 4,000 members.

Prominent writers and leaders as well as the well-wishers of the weekly have urged the party leadership to reconsider the decision to wind up the publication. Among them is KT Jaleel, a former Kerala minister in the first Pinarayi Vijayan-led government, who took to Facebook to express his displeasure with the magazine stopping publication, despite the ideological differences. He wrote: “Rather than wasting their time targeting me, League's cyber warriors must do everything in their power to relaunch three (including Gulf edition) of their party's publications.”

Writers M Mukundan and KP Ramanunni also have expressed similar views.

We reached out to Chandrika Editor in Charge Kamal Varadoor for a comment on the story but received no response.

(Asheem PK is a freelance journalist)

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