Forty four year old Mumtaz Aleem, a Kannada journalist with over 20 years in the field, gave up a comfortable job with a private TV channel in Bengaluru as Senior Reporter to be appointed as a Special Correspondent with a newly launched Kannada news channel ‘Samaya’ in 2010. He made the shift with dreams of a career growth. A few months into the new job, his dreams fell apart. A little more than a year later, Aleem and over 200 other employees came in for a shock as their salaries, which were initially delayed by weeks, stopped coming for months on the go.
“I have family responsibilities; have to take care of expenses of my parents back home and myself. I could not afford to work without a steady salary. But the management of the channel offered no assurance or explanation with regard to our salaries, especially after the 2013 elections in the state,” said Aleem Mumtaz. Aleem added “I have been able to fight for survival, but there are many who pledged their belongings, gold etc to run their houses.” The channel which was initially launched by a powerful politician Satish Jarkiholi had witnessed a change in its management control. The promoters of the channel at that time included BJP’s Industries minister Murugesh Nirani’s friends and relatives. Despite being in power in the state, the employees — nearly 162 of them — were shown the door for asking their overdue salaries.
By September 2012 the salaries had stopped and consequently the employees filed complaints with the police and labour commissioner in Bengaluru. With mounting arrears in salary, many a young journalists and technicians who demanded their dues were forced to opt out of their jobs in the ‘trimming exercise’. But a bigger shock awaited them, as apart from the arrears of salaries, the provident funds debited had not been credited to their PF accounts. Nor had the management deposited the income tax amounts deducted earlier from their pay-slips. They had been robbed of their precious hard-earned savings.
Interestingly, just before the General Elections of 2014, the new management — which is part of a big real estate company, in fact one of the biggest realtors in Bengaluru — went on a massive recruitment drive, once again offering lucrative salaries. But this time again, the same story unfolded. Just after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the salaries stopped. Even now, salary of several months is due to over a hundred employees who are running the channel. An employee, on condition of anonymity told Tehelka, “I have put in so many months of effort, without the salary, how can I quit and go? Once I leave, the management will not pay anything.” The fear of losing hard-earned money is what’s keeping several journalists still working.
Samaya is not the only Kannada channel which has seen such a crisis, or rather forced a crisis upon hundreds of Kannada journalists in the last few years. ‘Janashri’ a channel promoted by associates of mining baron and former BJP minister Janardhan Reddy kicked off in grand style, but with the Lokyukta report and the law catching up with him, dried up the revenue streams of the channel putting nearly 300 employees into a crisis. The story of first delayed in salaries, and then salaries not being credited to their bank accounts was repeated yet again after the 2013 state elections which saw the BJP going out of power. Mass termination of services of those who demanded their salaries created a situation where hundreds of journalists found themselves on the streets. Sunil Sirasangi , a sports reporter gave up after salaries were not paid for four months:
“I have a family to support; children to bring up. I could not hold on any longer. I think this was the end of my television career. I will prefer to work as a print journalist with a newspaper or a magazine”. None had imagined that the situation in ‘Janashri’ channel, despite being backed by mining barons, would reach such a stage. Many journalists echoed the sentiment of Sunil Sirasangi. 56 others moved the authorities including the labour commissioner seeking justice in the matter; however the proceedings there are moving at snail’s pace. “There was intervention to some extent, but even after directives of the authorities, some employees were given part payments but their cheques bounced,” said Vasant Kumar who was an anchor with ‘Janashri’ channel.
Tehelka is in possession of copies of the complaints filed by some of the employees of Janasri and Samaya TV channels with the labour commissioner, Cubbon Park police station and with other authorities
Tehelka spoke to Ranganath Bharadwaj, Editor in Chief of Samaya News who explained, “Kannada television news is a small market and is crowded with 8 channels. Hence the revenue has shrunk, with major share going to the two big players and others having to fight for the rest of the pie. Operations, including distribution cost crores of rupees. The present revenue models are not making it viable”.
Tehelka also contacted Vajpayee, CEO of Janashri TV for his opinion and till the time of going to print there was no reply from his end.
Many other Kannada channels have seen rough patches in the last couple of years, but the situation has not been as grim as it has been in the case of ‘Samaya’ and ‘Janashri’. Both the channels had one major factor in common — they had a very heavy political presence in its management. “Both these channels were either directly or indirectly under the influence of the BJP government at that time. The reversal in fortune of the state BJP showed on the revenues of these channels as well. That is the risk involved with advertisements on politically controlled channels,” said Arvind Kumar, President of the Advertising Club, Bangalore.
While risks involved in business are understandable, exposing hundreds of employees to such risks and then defaulting on their rightful dues is not acceptable to many. Demands for stricter guidelines for issuing licences for new Television News Channels have been raised time and again. Chairman of the Karnataka Media Academy, MA Ponappa has raised concerns on the issue earlier as well. “Journalists deserve much better treatment than that they end up getting in some of these television news channels. It is unimaginable that not only are they put through emotional and financial stress by this kind of acts, it also shatters them completely in some cases,” said MA Ponappa.
But the question remains: can private news channel managements continue to operate in the way they wish? The governments, both at state and centre, have remained mute spectators to such exploitation of journalists, which is not restricted just to Bengaluru or Kannada news channels. Tehelka spoke to Karnataka State Information minister R Roshan Baig. “Important fact remains that the licensing, operations and issuance of any guidelines is an issue which comes under the Union ministry for Information and Broadcasting. I personally feel bad for the plight of the journalists who suffer in such a way. We can at best as a state government only advise or request the management of private news channels. While on issues related to labour, the concerned ministries have already taken action,” he said.
With four more Kannada news channels having managed sanctions to launch operations in the coming months, it puts a big question mark over their future.