Monday, January 18, 2021
Features

Covid-19 impact on print media: Can newspapers survive?

Kishor Kumar Kalita

If he wished he could have got an avenue in any educational institution after the completion of his university education. He could have easily earned thousands and lakhs of rupees and could have had a very lavish life. But he wanted to follow a different path. Different socio-economic occurrences in society had intrigued his mind from childhood and never ever allowed him to opt for an opulent life.

He read James Augusthus Hicky’s extraordinary life history of journalism that fearlessly picked his pen against British imperialism in the 18th century (Hicky has been known as the founding father of Indian print media who had started the first newspaper in India. On January 29, 1780, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette came into being).

Hicky was imprisoned by the British administration for his continuous effort for advocating the freedom of press in colonial India. Hicky brought allegations of corruption against the then Governor General of India Warren Hastings and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William.

In order to take revenge the British government sued Hicky for libel and in 1781 the Supreme Court found Hicky guilty and sentenced him to imprisonment. He had been in jail for three years and after his release he survived a life of extreme poverty. The man who departed his life in1802 and left little evidence about his later life is still remembered by the media fraternity of India as an avant-garde of anti establishment and intrepid journalism.

Not only for a single individual but for other thousands of press workers Hicky always been an inspiration, who deliberately have taken up journalism as profession ignoring the possibilities of extreme uncertainty and struggle.

Unfortunately the present epidemic has posed a huge threat particularly to the print media where thousands of workers have been working at a meagre earnings and with no future economic security. Especially, those who are working at different vernacular print media houses having a gloomy future ahead because of the whim of their owners or proprietors.

The Indian print media sector has been one of the most adversely affected sectors due to Covid-19 pandemic which is now in deep existential crisis across the country. With a significant decline in readership and due to dwindling advertisements and a serious disruption in circulation of newspapers and magazines, different media houses are forced to take extreme steps- from slitting the number of pages and shutting down their editions to layoffs, salary cuts and leave without pay for employees.

This unprecedented crisis has affected even top players like The Times Group, The Indian Express Group, Hindustan Times Media Limited, Business Standard Limited, and Quintillion Media Private Limited.

As the dynamic Indian media sector is currently tussling with various challenges, Dr D K Aggarwal, President PHDCCi have recently urged for prompt government action to save the media industry and in this context remarked, “We urge the government to direct all other ministries, DAVP, state governments, PSUs to clear all outstanding payments of the entire media industry, which is a significantly large amount”.

Now the question arises if such a situation prevails in the long run how these thousands of media professionals would survive in a lockdown induced economic recession? It is also a matter of great despair that if these media professionals who have spent most of their life for the sake of the fourth pillar of democracy become jobless or they are forced to leave journalism due to impoverishment, then who will fight for the ‘freedom of expression’ in our country.

The next crucial question is when the whole state machinery has transformed into a surveillance agency (Renowned Historian Yuval Harari in a BBC TV programme ‘Hard talk’ has opined that COVID-19 may not be remembered as a major outbreak in the history of pandemic but of course it has paved the way for a new era of state surveillance. This pandemic has given legitimacy to every nation state to monitor its citizens unconditionally) how long the other media will remain as anti-establishment or anti corporate?

It is an admitted fact that because of the catastrophic effect of Covid-19 on economy, national magazines like Outlook have already suspended their edition temporarily with immediate effect. Several magazines of Assam have also suspended their publications in the last three months. In order to protect the democratic values, it is a constitutional obligation for the Central government and State governments to take measures for the revival of the print media industry.

Considering the present crisis of the print media which we may identify as a direct negative consequence of the nationwide lockdown, the government should come forward to help and protect the print media so that the owner or authorities of these houses in near future will not adopt any measures like lay off their employees or closed down publication.

Immediately after the announcement of a national lockdown by the Prime Minister of India under the provisions of Disaster Management Act, 2005, various State governments also imposed different restrictions under Epidemic Disease Act, 1897. One of such significant directives towards private sector corporations is to provide full salaries to their employees during the period of lockdown.

Though noteworthy, both the acts do not provide legality to this directive. Therefore, a government cannot implement such directives legally and can only request the Corporations to follow such directives. Notwithstanding such a declaration, the majority of the private corporations are taking advantage of such loopholes and they have not provided the salary to their employees.

Because of the current pandemic when the entire economy comes to a standstill majority of the corporations have failed to pay their employees. In order to overcome this failure most of the countries across the world have decided to provide subsidies to their employees or workers.

In the meantime the government of Denmark has already declared to give 75% of the salaries of the private sector employees from its coffers. Countries like Canada, England, Austria, and Malaysia have also made such declarations. Keeping in mind the imperilled state of the print media industry in our country, we may anticipate such an endeavour by the Government of India so that the print media could sustain in this country without facing any threat of closure by the respective owners.

Kishor Kumar Kalita is a lawyer and a columnist based in Guwahti and Abhinob Das is a Guwahati based activist and independent researcher. (Courtesy: Daily Hunt)

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