News of suicides across the country during the pandemic is showing a difficult truth about the lack of well-being and financial distress amongst workers in different sectors. One such sector seeing increasing uncertainty and distress is journalism, as a number of journalists have been reported to have committed suicide in recent times.
According to a Workers Unity report, a reporter at Republic Bharat TV attempted to commit suicide in Varanasi on August 12. Rohit Shrivastav, who resided in a rented home in Raghuvar colony in Sigra Police Station’s jurisdiction. On August 8, his elder brother Gaurav had filed a missing person report, saying that he had been missing for four days. On August 12, it was found that he had jumped from the Vishwasundari bridge in Varanasi. He was taken out of the water with the help of divers and boatmen and admitted to the BHU trauma centre, where he succumbed to his injuries the next day. Republic Bharat TV, where he worked, is a Hindi news portal of the Republic Media Network.
Rohit Shrivastav is not the only journalist to have committed suicide during the pandemic. On August 13, the Press Trust of India’s senior journalist PV Ramanujan committed suicide, and before that, in July, Tarun Sisodia, a journalist at Dainik Bhaskar who was being treated for COVID-19 at the AIIMS hospital in Delhi jumped from the hospital building and died. According to reports, he had been extremely troubled by the uncertainty of the lockdown and feared that he would lose his job. There have also been allegations that he was coerced into committing suicide or murdered, and enquiries have been launched.
These suicides have happened in the context of large scale layoffs and salary cuts in the journalism industry. A report by Chitranshu Tewari on Newslaundry, one of the few publications which have committed to reporting on the journalism industry itself, explains that although labour law violations in other sectors find spaces in newspapers, workers in news media find themselves in precarious jobs as the media doesn’t report on its own industry, and there is a lack of laws to regulate the working conditions of journalists. While the Working Journalists Act provides protections against arbitrary terminations and protects workers under the contract system, the time and resources required to fight a legal battle are not available to most reporters. In fact, it took Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor at the Caravan, five years to fight a legal battle against his former employer for wrongful termination.
In the months after lockdown, various national and regional media houses have laid-off workers in large numbers. HT media laid off over 100 employees, ET Gujarati shut down and its entire team was terminated, Business Standard laid off around 85 employees over two rounds of retrenchments, Sakal Times laid off around 50-60 employees, and the Telegraph laid off around 35. Others include the Times Group, NDTV, and the Hindu. Extensive documentation of all the layoffs, salary cuts, and shutdowns of publications have been attempted by journalists here and here. 45 employees at the Quint were put on indefinite leave without pay. The 20 journalists who were terminated from the Hindu have sent a legal notice to their former employer saying that their termination was illegal as the legal dues were not paid. Air India put all of its casual employees out of work, which according to 2017 government data is around 13,810 people.
However, what is especially distressing is the opaque and informal, and often unfair mechanisms through which these layoffs take place. Ranjita Rabha, a journalist at Prag News was pregnant at the time of the pandemic and the lockdown, and when she came to work she was told twice by the editors to stay home and rest. In May, Rabha, who had worked at the organisation for 10 years, was suddenly asked to resign. Her request for maternity leave, even without pay, was denied. According to a HuffPost report, many journalists were verbally asked to resign rather than enter a formal process of layoffs that involves a final settlement, in order to reduce costs for the management. When employees refused to resign, they were terminated, often without the legal dues. In Lokmat, a regional news publication in Maharashtra, many of the employees who were terminated had been working without contracts even after having asked for a contract repeatedly before.
On April 16, the National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists moved the apex court to halt the prevailing layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts in the Indian media during the pandemic. The Supreme Court has not yet received a reply from the Centre.
While the media is occupied in the frenzy of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide and the conspiracies around it, the mental distress of their own workers caused by the precarity and uncertainty of their work does not find any space on the headlines. This epidemic of depression and stress will not end by finding a scapegoat but only by questioning the legal provisions for workers and economic structure of journalism in India.