India: A suicide narrates mainstream media’s susceptibility
Posted on March 1st, 2022

by Nava Thakuria

The news broke from Chennai in south India as a senior photojournalist killed himself on 13 February 2022 in his office itself. Initially it was assumed T. Kumar’s suicide as a personal affair, but soon the harsh  reality surfaced. The victim did not receive full salaries for nearly five years and he was in desperate need of money. His wife (Kavitha) underwent medical treatments and only daughter Pavithra’s engagement ceremony was also approaching. Kumar (56) might have exhausted the borrowing space from family members and well-wishers! Hence, it was his last undesirable action.

After the incident, I could realise Kumar was known to me as he worked in Guwahati as a representative of the United News of India (UNI) for some months. Kumar had a very amiable nature to nurture friendship and even tried to help everyone according to his capacity. We had a number of chatting over the media as a whole.  Kumar was a passionate listener to my ‘lectures unending’, which often crossed the limit. At the end of my discourse, he always concluded the session saying- Nava-da you have to come to my place soon.
Reactions to Kumar’s demise was little slow as everybody understood it as a self-killing matter, but when the real cause came out, the Indian media fraternity got a real jerk. A responsible journalist, who was with the UNI for more than three decades, had to end his life as was being denied his dues. Kumar was not waiting for any lottery or other funds to support his family in distress. He was only expecting his salaries, unpaid fully for over 50 months, and it was the commitment of UNI management authorities while engaging him in work. Should not it be treated as a crime against the insensitive UNI management for slowly putting Kumar on the verge of self-destruction?

Lately various media rights bodies have come forward condoling Kumar’s unacceptable death and also raising some finds for the bereaved family. There are over 200 UNI employees across the country, who are also waiting for their dues for years. Need not to deny that the Indian media fraternity has been suffering heavily since the Covid-19 hit the country two years back. Morning newspapers  lost their circulation drastically, so their business, influence and visibility. Satellite news channels also start missing valued audiences. And as a dependent agency on the mainstream media outlets (also some government organs), the UNI also faced a humiliating downfall.
The largest democracy on Earth with a billion-plus population today supports around  82,000 registered publications with more than 15,000 in the newspaper category. Published in various languages like English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam,  Kannada, Gujarati, Punjabi, Odia, Assamese, etc the daily newspapers have a cumulative circulation of around 110 million. But following the corona-crisis, these physical newspapers have lost almost one-third of their actual circulation figures because of the prolonged nationwide lockdown and various aftereffects.
Similarly, India has around 1,600 satellite television channels where more than 400 are news related outlets. As most satellite news channels are free-to-air (FTA) in nature, they heavily depend on commercial advertisements for survival. These news channels cannot ask money from their viewers (subscribers) and the proprietors have to manage all expenditures from running offices to staff salaries to productions to flawless distributions from their resources. More amazingly, the FTA channel owners have to pay a huge amount of money to cable operators and direct-to-home (DTH) agencies.
However, there is no clarity on how much money a cable operator or a private DTH agency can demand from an FTA channel. The logic behind the financial transactions narrates that those cable operator/DTH agencies can charge the amount of money for providing space into their respective packages which are distributed to viewers. On the other hand, they collect  money from the consumers as well as the freight charges for downloading the signal from the satellite and distributing it to the households. Nobody knows if these financial transactions fall under the government financial tax network or not!

With the advent of internet services, which are drastically cheaper in India, millions of digital news platforms are coming up to feed the population where the literacy rate is growing above 75 per cent in recent years. One can say, today’s media family has increased its outlets significantly. The digital platforms have cleverly blended the flavours of daily newspapers, news channels and also radio outlets, where the audience can get text messages as well as audio-visual inputs. In the long run, taking advantage of the expanded space of smartphones, the digital media may ruin the combined market of traditional outlets by slowly grabbing advertisement revenues.

The fall of mainstream  media outlets have affected the business of news agencies as they generate revenues mostly from the morning dailies, news channels and private radio outlets. Initially the Indian news agencies (including UNI) played an important role as a trusted bridge between the international news providers and local media outlets. But with the change of government policies and invasion of the internet service, the agencies start losing their space. The last blow to the UNI came in 2017 as Prasar Bharati decided to withdraw its subscription for All India Radio and Doordarshan. The agency had to incur a huge loss after the move.

But for any reason the UNI management cannot escape the blame for Kumar’s tragic end. The board of directors with its faulty policies started destroying the agency long back (at least before the corona-disaster). When it was in a sound financial position, the management launched a multi-lingual television news agency (UNI TV), but soon it failed to generate adequate subscriptions seemingly because of its unprofessional news intakes. So, for the unprofessionalism on part of the management, employees must not suffer. The UNI management should promptly pay all the outstanding dues to the Kumar’s family, if not any compensatory amount at this moment.

The author is a northeast India-based media commentator

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