Saba Rani, a Peshawar-based reporter, was routinely searching for a news story when at around noon, she got a call from the human resource section of the English daily she was employed at.
“The official directed me to immediately report back to the office to sign the resignation letter, as my services were no more required. This is how my two-year association with The Express Tribune came to a grinding halt,” recalled Saba as she narrated the incident of March 2017.
That was the time when The Express Tribune — one of the country’s biggest English newspaper and a publishing partner of the New York Times — started shedding staff owing to a ‘financial crunch’ and under the guise of ‘synergy’. Not one to give up, Saba started looking for work in the media industry “as journalism was my passion and I had also opted to study it at the University of Peshawar despite having the opportunity to pursue other disciplines.”
But all her efforts bore no result as Peshawar being a small and distant station from Karachi — which houses most mainstream media outlets — did not have much to offer journalism graduates.
Luckily, she found a job in a news channel, but that too came to an end six months later. Around two years later, Saba finally bade farewell to journalism and ended up working as an entrepreneur dealing in honey marketing.
Her dream to continue in the profession of journalism could not come true.
From August 2018 — when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf formed the government — to-date, the media industry has remained on a constant nosedive.
According to Khyber Union of Journalists (KhUJ) President Fida Khattak, as many as 136 journalists in Peshawar lost their jobs due to the retrenchment policies of media organisations. Thirty of them got readjusted in other media houses, mostly local newspapers offering extremely meagre salaries. “Besides, another 90 media workers — IT staff, DSNG operators, printing workers, office-boys and security persons — have been terminated,” Khattak told Sabaat.
He added that in the backdrop of unprecedent inflation, media houses should have raised salaries of employees. Instead, most media houses, including Dawn — the English newspaper of record — not only terminated a number of employees but also inflicted pay cuts. “There are also some organisations, such as Jang Group, that have not paid their employees for several months.”
KhUJ Secretary-General Muhammad Naeem explained that the owners of media houses hold the government responsible for the miseries of journalists. The new government lowered official advertisement rates and has also delayed the release of Rs6 billion outstanding dues to media houses, he informed further.
“In a three-day meeting in Quetta in October this year, representatives of All Pakistan Newspapers Society — a representative body of print media owners — told office-bearers of various journalists’ unions of the country that they would not sack any employee if the government releases the pending Rs6 billion amount, even if in installments,” revealed Naeem, adding that over 12,000 journalists and media workers across the country have lost their jobs during the last two years.
Muhammad Badar Alam, former editor of the Herald, the country’s premier news magazine which halted its 50-year publication in July last year due to ‘financial problems’, said media owners are depriving journalists of protections guaranteed by the law of the land.
For instance, he underscored how most news outlets hire journalists as contract employees, depriving them of their right to health cover, provident and gratuity funds and especially the right to job security.
“The termination of a regular/permanent employee is not easy as those of contract employees. Under the law, if an organisation intends to end the services of a regular employee in the media industry, it is legally bound to serve a show-cause notice on the person in question, and if he fails to answer the notice satisfactorily only then s/he would be terminated and that too after serving him/her three notices, one each per month.”
This is the prime reason behind hiring journalists and media-workers on contract. In addition, some media organisations, including the leading Jang and Dawn groups, recruit journalists and media workers through outsourcing companies. “This way they [media houses] don’t own their employees and legally exonerate themselves of the responsibilities of employees the law makes them bound to follow, showing them as workers of outsourcing companies,” Alam explained.
He informed further that there are multiple court precedents declaring that continued employment of periods exceeding 12 months shall be considered regular employment. But for more than a decade, most media organizations have not been hiring journalists as regular employees, and rather renew their contracts annually.
Alam said that the recent retrenchment of thousands of media workers is illegal which can be challenged before the court. But he hastened to add that most journalists do not try to exhaust the legal fora, owing mainly to the agonisingly slow litigation process, besides the heavy legal fees.
Khattak, the KhUJ president, believes that the bitter working conditions have adversely affected the performance of journalists as most are now confined to covering events rather than digging out investigative stories, while other have switched professions altogether.
“This is because a [financially] satisfied worker is a productive worker.”