On 16 April 2020, three Indian Journalists’ Unions approached the Supreme Court with public interest litigation appealing to the court to direct central and state governments to take stringent action against news media publishers who have violated employment laws and norms during the Covid 19 pandemic and its attendant lockdown. The National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Brihan Mumbai Union of Journalists said in their joint petition that the retrenchments, unilateral salary cuts, and sending of journalists and other employees on indefinite unpaid leave were illegal and inhuman. In addition, these actions went against the call of the prime minister on 14 April 2020 to neither terminate nor reduce wages during the Covid-19 lockouts.
The petition cites the prime ministers seven commandments in his televised speed of 14 April – “Friends, if we continue to be patient and follow rules, we will be able to defeat even a pandemic like Corona. With this faith and trust, I seek your support for seven things in the end. … Sixth thing – Be compassionate towards the people who work with you in your business or industry. Do not deprive them of their livelihood.”
The public interest litigation submission states, “The writ petition for violation of the Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India under Article 32 seeking directions to the respondents to ensure that services of journalists are not terminated and their wages are not reduced arbitrarily and in violation of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and the Working Journalists Act, 1955 under the excuse of the nation-wide lockdown.”
The petitioners in the public interest petition comprise three of the unions of Indian print and electronic media and digital journalists with a combined membership of 6750. Petitioner No. 1 is the National Alliance of Journalists, represented by its President, Shailendra Kumar Pandey. The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) is an alliance of Journalists’ Unions from several states. It has a national membership of over 6000 journalists from print, electronic and digital media.
Petitioner No. 2 is the Delhi Union of Journalists, represented by its General Secretary, Sujata Madhok. The DUJ is the leading body of journalists in the country’s capital, and a registered trade union founded 70 years ago with fully paid active membership of over 500 journalists in the print, electronic and digital media. Petitioner No. 3 is the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ), represented by its General Secretary, Indrakumar Bansilal Jain. The BUJ is a registered trade union since 1952, with 250 journalist members from the print and electronic media.
The three respondents named in the petition are Respondent No. 1, the Union of India, represented by the Cabinet Secretary. Respondent No. 2, the Indian Newspaper Society, represented by its President, Shailesh Gupta. The INS is the central body for newspaper establishments helping its members by placing their views as an industry before the government on the recommendations of the Wage Boards for working journalists and non-journalists employees.
Respondent No. 3 is the News Broadcasters Association, represented by its President, Rajat Sharma. The NBA represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters. According to its website, it is the collective voice of the news and current affairs broadcasters in India. It presently has 27 leading news and current affairs broadcasters (comprising 77 news and current affairs channels) as its members.
The petition states, “This public interest litigation is being filed regarding the inhuman and illegal treatment being meted out by employers to their employees and workers in the newspaper and media sector, by issuing termination notices, imposing steep wage cuts unilaterally, sending workers and employees on indefinite unpaid leave, and so on, taking the excuse of the nation-wide lockdown,” imposed in light of the spread of COVID-19, Coronavirus.
“Several newspapers, magazines, online media outlets, and other employers in the media sector have reportedly taken step[s] after the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown in March 2020 to retrench workers and employees, impose wage cuts, etc. in spite of advisories issued by the Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government of India and even appeals by the Prime Minister of India to not terminate the services or reduce the wages of their employees.”
The petition cites the following cases of actions taken by news media publishers and owners as of 15 April 2020, such as – The Indian Express has asked staff to take salary cuts; News Nation terminated 16 English digital employees; The Times of India sacked the entire Sunday magazine team; Around 45 members of the 200-strong Quint team has been asked to go on leave without pay and the noncompete clause in their contracts were waived; Hamara Mahanagar, the Hindi newspaper from Mumbai, shut down on 18 March citing ‘poor business viability;’ Bloomberg Quint emailed staff to say there will be a steep salary cut for April, saying it ‘expects to resume the normal salary cycle from May’ but without mention of if and when it will make up the lost salary of April; Marathi daily Sakal Times, began its ‘downsizing’ a week before the lockdown with at least 15 employees, five each in design and sports, four in the news bureau, and one in features, told to submit their resignations and leave by 31 March.
The entire petition can be accessed here https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/pdf_upload-373231.pdf