His violent death – and the First Information Report lodged against minister Verma – was probably the reason why the murder of another scribe from Madhya Pradesh also made national news. Sandeep Kothari, a stringer for a Jabalpur daily, was killed on June 19, allegedly for refusing to withdraw a case he had filed against the mining mafia in the region.
For the national media, this was a case of another journalist being killed in the line of duty within a fortnight. But in Farrokhabad – a few miles away from Jagendra Singh’s home – seasoned journalist Yogendra Yadav was not surprised by either of the cases.
“Singh’s murder became big news only because a big minister has been blamed,” said Yadav. “But in rural India, journalists are killed far more often that you hear of.” He worked as a stringer for various Hindi newspapers and news channels for 22 years before starting his own daily newsletter four years ago.
Reporters have been killed in almost every district in Uttar Pradesh over the years, Yadav claims, but most of these cases are suppressed or made to look like accidents. “Accident karvaana is very common in these parts, and powerful people are behind it. It is even more common to book reporters in false cases and get them jailed. So many are assaulted, and all of us have received threats.”
Nothing black and white
To journalists across India’s hinterlands, Yadav’s descriptions sound all too familiar. Far away from city-based newsrooms, rural stringers and freelance reporters work as the footsoldiers of the fourth estate, gathering news at district, tehsil and village levels. Those who dare to expose the crimes and illegalities of the powerful inevitably do so at the risk of their personal safety.
But rural journalists aren’t just physically vulnerable – they’re also at a major financial disadvantage. Stringers and regional reporters are stuck in a news system that cannot pay them more than a few thousand rupees a month, wages that are almost never enough to survive. They are rarely on the payrolls of the companies they work for, and get little support from their publications when work takes a dangerous turn.
In many ways, it is this lack of financial security and other perks that make the world of rural journalism a deeply flawed, grey system that cannot be easily changed.
Paid a pittance
In 2007, as soon as he completed a correspondence degree in journalism, Mahammad Ashlam took up work as a stringer for two local TV channels in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. This severely impoverished region was his hometown, and Ashlam was keen to work for the people through powerful reportage on issues affecting their lives.
“But for the first seven years of my career, I got paid just Rs 300 for each news story,” said Ashlam. “And I mean each story that got aired, not each story that I travelled and investigated and worked for.”
Not one to let go of stories rejected by news channels, Ashlam started his own 30-minute news show – KBK Samachar – with a group of stringer friends. The weekly show, comprising around 15 news bulletins, aired on a local cable channel from 2007 to 2010. “We covered the issues that mainstream news barely touched at that time, particularly the protests of tribal groups against mining companies like Vedanta in Niyamgiri,” said Ashlam. “We had to spend Rs 25,000 of our own money every month to keep the show going. I survived only because I live in a large joint family.”
Further north in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, Jyotsna has not been as fortunate.
“I live with my mother and sister who work in the farms to keep us going, because my payments are always low and never come on time,” said Jyotsna, one of the few women in the heavily male-dominated field of rural reportage.
Since 2004, Jyotsna (who did not wish to reveal her full name) has worked with two local Hindi newspapers as a freelancer. She now has a job with government-run Prasar Bharti. Even though she has a contract with the company, Jyotsna gets paid only for the handful of news bulletins that get aired on Doordarshan or All India Radio.
“Even then, I’d be making at least Rs 15,000 a month if my salary arrived regularly,” said Jyotsna. “There are times when the pay doesn’t come in for months together and when it does, it is not the full amount.”
More than one job
Most media companies admit that rural reporters cannot really survive on the kind of salaries they are paid.
“Stringers working for us get paid barely Rs 7,000 or Rs 8,000 a month, with no other privileges,” said a senior editor at a national news agency, requesting anonymity. The agency employs the services of at least 50 stringers across the country, of which a few get paid a fixed monthly retainer. The rest are paid as freelancers, and do not always get reimbursed for their travel costs. “The system is totally faulty, but we can’t help it – we cannot pay big salaries to every stringer if we’re going to get just a handful stories from each of them each month.”
To remain within the faulty system and still run their households, most rural reporters are forced to take up other jobs alongside journalism. Jyotsna, for instance, became a part-time life insurance agent last year to supplement her erratic income.
In Maharashtra’s Beed district, Prakash Lakhera earns a living by running a full-fledged lodge on his family property. Journalism, his “passion”, does not pay him a single paisa, even though he has been writing for a local Marathi daily for the past 18 years. “That’s how district-level papers are – they have no money to pay reporters,” said Lakhera.
This leads to an obvious problem that Lakhera candidly admits. “Many reporters send in stories suiting their own interests, especially reporters with their own side-businesses.”
Lakhera also admits that for years, fellow journalists in Beed suspected him of having vested interests. “I have been in politics since my youth – first with the Shiv Sena, then the Congress and now the NCP,” said Lakhera. “But I have reduced my political activities drastically in the past six years because people thought I was favouring my party through my reports.”
“Conflict of interest is a big problem in rural journalism, because reporters are so poorly paid,” said Samar Halarnkar, a senior journalist and editor at IndiaSpend.org. “Many stringers double as retailers for newspapers and fixers for local businesses, and many take favours to get their official work done.”
When scribes are compelled to look elsewhere for money, says Ashlam, a certain degree of corruption in their ranks becomes inevitable. “Most stringers barely make enough money to fax their own stories to editors. So why do so many people join the field? It’s mostly for power,” he said. “Many people become part-time reporters simply to access important officials and information.”
A major sub-industry for rural scribes is bringing advertisements to local newspapers. “Ads come from various quarters – sugar factories, municipal departments, local colleges, politicians on their birthdays – and they give us commissions for getting their ads into the papers,” said Lakhera, who makes no money as a reporter but can earn commissions worth Rs 5,000 sometimes.
Lakhera does not believe there is any inherent conflict with a journalist procuring ads for his publication. “But there are some journalists in the black business – reporters who abuse their position to get free food grains and rations for themselves. And even though they are openly corrupt, I have seen that editors can’t fire them because they bring ads for the papers.”
‘How much better are urban journalists?’
P Sainath, the veteran journalist known for his widespread reportage on rural India, believes we must not be too quick to judge the moral and professional integrity of rural journalists. “Conflicts of interest are common among urban journalists too, like the many business journalists who hold large shares in various companies or work as touts for corporate houses,” said Sainath. It’s not that there is no corruption in rural journalism, but Sainath believes the scale of it is often much bigger in urban set-ups, because there is more money involved. “But I have also seen incredible dynamism and energy among rural journalists that I don’t see in their urban counterparts.”
Reporters at district level have broken some of the biggest news stories that are nationally important, says Sainath, but their work is often appropriated without credit or acknowledgement once it reaches the national level. This lack of recognition, along with poor pay, adds to the pressures that rural journalists face.
“Of course, the fragility and vulnerability of rural stringers is far greater – it would be dishonest of us in the urban areas to pretend that we don’t benefit greatly from our caste and class status,” said Sainath. If there was a false case against an urban journalist, for instance, he or she would be able to publicise it and get instant support from other people in the “national press”. “These advantages serve as a kind of insurance that most rural journalists don’t have when they try to upset the status quo.”
‘The state must ensure safety’
But there is little that media companies can do about this, says Smita Prakash, news editor at Asian News International. In the past few years, ANI has become one of the largest agencies for video news gathering in India, and claims it is the largest user of stringers and rural reporters in the country.
Many stringers in ANI’s network face pressures and threats from political heads, mafia dons and even Maoists, but company intervention is not always easy. “The stringers rarely ask us to mediate or help because it complicates matters on the ground for them,” said Prakash.
At the end of the day, Prakash emphasises, ensuring the safety of the media is the job of the government and lawmakers. “There is little I can say or do that can change the law and order situation in the hinterlands,” she said. “In a democracy the media has to operate in a free and fearless manner and it is up to the other pillars of democracy to ensure that.”