Shillong Times, one of the oldest English broadsheet newspapers in Northeast India, sacked three senior journalists last week. The newspaper’s management cited financial difficulties, an “extreme” situation that might lead to the shutting down of the paper’s print edition.
The journalists are news editor EM Jose, features editor Nabamita Mitra, and executive editor Dipankar Roy. They were told that their terminations were due to the “ongoing pandemic and related adversities”.
The terminations took place about two weeks after the newspaper’s office in Shillong was closed for “violation” of Covid protocols. Four employees had tested positive for Covid and 45 “high-risk” staffers were subsequently identified and quarantined.
Importantly, on August 25, the Citizen on the newspaper’s office being closed and being declared a containment zone by the deputy commissioner of East Khasi hills. The Citizen stated that employees felt “betrayed at the negligence and callous attitude of the management towards their safety”. The management had “presumptuous”.
Representatives from journalist unions told Newslaundry that the terminations might be attributed to “leaking the organisation's information about salary cuts, or Covid protocols violation to the local Khasi newspapers”.
Newslaundry could not independently verify this claim, and the three journalists were unwilling to comment on it.
Here’s what happened.
The terminations and the protests
EM Jose, Nabamita Mitra and Dipankar Roy have worked for Shillong Times for over 20 years. Jose, Mitra and Roy, who live in accommodation allotted to employees, were in quarantine from August 23 to September 5 after the newspaper’s office was closed by the district commissioner. The office reopened on August 25.
On September 7 at the office, all three were handed termination letters. There was no prior intimation. The letters, which included a cheque for three months’ salary, were dated September 1 — at which time Jose, Mitra and Roy were still in quarantine.
The letter cited “Covid-19 generated reasons which are beyond the control of the company”. In lieu of three months’ notice, they would receive three months’ salary. “The company grants you 30 days to vacate the accommodation allotted to you,” the letter said.
One of the termination letters.
The journalists were shocked.
“There was no prior notice,” said one of them on the condition of anonymity. “Most of the desk workers did not even know about the management’s decision and were equally shocked when they came to know later in the day.”
The journalists signed the termination letters after adding a note: “Received under protest without prejudice.”
On September 9, 12 other journalists of Shillong Times announced that they would not work until the “unethical” and “unjust” terminations were revoked. They sent a letter to the management and, when they received no response, issued a letter to the media on September 11, which said: “As colleagues, we strongly object to such unwarranted ill-treatment meted out to the three senior members of the staff who have all along put in their best efforts in the interest of the newspaper.”
The press release from the 12 Shillong Times journalists protesting the terminations.
“This solidarity is unprecedented,” said one of the terminated journalists, on the condition of anonymity. “And we want to be reinstated.”
Union support and claims
Journalist unions immediately stepped forward to condemn the terminations.
The Indian Journalists Association issued a press statement underlining how the terminations violate labour laws. “The reason...mentioned in the termination letter...cannot be accepted as there are no such provisions for the arbitrary sacking of journalists in the laws governing the services of journalists,” the statement said.
It urged the state government to take action against the management of Shillong Times for the “illegal termination of services of the journalists, illegal pay cuts, and violating wage board’s provisions”.
Geetartha Pathak, the president of the Indian Journalists Union, told Newslaundry that the “Covid-generated reasons”, as stated in the terminations letters, is a “cover-up” for “arbitrary and illegal” sackings.
“Everything started when the government passed an order for the closure of Shillong Times,” Pathak said. “The management thought these three people were behind the scenes, complaining about the organisation to the local Khasi newspapers. Which was not the fact.”
While acknowledging that the newspaper industry is grappling with falling revenues, Pathak claimed: “As a leading daily from Meghalaya, they are getting the lion’s share of the government’s revenue and when their revenues increase, they don’t even share the profit with the employees.”
Pathak also pointed out that the newspaper did not close its office after Covid cases were detected until it was directed to do so by the deputy commissioner.
About the terminations, he said: “These journalists have been working for a long time of over 25 years, and their blood and sweat have contributed to the growth of the daily.” Pathak called it an “opportunistic” move by the management to “take advantage of the Covid-19 situation and sack employees under its garb, which is not at all acceptable.”
Bedabrata Lahkar, the general secretary of the Northeast India Federation of Journalists, said: “The management has owed the sacking of employees entirely on Covid-generated reasons, but it is being inferred that the sacked journalists have been made a victim on the suspicion that they were leading the campaign against Shillong Times, of carrying the news against them. So, they assumed the senior people are conspiring against them and are informing all internal issues to other local newspapers. That could be the only reason.”
Lahkar added that he has no proof that this is the “definite cause” for the terminations.
He said: “The journalists unions at Meghalaya and Shillong can take this up to the Meghalaya government and the labour department. The labour laws are more in favour of the management than the labour class. So it will be a tougher fight for the employees. But within its limitations, we have to keep fighting.” He also said the Meghalaya government must “put pressure on the management to withdraw the illegal terminations”.
Newslaundry asked Manas Chaudhari, the newspaper’s owner and former editor, about these allegations.
Chaudhari said: “Who is feeding you all this? What is their basis of this statement? There has to be some basis. We are not victimising anybody, certainly not. This is a figment of imagination. I don't know why they are concocting these stories.”
Solidarity statements from journalist unions.
Why was the Shillong Times office closed?
On August 16, an employee of Shillong Times tested positive for Covid.
“We suggested that the management shut down the office for a few days to control the spread,” said an employee, on the condition of anonymity. “But they did not pay heed to our suggestion.”
On August 22, three more employees tested positive and the office was . It temporarily closed on August 23.
“After 75 years of service, we got the stick from the government for alleged violation of health protocol,” the newspaper .
Manas Chaudhuri, the newspaper’s owner and former editor, had alleged at the time that the government issued the order without doing an “objective inspection” of the daily’s premises. A surveillance officer did visit Saturday evening, he added, “but he stood outside the building, did not enter and talked only to the manager”. “You can’t say there was violation [of protocol] just like that,” the proprietor insisted. “It was presumptuous.”
On August 25, the office was reopened. Forty-five staffers were identified as “high-risk” and were advised to be “strictly quarantined and not to enter the office building or be in contact with the low-risk staff”.
On the day the office reopened, the Citizen published its piece on “management negligence” at Shillong Times which left employees “exposed” to Covid. It’s a story of “lies, false pride, negligence and glory hunting”, the article claimed.
Employees told Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity that they “concur” with the Citizen piece.
Shillong Times’ said the story “betrays a sick mind that’s up to mischief mongering”.
“I wonder how a well known Editor like you could pass this scurrilous piece based on motivated ‘leak’ by certain vested interest...We categorically refute the allegations of insensitivity of the management towards health safety of the colleagues,” said the rejoinder from Shobha Chaudhari, general manager of the Shillong Times Private Limited.
It continued: “...All health protocols have been put in place ever since the pandemic broke out. It's a different matter that some stiff necked newsroom staff often ignored the instructions thereby endangering others to risks of infection.”
‘We have not violated anything or been unfair’: Management
Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong Times, told Newslaundry that the dismissal of the three employees was not “an editorial issue” and that she is not the “right person” to comment.
“Please talk to the management,” Mukhim said. “This is not an editorial issue but is about the finances of the newspaper which is in tatters, and certain decisions taken by the management, about which even the management is not happy to lay off.”
Manas Chaudhari, the newspaper’s owner and former editor, said the employees were terminated because the management’s “hands are tied”.
It was a tough decision to take. It didn't give us pleasure to see them leave our organisation,” he said. “This is a precarious situation and we have had to take a lot of cost-cutting measures since June. We have a cash crunch, we have taken the bank loan, we have fallen back on our reserves, and it has become increasingly difficult to manage at both ends. Because advertisement bills are not coming, so now how do you expect the management to run the show? So we had to resort to this.”
While he was “very sorry” about what happened to his colleagues, Chaudhari said that he had “no choice”. “It was an extreme situation and in an extreme situation you need to take extreme action.”
On issuing the termination letters without prior notice, Chaudhary said it was “not unethical”.
“The letter was dated September 1 and was served on September 7 only when the employees came out from quarantine,” he said. “We didn't give it to them while they were in quarantine, because we didn't want to give them a shock like this. These terminations were as per the conditions of our employment with them. We have not violated anything and have not deviated and or been unfair to them. I can tell you this much, without any fear of contradiction.”
Chaudhari also hinted that he may have to shut down the Shillong Times’ print edition because of having “no resources to fall back upon”. “We have already stopped our Sunday’s supplement, and there may be more such actions taken,” he said. “The government of Meghalaya is only attending to the pandemic and everything else is stopped. If the bills and payments don't come, how can we function?”
He added, “Probably Salantini Janera (the only Garo language daily and a sister newspaper of the Shillong Times) will close down from tomorrow. The Tura edition in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya will close down next, and the Guwahati bureau might also shut down if the situations don't improve.”
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