How a new social media policy is brewing discontent at TV9

Staffers will now have to get ‘pre-approval’ for every tweet or social media post. TV9 said this is an ‘exercise of restraint’.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari& Basant Kumar
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All is not well at TV9, the Hyderabad-based media group with six news channels and over 5,000 employees. On the evening of August 25, TV9 staffers received a grim email from Ashish Pinto, the group’s chief human resource officer.

“Important additions are being made to the social media guidelines of the Company,” Pinto announced. “All employees/ consultants/ trainees shall peruse and follow these norms strictly.”

The email, accessed by Newslaundry, quoted two “categories” that had been added to the policy “with immediate effect”. The first concerned those who had a public profile on social media platforms, and who “exhibit their association with the company”.

Any post or tweet by a reporter, anchor or any employee, the email said, “will need to be pre-approved by a competent authority”. Competent authority meant either the “managing editors of respective channels for all editorial staff” or the “group editor or news director for non-editorial staff and managing editors”.

The new policy falls like bird droppings on the group’s flowery ideals of “free and fearless conversation of ideas”. It came on the day TV9 received a legal notice from a supremacist group called the Hindu IT Cell. On August 22, a journalist with Hindi news channel TV9 Bharatvarsh had tweeted that “people who swear in the name of sisters are celebrating a festival today,” referring to Rakshabandhan. The supremacist group called the tweet “offensive” and the journalist “Hinduphobic”. It first threatened to boycott TV9 on social media, and then said that it was in “in constant touch with the management” of TV9 Bharatvarsh.

A TV9 staffer – speaking on the condition of anonymity, of course – sized up the TV9 group’s policy as following: “All their coverage of Taliban lately has turned their mentality Talibani.”

In addition to telling employees what not to do on social media, Pinto’s email also told them what they had better do: “Amplify all company statements/announcements posted/tweeted from official company handles. In breaking news situations, they will retweet/share the channel’s tweets/posts.”

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The second category includes those at TV9 who wish to run a personal social media account. They can, the email said, but here’s the twist: “This category of social media users SHALL NOT show any association with the company and for them the social media guidelines as previously announced and available on company intranet will apply.”

The severe instructions came with a severe warning. “Violations will attract strict disciplinary action including dismissal from service,” Pinto wrote in the email, twice.

‘We are not bonded labourers’

For the TV9 staffer, the amended policy is meant to deter any in-house criticism of the Narendra Modi government on social media platforms. “One cannot report against the government anyway,” the staffer added. “Now, they have problems with our social media utterances too.”

Another staffer in the company’s digital wing found the email of no use, even ironically. “The anchors and other senior employees here either promote the company’s idea or report the government’s line,” he added. “So I’m not sure if the new directives will have any impact.”

“But it is disgusting,” he added. “We are not bonded labourers. It’s understandable that the management wants us to amplify the channel’s content online. But prior approvals? A journalist can’t even express his or her views? This is introduced with the intention to control speech and they cannot impose it on us.”

A third staffer said the new policy made the company resemble a “dictatorship”. He echoed the first staffer, saying that it was brought in to discipline those who tend to question the Modi government or other Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the states. “Since the news channel does not like asking questions, when employees do it, they are heavily trolled by pro-BJP handles who tag the network,” he added. “The policy is meant to stop that.”

After receiving the email, a fourth TV9 employee has removed every mention of his association with the group from his social media handles. “This is rubbish,” he said. “But what can we do? We have to quietly go on with our jobs. Every channel has rules regarding social media. But none are this harsh. The company might think we’re slaves because they pay us, but that is not the case.”

‘TV9 stands for a better society’

The TV9 group is promoted by the Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt Ltd, or ABCL. The company’s website tells us that it “stands for a better society”.

“We believe that by disseminating impartial, balanced and credible news in a creative and challenging format,” says a section titled “Our Mission” on the TV9 website, “and by hosting a free and fearless conversation of ideas of all persuasions we help society in making informed choices.”

Fat chance. The media group’s code of conduct for digital platforms – to which the new policy is an addition – is no paragon of free expression. According to a copy accessed by Newslaundry, the code asks staffers to avoid tweeting against any “political party/ institutional/ competition” and to not “retweet or support views of any news organisation or individuals known to be working for any competition”.

Another pompous clause tells employees to not amplify “any individual or institution with the reputation of being inimical” to the “interest of the organisation or known to be supportive of a philosophy which is contrary to that of the company”.

Newslaundry sent TV9 a questionnaire. Here are the responses in full from BV Rao, group editor, TV9 Network.

Question: Can you please comment on the need to introduce a new social media policy at TV9?

Response: Firstly, it is not a new social media policy. We just modified an existing one as we modify all policies from time to time. Of late, and quite frequently, controversial opinions – even though they are expressed in the personal capacity on social media – are being ascribed to the organisation just because the persons expressing that opinion are introducing themselves as employees of the group.

Question: The new policy states that "any other post/tweets will need to be pre-approved by a competent authority: namely managing editors of respective channels for all editorial staff, group editor or news director for non-editorial staff and managing editors". Can you please comment on the importance of adding this clause in your policy? Do you believe – as TV9 staffers allege – that it goes against the staffers' right to free speech?

Response: Only if you take one sentence out of context to mount your query.

All employees are free to express their opinions anywhere in their personal capacity. This policy applies only to those employees who wish to use their TV9 Network identity to air opinions on public platforms. As news organisations we have the responsibility to stand by any message we put out in the public domain. Isn’t that why we have hierarchies in news organisations? Will a reporter’s raw copy go through without moderation? Will Newslaundry publish your report without assessing it for standards? Then why should social media posts of journalists/employees – whose identity is conjoined with that of the organization, not be put through the same filters? Especially when their controversial opinions get misconstrued as that of the organisation’s?

Let us put this differently. If a Newslaundry employee were to put out a tweet proclaiming that “it is time for India to declare itself a Hindu rashtra” and another were to say on the day of Raakhi festival that “people who swear in the name of sisters are celebrating a festival today”, would your editors commend them for the freedom of their (loose) speech? Or would they take steps to ensure that such wantonness is avoided? Those tweets – as many other inappropriate ones – actually went out recently leading to this necessary correction in the guidelines.

So, no, this is not about restricting free speech of our staffers, it is about saving them and the organization from embarrassment and worse. In the broader context, just like every piece of raw information collected by any journalist goes through content filters in every news organization, we believe anything that goes out into the public domain under the umbrella of the organization must meet the standards of public discourse.

Question: Newslaundry spoke to several TV9 employees. They allege that the new policy is an attempt to turn them into "bonded labourers", and that it is not fair, even ironic, to put journalists through such curbs.

Response: We are a transparent organization and encourage open dialogue. But as a policy, we do not take cognizance of anonymous mails or faceless opinions. More important, we are confident that our journalists/employees see the wisdom behind this exercise of restraint enjoined by the constitution of the country on every media outlet.

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