‘Star reporter with no income’: What Pawan Jaiswal’s death tells us about the state of rural reporters

Journalism doesn’t pay their bills, they have little or no institutional support and rely on commissions from ‘finding ads’ for papers.

ByTanishka Sodhi
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‘Star reporter with no income’: What Pawan Jaiswal’s death tells us about the state of rural reporters
Shambhavi Thakur
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In his final news report, Pawan Jaiswal visited Rampur Dhabahi village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur in August 2021, where he asked a young woman about her dreams.

The woman, Pinki, had been the subject of an Academy Award winning documentary 13 years ago, on how corrective surgery for her cleft lip had changed her life.

“Do you want to leave this place, or stay here all your life?” Pawan asked her.

“I won't stay here,” Pinki said. “Because if I do, I won’t be able to study. There are hills everywhere. I’ll go somewhere where there’s a good school, and stay in a hostel and study.”

In the 10-minute report for Jhumri Talaiya, a local YouTube channel, Pawan speaks for at least six minutes, with a pace and clarity typical of a journalist comfortable in front of the camera. His focus remained on Pinki – viewers would never guess what Pawan himself was experiencing at the time.

It was when Pawan was returning to Mirzapur city that he told Vijay Vineet, the founder of the channel who had accompanied him for the assignment, what he was going through.

“He said he had his tooth extracted by a doctor who did it the wrong way, and that his tooth wasn’t getting better,” Vijay recalled. “He said he had been suffering for two months. I referred him to a doctor.”

Vijay accompanied Pawan to Varanasi to meet the doctor, who told them the issue seemed more serious than a tooth extraction.

“He told us that this isn't about the tooth anymore, and was seeming to be cancer,” Vijay said. “We couldn't believe that a strong person like Pawan would suddenly fall to cancer.”

Several appointments and tests later, it was confirmed – Pawan had stage three mouth cancer.

Over the next eight months, Pawan had eight surgeries and was admitted to three hospitals. The cancer spread to his lungs. Over Rs 18 lakh was spent on his treatment – his family sold their Tata Nano car and their jewellery to fund it.

It wasn’t enough. On April 11, Pawan posted one of his last tweets, asking for help.

“In life, I have done honest journalism,” the tweet said. “...But now, I am losing hope. At this time, I need money for treatment, I am suffering from cancer. Please help.”

Several journalists and public figures stepped up, but it was too little too late. Pawan died on May 5 at a private hospital in Varanasi. He was 38.

As a journalist, Pawan reported on issues of crime, social justice and governance, mostly for regional channels and publications such as Jansandesh Times.

And the money he earned aligned with how most small-town journalists are paid in India – he could not depend on his job for an income.

Journalists like Pawan form the backbone of journalism, gathering news for big studios and publications in metropolitan cities. They receive little credit or money.

The death of a journalist is barely a blip in the news cycle. Over 600 journalists have died of Covid in the last two years, and thousands more die every year of other causes.

But journalists like Pawan form the backbone of journalism, gathering news for big studios and publications in metropolitan cities. They receive little credit or money, their roles reduced to terms like “stringers” – an army of underpaid, and even unpaid, news gatherers who are vital to the news business.

This is why Pawan’s life, and death, is symptomatic of the larger issue ailing journalists in small towns like Mirzapur.

‘He told me to save his life – we were unsuccessful’

Pawan lived in Ahraura, a town 50 km from Mirzapur city. He lived in his family home with his parents, his brothers, wife, and kids. He is survived by his wife Pinky and two children, aged three and four.

In the lanes leading up to the house, everyone seemed to know of Pawan. A signboard stood outside his house with his name and mobile number – a testament to his connections with the public.

“He didn’t do this work as a duty. It was a 24-hour job for him,” said his older brother Krishna. “He would get calls at midnight from people who would tell him about issues and he would immediately leave to go to the spot – even if it was 12 am or 2 am. He didn’t have fixed hours...He would just take his bike and go.”

Krishna said there was “no income” for his brother in journalism – just a “few thousand rupees” per month at the most.

“Sometimes, he would get work that would give him Rs 1,000-2,000 but only if it was work from a big organisation,” he said. “He dreamed of working in a big organisation. Because working as a journalist here, he had no income at all.”

Pawan’s younger brother Deepak added, “There were many journalists but people trusted Pawan. They came to him because they knew he would tell their stories to the world.”

It was only after Pawan’s death that Krishna learned the extent of how much his brother was fond of writing poetry, on subjects like corruption and destiny. Those who knew Pawan shared his poetry online after his death. Pawan had also been a budding photographer and owned a collection of cameras, most of which now lie broken in his home.

Newslaundry visited Pawan’s family on May 10. Even in death, his presence filled the hall where the family was seated. His mother’s cries of grief rang through the house, the living room dotted by awards he had collected over the last few years for his work.

Pawan’s life in journalism started late – he had done advertising and promotion work for companies before switching to journalism eight years ago. He also ran a mobile accessories shop until 2019 to supplement his income, taking out a loan of Rs 2 lakh for it.

But, in Krishna’s words, he wanted to “change the system” and so, he tried his hand at journalism.

“He’d get a lot of threats but didn’t care,” Krishna said. “Someone once told him they would spend lakhs of rupees to destroy him. Pawan asked them, what does he even have to get destroyed?”

He’d get a lot of threats but didn’t care. Someone once told him they would spend lakhs of rupees to destroy him. Pawan asked them, what does he even have to get destroyed?
Krishna Jaiswal

As the days went by after his cancer diagnosis, Pawan realised he was dying. He sent his mother back home to Mirzapur while he stayed on in the hospital in Varanasi. He also sent messages to his friends, telling them he knew the end was near.

“Once, he texted me saying he wasn’t able to breathe,” said Brijendra Dubey, a freelance journalist in Mirzapur. “He told me to somehow save his life. But we were unsuccessful.”

Krishna, who was Pawan’s primary caregiver, also vividly remembers those days. Like Vijay, he said Pawan had first complained of a toothache which turned out to be cancer.

“The operation took place in a private hospital in Varanasi. They cut and removed his entire jaw but the plastic surgery wound did not heal,” said Krishna. “So, there was another operation. Sometimes they grafted skin from his leg, sometimes from his chest. But there was no improvement in his condition.”

Throughout this time, Pawan had also had a relentless cough. “After a CT scan, they found it was in his lungs too,” Krishna said. “And when he found out, he completely lost hope.”

He added, “In the end, I could only catch a glimpse of him when I’d come to give medicine as he was on a ventilator and we weren’t allowed to go in. We spent almost Rs 2 lakh in just the last three days..and we couldn’t even save him.”

An FIR, pressure and disillusionment

Friends, family members and former colleagues put together a picture of a journalist with dreams that matched those sitting at desks in metro cities. He wanted to write about people’s problems, about corruption ailing society. Pawan had a strong network and a nose for news – he would search for stories and follow them to their end.

Text messages from Pawan to his friends, asking for help.

Text messages from Pawan to his friends, asking for help.

Pawan had eight surgeries before his death.

Pawan had eight surgeries before his death.

“Pawan was a village reporter,” said Vijay Vineet. “But the passion that he had – he would go to any limit for it.”

Vijay was Pawan’s editor in 2019 when the latter worked for Jansandesh Times. It was under Vijay that Pawan reported on how a government school in Mirzapur fed students salt with roti as part of their midday meal.

The local administration then filed an FIR against Pawan, accusing him of “conspiracy”. By then, the district court had suspended two people after investigating the claims in Pawan’s story – and finding them to be true. The journalism fraternity, both local and national, also extended support, through statements and protests, and the UP police finally cleared Pawan of all charges three months later.

“He was fearless,” Vijay said. “He was my star reporter.”

But the story, and the FIR, took its toll. Despite being cleared of charges four months later, Pawan struggled under political pressure and stress. He also closed down his mobile accessories shop.

“His life changed. He started treading carefully,” said Indresh Pandey, NDTV’s reporter in Mirzapur. “The administration had its eye on him. People started telling him, ‘Don’t come for this story as the top administration keeps an eye out when you are there.’”

Indresh told Newslaundry Pawan had never studied journalism but “possessed the qualities of a big reporter”.

“He knew which news would be small, which would be big,” he said. “It’s rare to find such journalists in small towns.”

But this isn’t quite true. Small-town India is teeming with journalists like Pawan – often relegated to the background of stories headlined by city journalists who use their resources.

“People still do not consider rural reporters as journalists,” said Shiv Das, a freelance journalist in Varanasi. “We’re made to feel like we are doing this as a hobby, even when we are the primary source for the news. People come from cities like Delhi to do stories that were first done by rural reporters for whom they have zero value. Often, they don’t even get bylines. When they sit in Delhi, they give rural journalists Rs 500 for a story. But when they come themselves, they’ll spend Rs 20,000-30,000.”

Pawan did not earn enough for basic healthcare. Medical insurance was out of the question. He had no savings, as the money went into daily expenses. After Pawan’s cancer diagnosis, Shiv and others had tried to help Pawan with finding a hospital and raising funds.

People still do not consider rural reporters as journalists. We’re made to feel like we are doing this as a hobby, even when we are the primary source for the news. People come from cities like Delhi to do stories that were first done by rural reporters.
Shiv Das

“He didn’t have the money or links to get admitted in a good hospital in Delhi where he could have got better treatment,” he explained. Pawan had tried though. Shiv said Pawan once went to Delhi when someone – Shiv wasn’t sure who – offered to help but when he reached the national capital, all he had to show for it was a Rs 30,000 bill for travel and stay.

“He was so disillusioned with the last trip to Delhi,” said Shiv, “that even when we found connections to help him get admitted in a hospital there, he refused. If he had gotten treated in a good hospital in time, he could have been saved.”

An ad model at odds with journalism

In the centre of the compound belonging to Mirzapur’s district magistrate in Mirzapur city, a tree stands tall.

“That’s our press club,” said Brijendra Dubey, pointing towards it with a laugh.

Under the tree is where Brijendra and other journalists, reporters and stringers gather every morning, discussing the news of the day. That morning, it was a rape case in a city hospital that had everyone’s attention. Conversations ranged from police quotes and holes in the case to making phone calls to editors with updates.

Pawan would occasionally join the daily gathering too. Journalists at the “press club” have taken his death as a personal defeat – many of them had contributed and spread the word about his crowdfunding.

“He had messaged me saying he was very troubled as he didn’t have money to buy medicines,” said Brijendra. “If he had reached out to us earlier and we could have arranged money then, he would have still been among us.

Brijendra said Pawan had been “very fond of doing stories” but the lack of a steady income hit hard.

Journalists in towns like Mirzapur earn according to the ads they bring, not the news they report.

Journalists in towns like Mirzapur earn according to the ads they bring, not the news they report.

“Whenever we would talk, he would tell me he wanted to work for a big platform because he couldn’t manage with this kind of money,” he said. “When he fell sick and was confined to the bed, he said this dream of his had been broken.”

He added, “This is the condition of not just Pawan but all reporters here.”

Journalists in Mirzapur, like all their counterparts outside metropolitan cities, are under pressure on two fronts – to report and to bring in ads for publications they work for.

Newslaundry has previously reported on how stringers are routinely set targets to bring in advertisement revenue, which gives them a commission. This is a huge chunk of their income since freelancers in Mirzapur, for instance, are only paid between Rs 300 and Rs 1,000 for a report for a national organisation. This money often reaches them months later. Meanwhile, local news organisations pay only Rs 200-500 per report.

The real income, therefore, lies in ad revenue. And this model – of managing ads – often pushes these journalists to not report on stories or issues that might affect the flow of ads.

“Journalists here receive a commission for the ads they bring in – 20 percent in some places, 30 in others,” said Mukesh Pandey, a reporter. “If you do real journalism, you won’t get ads from governments or private entities who will think you only run negative news. Reporters realise now that if you report and show the reality on the ground, you won’t get advertisements.”

The real income, therefore, lies in ad revenue. And this model – of managing ads – often pushes these journalists to not report on stories or issues that might affect the flow of ads.

He added, “A lot of people are leaving this profession. Because without money, how many days can you survive?”

Sapnesh Patel, a journalist with Samachar Plus, agreed.

“When you start working in this field, you think you want to do non-partisan journalism, social service, and bring people’s problems to the forefront,” he said. “But this expectation is broken once you come to the field. If you write against someone, they distance themselves from you and don’t give you advertisements.”

Competition for ads is also intensifying, Sapnesh said. An ad that was once worth Rs 10,000 now goes for Rs 2,000 – so the journalist’s commission is even smaller. “During this inflation, how will a journalist’s family survive on this amount?” he asked.

Importantly, many of these journalists find themselves without organisational help and support in times of trouble. Many of them don’t have press cards, and are unable to prove their employment with the organisation. This is a massive roadblock in both reporting and ensuring their own protection. Pawan’s editor had supported him when the FIR was filed, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Shiv, sounded bitter as he summed up the state of rural journalists in India.

“The people who are sitting after winning awards like Ramnath Goenka should talk about who their sources are for these stories,” he said. “You are not the source, it is the rural reporter whom you don’t even credit. Besides the system, even the journalism community is responsible for this. Many like Pawan are dying unnoticed because of this.”

Also Read :
Kerala’s stringers lived a hard life. The pandemic made it worse
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