ITANAGAR: In September this year, when representatives of Arunachal Pradesh’s press bodies met chief minister Pema Khandu and placed their grievances over non-payment of government advertisements, there was a sense of déjà vu in the room.

Like in most other states of the region, in the absence of a thriving private sector newspapers in Arunachal Pradesh are dependent on government advertisements to run their daily finances including payment of employee salaries. However, fund-crunched as the states are, payments for state government-issued advertisements are hard to come by.

As per the memorandum submitted to the chief minister’s office in September by the Arunachal Press Club, as of February 2016 the state government owed close to Rs four crore to the seven English dailies of the state, which had accumulated over the years. This is despite the fact that official gazette notifications issued in 1991 and 1999 clearly state that funds for government advertisements under all departments must be allocated to the Department of Information & Public Relations to centralize and streamline payments. However, certain departments have been known to overlook the notifications and directly approach newspapers to publish advertisements, adding to the confusion.

The Arunachal Press Club has said that due to non-payment of government advertisement bills, newspapers are unable to offer their employees better salaries and other benefits such as life and health insurances. This is aside from the cost of printing the actual newspapers themselves.

Apart from three newspapers- The Arunachal Times, Independent Review and Eastern Sentinel- the other broadsheet dailies do not have their own printing machines and have to pay an average of Rs six to print their papers while selling them at a loss of Rs three. Factor in the low readership in the state, papers are unable to make any substantial gain from the sale of newspapers itself.

The press club here has argued that the IPR department needs to pull its socks and questioned why it repeatedly seeks submission of bills even after newspapers submit their bills on a regular basis.

It also said that payments must be made on a quarterly basis, such as those of the Centre’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP).

Currently there is no set timeline as to when payments are to be made and like most government payments, bills are paid towards the end of the financial year in March. During that mad rush in March, funds often lapse to the next financial year. This practice of disbursing payments by various government departments towards the end of the financial year instead of making regular payments has been criticised by Comptroller and Auditor General Reports in the past.

Things came to such a head that in February, the newspapers here boycotted the Statehood Day celebrations to mark their protest- a move that was met with some amount of criticism by the state machinery and sections of the public. The press bodies however argued that newspapers cannot function on goodwill alone and for any entity to survive, funds are a necessity.

But this was not the first time that such a step was taken in the Northeast.

Back in 2014, before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nagaland for the famous Hornbill Festival in December, newspapers in the state had threatened to not cover the visit if their pending bills were not cleared. Not surprisingly, the Nagaland government paid most of the amount rather hurriedly.

Similar other finance-related issues that plague newspapers in Arunachal Pradesh also affect those in Nagaland.

An employee from the management of a Dimapur-based newspaper said that there is a system in place wherein government advertisements have to be routed through the IPR department but that is often not the case.

“Also, some departments issue their advertisements late and IPR shuts by so they give us directly and some just don’t want to route through the IPR,” the source in Nagaland said.

In Mizoram too there are similar problems in delays in payments of advertisements. Mizoram has 203 publications registered with the RNI, most of which are published in the Mizo script and on single sheet legal size papers.

An Imphal-based journalist said that the situation is even worse in Manipur.

“No amenities, no allowances, no holidays,” he said about the scenario in Manipur which is hard hit by insurgency. He also said that newspaper owners are “squeezing journalists who are discharging their duties by risking their lives at trifling salaries”.

Due to the dependency on payment of delayed government advertisements, newspapers and magazines in the region are often under-staffed, with journalists having to follow leads and stories on various beats.

Unlike their counterparts in major publications outside, journalists here have to keep themselves abreast on beats ranging from sports to politics and everything in between. One would be hard-pressed to find a journalist who has dedicated herself on a single topic. There have also been instances in the past where journalists have been asked to stop pursuing leads by publishers themselves lest it incurs the wrath of the government.

While the Arunachal Pradesh government has often given assurances to clear bills, the reality is that the entire process gets derailed at the bureaucratic level.

Earlier last week, members of the Arunachal Press Club met with top officials of the department of IPR and chief minister Pema Khandu to address the issues that were placed. Although provisions were made to include a dedicated sum of money to be kept with the department of IPR for advertisement purposes, it is unlikely to bring any substantial changes on the ground.

The chief minister had insisted on having the pending bills cleared within a month’s time and the officials present agreed rather hesitantly to do so. However, off the record they said that the process of collection of bills alone from various departments and districts alone, places which are marred by communication bottlenecks, will take a good three months.

As if journalistic hurdles were not enough, this National Press Day press persons in the Northeast also have to worry about administrative challenges.