NEW DELHI: The sudden death of Akshay Singh, a special correspondent with the IndiaToday group, focuses attention of course on the mammoth Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh but also on the plight of the working journalist today for whom little has changed over the years on the ground. The only reason that Singh got some mention in the news was because he had died in strange circumstances while covering the sinister scam, and could not be completely ignored.

Television has made journalism so star studded that the journalist outside prime time has become virtually faceless, the plodder who few know and recognise. But he remains the person who works day and night to follow ‘orders’ and somehow keep his job intact in an environment where scribes are fired without warning, and where contracts are terminated on the whim of the editors.

One was reminded of the old adage, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Big money has poured into news, turning it from a respectable profession into a business. Those at the top draw heavy multi-crore salaries, travel and live in luxury, and are no longer at a distance from the rich and the powerful, but are the same themselves. The lines between the ‘news’ and those who cover the news have blurred, with the editors and owners of the big media houses becoming the ‘news’ themselves. There is this easy mix at the top, where the one becomes the other, and the real “other” becomes the working journalist who is almost all the time in the firing line.

Life has not changed for him or her , and certainly not in the states and the districts. The death of Akshay Singh, a special correspondent with Aaj Tak TV, while covering the Vyapam scam is a case in point. Singh died, frothing at the mouth, after interviewing the family of a young girl accused in the scam, and who herself had died in similar mysterious circumstances about three years ago. There is of course, the Vyapam story that needs full media attention as at least 23 persons associated with it have died unnatural deaths. But in Singh’s death there is also the story of the working journalist and the circumstances under he works.

The cameraman who accompanied him, and who carried him on his lap to the hospital, who fought for medical attention for him, perhaps inadvertently gave a glimpse of how nothing really has changed. The little he said while responding to questions on the television channel showed the stress under which Singh was to get the story, how they had travelled for the interview, how they had had nothing to eat except a few bananas on the way for the entire day, their last meal being dinner---roti and dal makhani-- the night before, and what he did not say, how completely unprotected they were. Of course all journalists on a story forego meals, eat when they can, but there was something so sad about the cameraman’s narrative, perhaps it was the contrast between him and the images of Singh he had taken, and the top brass of the television channels that has become more stark with time. It is as if there are two worlds, the haves in journalism who get the cream or are the cream, and the have-nots who cannot even get to the desi ghee.

Even in the broad category of working journalists there are two distinct levels. The one are those on a regular contract---most media houses today prefer contract agreements and not employment per se---who of course do not get pensions. They never have. The pay scales have improved, but not dramatically so for the working journalist. The really dramatic hikes have been for the editors at the top, making for a huge difference in salaries between the editor-in-chief and the reporter on the ground. This was not so before television became a business, and contract labour was unheard of in journalism. Every special correspondent if he worked hard, and stayed long enough with the publication, could aspire to reach the salary drawn by the editor. Today the difference is almost vulgar.

However, this category of working journalists are better looked after, have more clout of course, and in the not so abusive newsrooms are part of the team as it were. This does not make them immune to instant firing of course, with recent journalistic history replete with the sacking of hundreds at a time, without notice, without compensation.

The second category who are not even on the rolls are the stringers, the backbone of news gathering in the smaller towns and the districts. They are paid a pittance, and usually not paid at all except for what they write. Regional newspapers do not even pay for the stories printed, but offer them a small percentage for any advertisements they might bring in. And since this becomes their means to a livelihood these stringers spend their time cosying up to authorities, politicians, and others in a bid to get an advertisement. If this does not work, it is just a step away to blackmail, perhaps in most cases a more gentile---I will not write this sir if you want---in return for money or favours. Of course, there are many editors one can name in Delhi who do the same, and not for a living!

These stringers are the ones who bear the brunt of local anger for stories carried by the publication, or the channel that hurt the vested interests. Recently the brutal murders in Uttar Pradesh of journalists are a case in point, where some noise was made about the deaths by the media, but not a single media house came forward to ‘own’ the journalists as it were, who died in the field, collecting news without even basic protection from those who were using their stories.

Nothing has been done to change this with the plight of stringers becoming worse if that was possible. The stringers are the reporters with their feet on the ground, with full information of the district down to the bare details, and are usually the persons visiting journalists from the big cities first contact, However, despite this their status remains that of a pariah in the organisation, that adopts a ‘hands off’ approach as and when the stringers run into some trouble.

Interestingly there is no insurance cover provided by the media houses to the journalists they employ. No fund given to the families for scribes who die on the job. No monetary relief of any kind for the journalist who continues to live on a day to day basis, with the morrow as for Akshay Singh and the nameless who have died similar deaths, uncertain and with no guarantees.

How can press freedom be anything but notional if the journalist is not truly free?

(Limit-Less is a weekly column)