27 October 2020 11:49 AM

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LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK | 27 AUGUST, 2020

A Question of Media Ethics - DC Order Removes Containment Under Strict Conditions On Shillong Times

Shillong Times counters, TC stands by story


SHILLONG: A magisterial order from the Deputy Commissioner of East Khasi Hills, M War Nongbri issued late Tuesday night lifted the containment tag from the office of The Shillong Times (TST), after 45 High Risk staff members were identified.

The previous order place the Shillong Times office under containment on August 22 was lifted on strict conditions that the management complied with the eight rules of Covid-19 safety protocols that it had not reportedly followed earlier. The management is now required to submit a compliance report on this.

The 45 High Risk staff are to be strictly quarantined and are not to enter the office building or be in contact with the low risk (LR) staff. All LR staff who are permitted to work will have to download the Aarogya Setu and Behavioral Change Management Apps, the letter ordered.

The Shillong Times is the oldest premier English daily of the State with wide circulation and reach.

An official letter from the Deputy Commissioner to the Managing Director of the TST maintained “it may be kindly noted that it has been reported by the Medical Teams that visited the premises of the Shillong Times, that the protocols of theHealth Department have not been followed by lack of social distancing, not wearing of masks…” and has laid down conditions to be followed.

The newspaper management had vehemently contested the earlier closure of the Shillong Times and the conditions imposed, attributing all this to ulterior motives behind the health department’s recommendation to impose containment area protocols after 4 Covid 19 positive cases surfaced prior or August 22.

The DC’s letter ordered that besides strict quarantine, the daily will have to make arrangements for confinement of the High Risk staff so as to ensure that there is no contact with others. The protocol has been put into effect to manage the premises while ensuring that the high risk machine men and others staying in the office building are not allowed to work.There is a stern warning that if these protocols are not adhered to action will be taken.

The total number of staff is around 88. Every member of the TST family right from the owners family members to the workers and their families were tested.

The Shillong Times case has acquired controversial dimensions within the city, with journalists exchanging views and comments on the social media. While some alleged that the state government had buckled under pressure to remove the containment tag, the staff members of the newspaper said that the orders had finally brought clarity and transparency. And the tension reflected in conversations earlier had dissipated with sources maintaining,“They are at ease, ready and happy to work from their confinement, till their quarantine period is declared over by the state health department.”

EDITORS NOTE:

Meanwhile the Shillong Times management reacted adversely to a report in The Citizen bringing home the fears and apprehensions of the staff members about the spread of the coronavirus within the premises. Linda Chhakchhuak, an independent journalist, had taken the containment story further by recording the fears of the staff members in her report After-Hefty-Pay-Cuts-Management-Negligence-Exposes-Media-Staff-to-Covid-19. The correspondent stands by her story, based on interviews with reportedly fearful staff members with several comments about the management’s handling of the situation having also appeared in the public domain, including the social media. Linda has responded to the charges, her full statement is at the end of this report. The Citizen stands by the story.

The Shillong Times office was sealed by the authorities for having violated Covid-19 protocol. And High Risk staff members have been identified that the newspaper management has not been able to contradict.

Below is the full rejoinder from the Shillong Times management, printed to ensure that their “side of the story” including the use of highly avoidable adjectives questioning the reporters motivation, appears as sent by the newspaper publisher.

Your correspondent Linda Chhakchhuak's report "All pleas ignored" (August 25), on shutdown of The Shillong Times over Covid cases, 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 ceratin vested interest.

What outrages us is that your correspondent did not care to fact check with us. The sole motive behind publishing such a phoney report is nothing but to bismirch our image in the public eye.

We categorically refute the allegations of insensitivity of the management towards health safety of the colleagues. All health protocols have been put in place ever since the pandemic broke out. It's a different matter that some stiff necked news room staff often ignored the instructions thereby endangering others to risks of infection.

To put the record straight, after a machine section helper was detected positive at his home, the contact tracing exercise brought the health worklers to our office. On advice of the health officials, all others engaged in the machine section were sent for a random test. Although nobody was declared positive that day, they were instructed to remain in quarantine. Since the publication of the next edition would be in jeopardy if the machine section was to be inoperational, we sought clarification and expert advice from top health officials, who considering the essential nature of print media, advised that "they can work if they are found negative by taking all precautions" and not coming in cointact with others. The printing process was carried out accordingly for one day until one of them tested positive by a subsequent test. The report was conveyed to us after 10-30 pm. Considering that a good number of colleagues were still at work at that time, it was decided to quickly move him out of the campus not because we had anything to hide, but we cared for the rest of the staff's safety.

It was then that the management circulated a WhatsApp message to the entire ST staff to go for a random test next morning to "make doubly sure" that nobody else had been infected. Following day, 71 persons were sent up for tests and on the same night in a swift and unexpected move, the administration declared lockdown of the building.

Your correspondent seems to suggest that management coerced the staff to work. Fact is that we gave options to news persons to work from home. Those who didn’t have a computer at home were provided with one. Even our Reporters have been working from outside the office. Others chose to work from office.

Meanwhile, after the lockdown of our establishment, we provided food and lodging to those who were unwilling or unable to go back home pending test results.

Since the pandemic broke out, as public transport became scarce and prohibitive, we have provided conveyance facility for picking up and dropping the staff everyday. We are not sure every media house does so.

About your allegation that 50% pay cut was resorted to by the management from March last , we wish to inform that it is factually incorrect. We paid full salary in the months of March, April and May and thereafter, being unable to bear the liquidity crunch, we were compelled as the last sort to general pay deduction ranging from 10% to 30%, leaving the lowest slab completely unaffected. Despite enormous mounting financial pressure there has been no layoff. It may not interest your Correspondent to know that we are the only publication house in Meghalaya to extend Wage Board facilities to the staff.

So much for our insensitivity towards the staff!

As for the Correspondent's absurd idea of shutting down the publication because a couple of persons had tested Covid positive, may we know from you how many media houses are free from Covid infections today? Has anybody closed down so far? An English news channel in Guwahati has reported 36 positive cases. Have they missed a single transmission?

While media personnel the world over have stuck to their guns, it is beyond our comprehension why there was so much resistance and paranoia among a handful of our staff. It is only they who refused to agree with our plea that the show must go on. Instead, they have begun to pour out their venom against us.

It is the cardinal principle of journalism that a fair reportage should cover both sides of the story. The report in question didn’t provide our side of the story. That the story was extremely one-sided and vitriolic in nature raises legitimate questions about its very motive, particularly at a fragile time when we are fighting another battle against the mighty establishment. In times of crises, media being one on the frontline should be in solidarity not be on a mission of witch hunting based on unverified information provided by interested “sources”.

Being a senior pro, before allowing a slanted and planted story to go viral, wish you had called our Editor Patricia Mukhim, who is personally known to you, or anybody in the management.

Shobha Chaudhuri,General Manager,The Shillong Times Private Limited.


LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK REPLIES:

No Mala Fide Intention, No vested Interests,

As journalists we do our best to bring out facts behind narratives. ‘Leaks’ and ‘sources’ are the lifeline of investigative journalism and in legal parlance they are called whistleblowers and respected as such. Imputing ‘vested interests’ or calling the reporter’s copy as an attempt to besmirch the public image of the newspaper does not sit well on a 75 year old publication which has run countless of such reports in its seven and half decades history. It is in fact defamatory. They will have to prove it. But nowhere has the rejoinder contested the facts of the story. Instead, it has confirmed the points made in the report.

The incidents leading up to the containment of the premises of the TST and the many reports in various social media outlets quoting the proprietor and editor as well as several posts on Facebook and other platforms raising the cry that they were being ‘prevented’ from publishing the newspaper, were for any reporter interested in the Freedom of the Press and alive to the anti-journalist antics of governments everywhere , prime happenings to be probed and followed up and reported on for the cause.

But, on gathering the facts, one found that it was an entirely different story, a story that could not be ignored and one which was written causing this ire. Meanwhile, the ST management’s voice minus the workers views were already plastered across the internet, and since their opinion was already in the public domain it was taken as a given.

The third para of the rejoinder is redundant as TST was found totally wanting on this very count by the health officials and magistrates who inspected the premises. As for the lines which accuse the “stiff necked newsroom staff” for ignoring instructions endangering others to risk of infection, it is again an attempt to twist the focus of the story which, as reported in the article is that the infection started from a worker in the machine room, who got infected from elsewhere.

The management’s ignoring his Covid19 positive status and still allowing his high risk colleagues to come to work instead of being quarantined and sanitizing the machine room was allowed to come to work that led to the infection spreading to others. This is the point of the story, that safety protocols were flouted jeopardizing the safety of the workers, which is not contradicted by the rejoinder, and in fact, confirmed by the para four which, as can be seen has put the onus for the breaking of these standard rules to ‘permission’ from the health department officials.

The fresh question that arises from here is whether even if given ‘permission’ by the health department officials, a Press establishment can claim to have the right and privilege to continue to jeopardize the health and life of their workers and the neighborhood.

As TST management put on the “show must go on’ above the safety of workers in the face of corona virus , which is feared globally, the workers were naturally under pressure to work as being employees they have to follow the orders of the bosses. A show of humanity and concern for lives would have helped rather than the hidden whip of lay-offs that have become so common these days.

As for the newspaper’s claim that they are the only newspaper in the state to pay their staff the Wage Board facilities, it is only expected from an institution that’s 75 years old with the largest advertisement revenue and the claimed highest selling daily status. These are not charity given to the staff but their right under pain of punishment from the Supreme Court rulings to all newspaper managements. Unfortunately though these facilities once extended to the employees have been taken away over the course of time since 2016 leaving the Wage Board tag as just a namesake.

The idea that Media Houses should be exempted from the standard safety protocols to contain the spread of Covid19 is a debate that has few takers as it is not a political issue but related to the health and safety of the public at large. What is happening in Assam/Guwahati as highlighted in the rejoinder in para 8 is hardly an example to emulate. Journalist bodies in that state have questioned/are questioning the double standards of their government in not equally implementing the safety protocols on the media houses owned by the most powerful people there thereby allowing them to become Covid19 hotspots. This attitude of impunity is costing the Press its credibility.

WE LEAVE OUR READERS TO JUDGE FOR THEMSELVES.
 

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