Closure of Sangbad Lahari

Bengali daily, Sangbad Lahari  published from Guwahati and Shillong has been closed down.  Nava J. THAKURIA raises concern

When the media fraternity of Assam intensifies its activities for the electoral coverage of many phases of India’s 16th Lok Sabha polls starting on April 7, the unwanted news broke. The management of Shillong Times Private limited has closed down the publication of Sangbad Lahari, a Bengali daily newspaper simultaneously published from Guwahati and Shillong. As the closure notice (Ref no ST/63/14, signed by general manager  S. Chaudhuri) came from the Shillong based management, the publication of the daily has been ceased since 31 March 2014.

The notice served on 26 March to the employees of the daily, cited the reason for shutting down the newspaper as because of ‘reasons beyond its control’ (read financial crisis). The owner of the media house that published Sangbad Lahari always claimed that it was not ‘a money-making venture but a social service for the esteem Bengali readers’. Manas Chaudhuri, a seasoned politician of Meghalaya whose family owns the publication house, reiterated the mission as and when needed explanation.

Sangbad Lahari was first launched in Guwahati in 2009 and later its Shillong edition was started in July 2011. The then Meghalaya Governor RS Mooshahary released the first copy of Sangbad Lahari, which was in fact the first Bengali daily of the State. Chaudhuri, the then managing director of Shillong Times group was also present on the occasion to narrate his mission statement that it was not a profitable venture like many other media enterprises.

Prior to Sangbad Lahari, Assam witnessed the formal closing down of three daily newspapers and one satellite news channel in Guwahati during 2013. First it was the sudden closure of Sakaal Bela, a Bengali daily Seven Sisters’ Post, an English newspaper, following the collapse of Kolkata based Saradha Group of Companies, which owned both the media outlets.

It was followed by Prime News, a satellite news channels initially owned by Jiban Surakhya Group and Dainik Pratibimba, an Assamese daily run by RB Publications. Nearly 1000 media employees rendered jobless with the shutting down of four media outlets within a year. The employees of three newspapers did not receive any compensation from the management, but the television employees of Prime News could compel its management with a series of protests to release three  months’ compensatory salaries to them at the time of closure.

Assam has over 25 morning daily newspapers and thousands periodicals published in different languages. Moreover it hosts seven privately owned satellite news channels which beam news & other programs in various languages like Assamese, English, Hindi, Bengali with other regional languages virtually to cater the need of nearly 60 million population of northeast India.

The journalist and non-journalist media employees engaged with various Guwahati based newspapers and news channels have already expressed their concern at the closure of Sangbad Lahari that rendered 100 employees jobless. They have also demonstrated in front of Guwahati Press Club on Sunday 30 March 30 covering their mouths with black clasps.

The agitators have urged both Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi  and Meghalaya chief minister Dr Mukul Sangma to pursue with the management to continue the publication of Sangbad Lahari. They also rejected the offer of Shillong Times management to pay one month’s salary to the employees of Sangbad Lahari as a token of support by 8 April next.

All Assam Media Employees’ Federation (AAMEF) has already lodged a complaint regarding the closure of Sangbad Lahari in the office of State labour commissioner in the city. AAMEF president Hiten  Mahnata argues that the Shillong Times  management must release at least five months’ compensatory salaries to the  employees of Sangbad Lahari with other legal benefits.

The media employees’ federation observed with irritations that like other media houses of the region, the management of Sangbad Lahari also indirectly cited the reason of financial crisis in its closure notice.  The media house owners irrespective of newspapers or privately-owned news channels have made it a habit to show a loss-making balance sheet to avoid paying due salaries to the employees. “Except few, it’s a common practice for all the media barons in Assam to divert funds from the collected amount of money from the advertisers to other non-media enterprises owned by their families.

Thus the owners continue siphoning away the essential resource of the media groups for their selfish interest only to showcase the media business as an unprofitable endeavour,” asserted Mahnata. Earlier, Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) urged all political parties of India to show their sincerity towards the implementation of various welfare schemes to media persons engaged in both print & electronic media.

The Assam based scribes’ body also insisted on for a special protection laws for journalists on duty who are working in the trouble torn northeast India. Expressing grave concern over helpless working condition of media persons, particularly the private television journalists of northeast India, the JFA has urged both the Indian Union labour ministry and province governments of the alienated region to look into the matter.

The forum argued that nearly 80% working journalists of the region are still performing their duties with pitiable salaries (read monthly financial package), unlimited working hours and without any facilities recommended by the country’s labour laws.

“The reporters and camera persons, engaged with the satellite news channels of the region, have to work in a vulnerable atmosphere with low wages, more than 8 hours working period in a day, without weekly off-day, no leaves in need and with no facility for life & health insurance coverage,” said Rupam Barua, president of JFA.

AAMEF also reiterated its demand for a social media audit in the region where the readers/viewers can find a transparent picture of the financial dealings involved with their favourite news papers and news channels. The media audit should address many vital issues relating to the media market in the country. It would also help the journalists and non-journalist employees to get their due benefits supported by the law, added the media employees’ federation.

(Author is a senior journalist of Assam)