By Maitreyee Boruah for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Had it not been for Rohith Vemula’s heart-rending account of his early life as a Dalit in the note he left behind, it might have been just another suicide.
But the contents of the suicide note not only led to massive protests, it also triggered a series of debates in the media on the discrimination faced by Dalits in higher educational institutes.
In such a scenario, where newsrooms have never attempted to make their spaces diverse in nature, a recent advertisement by a popular magazine seems to be a step in the right direction.
In media houses, where the hiring process is largely informal, with very few publications and TV channels advertising positions for journalists, the said magazine’s advertisement seeking ‘a Dalit- or an Adivasi-only person’ for the post of a reporter is rare.
Reliable data is not available to establish the number of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in media; experts say it is minuscule. Media critics say coverage on issues of caste, communalism and discrimination lacks sensitivity because of the absence of journalists from these sections.
“These days, media houses scout for entry-level journalists from media schools. Most of the Dalits/Adivasis are poor. They can’t afford to pay the high fees charged by these institutes. Thus, very few young Dalits/Adivasis are getting trained as journalists,” says Aditya Sinha, author and former editor-in-chief of ‘DNA’ and ‘The New Indian Express’.
Sevanti Ninan, editor, ‘The Hoot’, which regularly conducts research pertaining to the media to strengthen its independence, says she had no doubt that the number is still minuscule, but the situation is changing.
“The Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai has scholarships for Dalit journalists. One of their graduates is a state correspondent of The Hindu. They have applicants from other states (outside Tamil Nadu) and there would be a dozen or more coming out of their course. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) has some reserved seats too. Dalits like tribal journalists are attracted to the reservation that exists for them in teaching and other jobs. Journalism does not offer them a secure future,” Ninan adds.
As per a report published in Kafila in 2014, “Though, the Asian College of Journalism—a not-for-profit school–does not have reserved seats, it accorded scholarship to four SC/ST students in 2012-13, as previous years. Notwithstanding scholarship, the percentage of Dalit students in ACJ to the total intake is woefully low: 1.5 percent of the total students for three-year combined.” It also cites how, “Some expensive private institutions such as Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Xavier Institute of Communication, Times School of Journalism and Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication have no scholarship or reserved seats for SC/ST students.”
“Our media houses are not pluralistic and liberal in nature. Most editors and journalists are from the upper castes and privileged sections,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit author, and mentor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI).
“The near-absence of Dalit and Adivasi journalists reflects in the way news related to underprivileged sections is given scant importance by the press,” he adds.
Even the aforementioned magazine advertisement cites the same reason for the “diversity position” in its job posting.
E-mail queries sent to the executive editor of the magazine to find out the response received by them to their advertisement went unanswered.
To date no survey has been conducted by any competent authority, including the Press Council of India (PCI), to know the exact percentage of Dalit and Adivasi in Indian newsrooms. It is a fact though that very few from these sections of society are in mainstream media.
Lack of ‘merit’ and the Dalit ‘preference’ to work in the government sector are often cited as reasons for the absence of journalists from underprivileged sections in media houses.
Bala Gurumurthy, author, activist and administrative officer at the Karnataka government run Dr. Ambedkar Research Institute which studies socio-economic status of SC/ST in the state, says Dalit issues make headlines only when they are violent in nature such as rape, murder, and suicide.
Dr. Ambedkar Research Institute was established by the government of Karnataka in 1994. The Institute functions under the administrative control of the Social Welfare Department. The main motto of the institute is to study the socio-economic status of the SC/ST population in Karnataka.
“What about social boycott? A Dalit endures various kinds of humiliation and struggle. How many times TV debates bring those questions to the fore?” Gurumurthy asks even as he insists that very few journalists are sensitive towards the cause of the Dalit and the marginalized.
Two decades ago, B.N. Uniyal, a veteran journalist from Delhi made an attempt to “find” a Dalit journalist in Delhi at the request of a foreign correspondent, who wanted to speak to a “Dalit” journalist on a tussle between Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leaders and journalists.
Uniyal could not find a single Dalit working journalist! The result of his frustrating search was a pioneering article “In Search Of A Dalit Journalist” published in The Pioneer on November 16, 1996.
17 years later, in 2013, Delhi-based journalist and author Ajaz Ashraf, for a story he wrote, could identify only 21 Dalit journalists across India.
Today, 20 years after Uniyal’s search for a Dalit journalist, the author of this report could zero in on only three Dalit working journalists in all of Karnataka— one in an English newspaper; two in Kannada newspapers.
They shared their caste details and spoke of the discrimination Dalit journalists faces in media houses. Of the three, while two did so on strict conditions of anonymity, fearing for their “careers,” only one was comfortable in using his name.
“We are very few in number. I know only one more person (apart from me) from the Dalit community who works as a reporter in Kolar district,” says K.S. Ganesh of the popular Kannada newspaper Prajavani.
Ganesh acknowledges to discrimination against Dalit journalists in newsrooms. “It is a well-known secret. If we talk about it, it would be taken against us. We would be accused of dividing the journalist fraternity on the basis of caste,” he says.
“They say they don’t have the space. That’s their best excuse. The Kolar edition of my newspaper regularly carries stories on the marginalised sections but they don’t get published in the Bengaluru edition,” says Ganesh.
Of the other two who chose to remain anonymous, one, a senior reporter of a prominent English daily who has been working for more than 10 years said, “If I openly discuss the deep-rooted prejudice against Dalit and Adivasi in media houses, my career would be in jeopardy.”
There are many instances of leading media houses giving jobs to relatives of senior editors as they dominate the newsroom but not to a qualified Dalit, the senior reported insists.
The second Bengaluru scribe who sought anonymity and works for a Kannada daily, says people from dominant castes say the Dalit lacks merit, that the Dalit has less command over the language.
Not many upper caste journalists acknowledge the existence of caste-based bias in media.
“We are journalists, we don’t have any caste or religion. Keep caste away from the media,” says a Kolkata-based Brahmin woman journalist. “I don’t believe in the caste system. Neither do I practice caste-based discrimination. Who says a Brahmin can’t report and write on Dalits? A journalist has to be sensitive, that’s all that’s needed.”
However, a few ‘upper-caste’ journalists do admit to a dearth of scribes from marginalised sections. They blame the editors and media owners for not bridging the gap.
“It is not easy to talk about the existence of caste-based politics in newsrooms. (Only) few editors and owners of big media houses actively encourage diversity and discussion on it in newsrooms,” says Samir Kar Purkayastha, a Kolkata-based independent senior journalist.
Media houses can take a cue from the US and conduct a survey on the lines of American Society of Newspaper Editors (asne.org) Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey, suggests Prasad.
“The Indian Dalit is like the African-American in the US. The American press rectified the exclusion of Blacks by increasing their numbers in newsrooms. Surveys done by ASNE are a testimony to it,” he says.
Increasing the diversity in US newsrooms has been a primary mission of ASNE since 1978. The society has been an industry leader in helping news organisations better reflect their communities, states the ASNE website.
Then there’s the question of the Dalit journalist and allegations of disparity in pay. When cancer claimed the life of Nagaraju Koppula, a Dalit scribe working with The New Indian Express, Hyderabad, in 2015, his friends alleged underpayment and caste discrimination at his workplace.
The movement could not sustain for long as it was not backed by any prominent institution. Despite the demand for compensation from the employer of Nagaraju and the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, however, not much has happened so far.
But there are those who beg to differ. “This applies to all (journalists), irrespective of caste or gender. Similarly designated journalists are paid differently depending on place of posting, English media journalists are paid better than their counterparts in the vernacular medium. Like hiring, pay packages of journalists are never openly discussed. So it would be difficult to say if Dalit journalists are further discriminated in terms of salary,” says Purkayastha.
Ninan says there simply isn’t enough information available on this issue in the public domain.
Uniyal was disappointed when “In Search Of A Dalit Journalist” failed to force editors and owners of media houses to seriously introspect and overthrow the “Brahminical” dominance of newsrooms.
Two decades later, not much has changed: There’s very less room for the Dalit in newsrooms.
About the author: Maitreyee Boruah is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist and a senior member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Her reporting reflects issues of society at large and human rights in particular.