MONTHS and months of unpaid salaries, unending unpaid leaves, unpaid termination benefits and penalised unions — this is what the pandemic has left the news industry with. An introspection into the fourth estate reveals that those tasked with speaking up against violations have been the victims of gross labour rights violations themselves.

When a legacy newspaper with ruling party alignment terminated 36 people on March 15, 2021, it led to a messy series of events. First, the ones terminated claimed that they were all members of a trade union inside the newspaper, and they had been penalised for unionising.

“We formed a union because two years ago we wanted to pressurise the establishment to pay the arrears of the previous years. At the time of termination we were demanding that we receive increments — there had been no increments in the newspaper for eight years,” claimed Bivash Barai, a terminated journalist who was the head of the union unit.

The pandemic has left the Bangladeshi fourth estate riddled with labour law violations

Thirty-six of them got a termination letter 11 days after, stating they were not needed at the newspaper. On April 11, they organised a protest in front of the office. “The gate was closed and there were police in front of it. Inside, there were many people sitting facing the gate armed with rods — but we had no idea who they were,” said Bivash.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. “When we were not being allowed into the building, the protesters threw small rocks at the gate. The people inside retaliated by attacking the protesters with rods,” said Shaju Ahmed, a former subeditor at the newspaper who had worked for the paper for seven years. He was attacked from behind, and hit on the head several times, drawing blood.

“I fell to the ground and lay there,” said Shaju. “They beat me all over my body... I have headaches all the time, and often feel dizzy.”

At another prominent newspaper owned by a leading industrial group, senior employees were placed on unpaid ‘leave’ on June 10 last year, leave that has still not ended.

“Twenty-nine of us were given letters on June 10,” said a former senior reporter of the newspaper requesting anonymity. This increased later to about 50 to 60. Seeing that the news organisation was neither terminating him lawfully, nor asking him to come back to work, he recently handed in his resignation, thereby forfeiting the termination benefits he was entitled to.

“They did not terminate us, so I only received my provident fund, but not the service benefit,” said Naushad Jamil, a 37-year-old senior reporter who worked at the organisation for the last 11 years. “This is a violation of the labour law.”

At a slightly smaller newspaper owned by a social services organisation, journalists have not been getting paid for months at a time. “I was terminated in April 2020. Those of us who were part of the union were terminated first — six of us first, then six more people. I was the Dhaka Union of Journalists unit chief at the newspaper,” said Motlu Mallik who used to be the chief reporter. In addition, the sacked journalists had to protest to get their rightful service benefits, he said.

While all is less than rosy in the city centre, journalists working outside Dhaka fared far, far worse.

Al-Mamun Jibon, a reporter from Thakurgaon was served a double blow when he was sued under the Digital Security Act (DSA) and his salary stopped at the same time.

Then on April 15, he was hit with a DSA case for putting up a social media post about how the administration’s mismanagement led to a surge in Covid-19 cases. “Since then I had to be on the run for fear of arrest, until I got bail on Sept 2. Meanwhile my earning was nil from the newsroom,” said Jibon.

Another 34-year-old reporter from Sunamganj, who requested anonymity, spoke of being taken on by a large newspaper in December 2019, but of having received his contract only in March of this year. “I have not gotten any recruitment/contract letter since then....I only got a contract letter last month, and hopefully will start getting a salary soon,” he said.

A sense of despair and hopelessness about the future was the one prevalent sentiment that was common among all the journalists interviewed by The Daily Star.

“Will this report change anything?” questioned Jamil. The answer to that unfortunately, is not known.

The writer is a reporter with The Daily Star, Bangladesh.

A longer version of this article is on dawn.com

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2021

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