A unique judicial intervention

A year that has seen a record number of working journalists lose their jobs ended with a high court setting a significant precedent.

In what is a unique judicial intervention, a vacation judge of the Madras High Court at Chennai issued an interim injunction restraining the management of New Generation Media Corporation Private Limited from acting on a letter served on 35-odd employees asking them to either accept a sharp cut in remuneration or leave the company. The injunction will at least temporarily protect the services of employees who were engaged to work for a English television news channel which was never launched.

This is the first time in India that a court has intervened in this manner to protect the services of television news professionals. Also significant is the attempt to bring this dispute within the purview of the Working Journalists Act and the Industrial Disputes Act. The management of New Generation Media as well as the Tamil Nadu government have been given time till 21 January to reply to the issues raised in the petitions filed by 29 employees. The interim order was issued by the vacation judge of the high court, Justice K B K Vasuki. (The court is not in full session at present.)

The Hoot.org had broken the story on 23 December about how the management of New Generation Media, which is part of the Sri Ramaswamy Memorial (SRM) group, had decided to indefinitely postpone the launch of its English television news channel and had verbally informed 40-odd employees that they should either accept a 50 per cent cut in their salaries or leave their jobs after accepting a severance package equal to three months' cost to the company (CTC). Many of these employees had been waiting for a year and a half for the English news channel to be launched which never happened.

The SRM group had set up a number of educational institutions before diversifying into hospitals, transportation, hospitality, engineering, electronics, power, besides film production, media and entertainment. Group company New Generation Media brings out various publications and runs two television channels, Puthiya Thalaimurai, a 24-hour Tamil news channel and Puthu Yugam, a general entertainment channel. The news channel has sought to be neutral in its political stance vis-a-vis the two major political parties in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK. A number of employees told thehoot.org that they learnt of the cancellation of the company’s broadcasting licence for the first time on the 26th of December when they read Shyam Kumar’s letter to them.

After weeks of verbally telling its employees to quit or accept a pay cut, the management of New Generation Media issued a formal letter dated 23 December in this regard to some of its employees which reached them three days later. The letter, signed by R B U Shyam Kumar, chief executive officer of New Generation Media, stated that the "turn of events" over the last few months, including the "unwarranted cancellation" of the licence granted to the company the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, had necessitated a "streamlining" of "its business priorities" prompting its decision to prune its staff strength. The reference to licence cancellation remains unexplained though employees have asked him about it. The website of the Ministry of information and broadcasting says nothing about this particular cancellation.

The employees were given time till 30 December to either accept a halving of their remuneration or taking three months' salaries and quitting the company. This was when 29 (out of 35) employees decided to move the vacation judge of the court through their lawyer R. Vaigai. Justice Vasuki then served notices to the company management and the state labour department asking their representatives to reply to the court by 21 January.

Vaigai has argued that the company cannot "arbitrarily" shut down a part of its operations without following the due process of law as laid down in the Industrial Disputes Act, which includes notifying the state government. She also made a reference to the provisions of the Working Journalists Act.

Speaking to this correspondent, Vaigai said that New Generation Media should be treated as a "single unit" and since a number of its employees bringing out publications were covered by the Working Journalists Act, there should be no reason why those employees who were television professionals should be excluded from the purview of the provisions of this particular law.

She is of the view that the management's decision had been "highly arbitrary" since the employees had not been taken into confidence about the cancellation of the broadcasting licence given to the company by the I&B Ministry.

"A number of senior journalists had been persuaded to leave their jobs because they were told that the proposed English news channel would be one of the best in the country," Vaigai stated, adding: "Their letters to the management were not answered and now these employees are being suddenly asked to quit their jobs without giving them adequate time to search for alternative employment opportunities."

Describing the judicial intervention as "unique" and "path-breaking", she said that it was unfortunate that while society expected journalists to fight for and uphold the rights of others, their own rights were being trampled upon by high-handed acts of company managers.

When contacted, New Generation Media CEO Shyam Kumar said he was yet to receive a copy of the judge's interim order. The editorial head of the company's English television operations S. Srinivasan declined to comment on what transpired.

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