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The arrest of an independent journalist highlights the plight of India's freelancers

Sudarshana Chakraborty | Updated on: 4 January 2018, 22:06 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

On 26 December, Priyanka Borpujari, an independent journalist, responded to news of slum demolitions and eviction of slum dwellers near her residence in Mumbai's Santa Cruz locality. Borpujari rushed to the spot, recording the unfolding events on her phone. Her actions were consistent with basic journalist protocol. However, what should have been a regular news gathering exercise, quickly took a turn for the worse.

Bandra-Kurla Complex Police present at the slum objected to Borpujari's attempts to cover the situation. After attempting to snatch her phone, they manhandled and, finally, arrested her. Her phone was subsequently confiscated, and she was not allowed to talk to the other women from the slums who were arrested along with her. By the time her ordeal was over, she had been detained for seven hours.

Her ordeal could have been worse, though. Luckily for Borpujari, while she was not able to contact many people, she managed to get through to Peter Griffin, deputy resident editor of The Hindu, Mumbai. Griffin's Twitter post on the incident created a storm on the social media network, forcing the BKC police to state that Borpujari was safe in their custody.

Although she was eventually released, she has been charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including “obstructing a government action” and “unlawful assembly”.

Borpujari is a member of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) as an Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow, as well as the Network of Women in Media, India. Her work has featured in The Hindu, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and Scroll. However, despite all of this, Borpujari was not recognised as a journalist by the police. As an independent journalist, Borpujari's lack of a press card meant that her claims of being a journalist fell on deaf ears.

In a country where a scribe can be shot down in front of her own residence for being vocal and fearless enough to stand against powerful forces, it is extremely difficult to carry on the role of journalist at the best of times. But for independent journalists or freelancers, who do reporting but do not have an accredited press card from the government or a big media house to back them up, things are far, far worse. Sadly, despite the effort and risks taken by independent journalists, their predicament is often ignored.

Problems aplenty

Independent journalists are an integral part of journalism, often bringing out stories which institutional journalism ignores. But whether it's hard or soft news, the lack of a press card places a huge question mark on the credibility of a journalist. If you are covering a political rally, meeting, agitation, or any government program it becomes more difficult to gain access.

Uttara Gangopadhyay, an independent journalist, reiterates this. “For a freelancer, the lack of an accredited card is equal to suffering from an identity crisis. I know I’m genuine, but how do I prove it to the other party? In the field of travel, as a beginner I had to either ask the house to give me an introduction or call up the organisers to cover the event.”

When freelancers manage to gain access and do stories, financial stability isn't guaranteed.

Sohini Chattopadhya, another independent journalist, tells a similar story. She points out that government officials do not cooperate at all with the freelance journalists, and that this is the scenario across the country. She complains that her emails or tweets do not get replies for months, despite journalists from media houses managing to get quotes on the same issues. She also says that sometimes she also has to refer to a journalist of some media house to get an appointment, as without a press card it may take a long time, or, worse, may not happen at all. Chattopadhya, who covers health and human rights issues, feels that the State often tries to curb the freedom of independent journalists who have the courage to take on important issues, and even criticise the state and administration, but are not on the payroll of any media house

If things are difficult at home, they get even harder outside the country. “Within the country I’m not much inconvenienced as many people know me,” Gangopadhyay explains,But it can get difficult abroad. Without a press card, covering government programmes or a private programme where a minister or diplomat would visit has proved to be difficult.”

This isn't the case in countries like the UK or Germany. Urmi Rahman a senior journalist who freelanced for many Bangladeshi newspapers and worked for BBC London, recalls that she never faced any harassment. While she had to follow BBC's regulations, as a freelancer she was rather well received. While covering any program or film festival, nobody asked for a press card, and simply identifying yourself as a journalist was enough. Interestingly, the UK is ranked only 40th when it comes to press freedom.

Even when freelancers manage to beat the odds and gain access to do stories, this is no guarantee for financial stability.
Just doing a story is not enough, with freelancers left facing uncertainty regarding which organisation will pick up stories that have been done out of one's own initiative. While it is true that the rise of online news portals has increased the scope of work for independent journalists, there are issues of copies or stories not getting published or to be on hold.

The Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) is an unregistered organisation of independent women journalists in India. Borpujari is a member, as are Biswas, Gangopadhyay, Chattopadhya, and this writer. So severe are the problems faced by freelancers that the organisation has dedicated multiple sessions to problems faced by freelancers in its annual meet, being held in Chennai between 4-6 January.

Need for accreditation

In a note published on their website in response to Borpujari's arrest, the NWMI highlighted the role that her freelancer status played in the whole incident, going so far as to ask the “Editor’s Guild of India and Press Council of India take suo moto notice of such harassment and issue a unified ID to freelancers.” Subsequently, the NWMI also asked for freelancers “be accorded valid status within the profession.”

At present, this is far from the case.
In fact, Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation, the only form of accreditation available to independent journalists, has extremely stringent qualifications. In fact, an independent journalist with less than 15 years of experience is not even eligible to apply for this accreditation. Even then, PIB accreditation is applicable only to journalists based in and around Delhi, leaving the vast majority of Indian freelancers without any hope for accreditation.

Stop-gap solutions

Senior independent journalist Ranjita Biswas has faced these problems. A veteran travel journalist, Biswas experienced the issues mentioned by Gangopadhyay and Chattopadhya when she decided to leave the safety of a media house to work as an independent journalist. As an award-winning author and translator, Biswas experienced these hiccups to a lesser degree, but her encounters as an independent journalist have stayed in her memory.

Now running a feature service agency, Biswas tries to provide a house card for those who write for her, keeping in mind the problems a freelancer can face. But she too, is worried about the future.

A media house this writer freelances for, tried a similar solution by providing freelancers with diaries and notepads emblazoned with the media house's logo and name. But how long can that be the solution, and how many media houses will follow suit? Also, does this mean that a freelancer must carry different notepads for different stories? While the intention should be appreciated, such solutions offer no guarantee that freelancers will be treated like their contracted counterparts.

With 2017 ending on the ominous note of Borpujari's arrest, it is incumbent on both the media and the government to ensure that structural changes are made to protect independent journalists in the new year.

First published: 4 January 2018, 22:06 IST