A media recession in Goa?

BY A correspondent| IN Regional Media | 24/06/2018
Partly because mining profits are drying up and partly for other reasons, publications are shedding staff and closing down in the state.
FREDERICK NORONHA on the current scenario
The May 31 meeting of the GUJ

 

 AFTER seeing a period of growth for over a decade, the local media in India's smallest state, Goa, is now finding itself under increasing pressure. This has got journalists worried; the concern surfaces in discussions within the media and within press bodies. At times, it results in some jostling among media persons too. 

Over the past year itself, one newspaper (The Goan) jettisoned a number of its senior staff. At least one or two more are facing pressure. The editor-publisher Rajan Narayan's The Goan Observer, which was started in 2003, has been publicly seeking someone to take over and run its operations.

Behind these seemingly sudden developments, there are two major reasons. You could blame it on politics and mining.

 In the world of politics, the fates of the BJP and the Congress have seen pendulum-like backwards-and-forward swings. Both of the Big Two have grown and declined almost in tandem with political fortunes in New Delhi. (Regional parties have been in decline here, though they sometimes manage to play a kingmaker's role.) At least some publications were set up with political calculation in mind; but the peaking of election-time interest in the media often vanishes once a new set of politicians ascend to power.

Mining profits have played a significant role here, and the media is no exception.  Goa saw an iron-ore mining boom since the beginning of the 21st century which has now gone bust after the ban on mining imposed earlier this year. This has affected the local economy and the money that mine-owners were willing to pump into the media.

Mechanical engineer, financial analyst and macro-economist Rajendra Kakodkar, who traces his roots to the heart of Goa's mining centre in eastern Goa , argues: "From 2002, the profit per tonne (on iron ore mining and exports in Goa) rose from $2 to $100. So there was a 50-fold jump in the profits. Everybody was bought-off in the process, which led to large-scale illegalities as well as excesses. The risks in the business were meagre as compared to the returns." 

The end of Portuguese rule in Goa in 1961 by Indian Army action also saw the slow demise of the Portuguese press. That vacuum was filled by English and Marathi papers owned by mining houses. 

After the 1980s, the grip of mining on Goa's media seemed to diminish for a while. New (non-mining linked) papers such as the Herald and Tarun Bharat entered the field. Some industrial houses (like the Dempos, which have been running The Navhind Times, influential in the English segment, and Navprabha, a smaller player in Marathi) exited from mining operations. Others like the Chowgules sold their once-dominant media (the Daily Gomantak in Marathi, along with the smaller Gomantak Times) to the family of Sharad Pawar, the political heavyweight from nearby Maharashtra. 

But the influence of mining in the media industry consolidated again. New papers (like those of the Timblo Group's The Goan and Govan Varta) were launched, and some prominent cable/TV operations are also mining firm-owned. 

Goa's mining crisis hit home earlier in this decade. Initially, the local BJP raked up the issue while in the opposition (prior to the 2012 Goa assembly elections) and then seemingly lost control of the mining controversy avalanche when the party itself came to power. The media too has got badly hit. The Goan run by the Timblos' group has recently jettisoned its staff, some including its editor Derek Almeida have quit under pressure. 

Perhaps partly because it has the second highest per capita income in the country, this state supports a lot of media outlets. Official records say that tiny Goa (population 1.6 million, roughly the size of an average Indian district) list as many as five daily newspapers in the English language alone (The Navhind Times, Herald or O Heraldo, Gomantak Times, The Times of India local Goa edition, and The Goan). Though fewer in number than the Marathi dailies, these are the spaces where the big bucks, and advertising, goes.

 

In Marathi, there are nine daily newspapers (Gomantak, Tarun Bharat, Navprabha, the controversial Sanatan Sanstha-linked Sanatan Prabhat, an active local edition of Lokmat, Pudhari Goa, Dainik Herald, Govan Varta, Goadoot). Two of these are local editions of dailies from the large neighbouring state of Maharashtra, and another comes from a publishing house in also adjoining Karnataka.

That’s a lot of print media, but these are mostly smallish papers. The largest would claim a circulation of 40,000.  

Konkani is a widely-spoken, little-read (especially in the official Devanagari script) language here and has just a single daily newspaper run in the officially-recognised Devanagari script, Bhangar Bhuim. This too is owned by the Timblos, of The Goan-Govan Varta group.  The paper itself has been facing various challenges to stay afloat and came after the earlier lone Devanagari Konkani daily (Sunaparant) folded up. The latter was published by Dattaraj Salgaocar, the son-in-law of Dhirubhai Ambani and scion of a mining house that carries his family name in Goa,  and  was closed in 2015, a little short of three decades in operation. Sunaparant's management cited "escalating costs" and "huge losses" incurred over its 28 years of operations when it closed down some three years back. 

Mining has been afflicting journalism in other strange ways  too. On March 19, 2018, when arterial roads around Panjim were blocked by "mining dependents" who were protesting the many-year-long closing of mining operations in Goa, "several journalists were manhandled, injured or endangered in police action of lathi-charge," according to the 2018 annual report of Goa Union of Journalists. The GUJ protested and wrote to several authorities alleging that repeated endangering of journalists had become the norm and reflected badly on the state of the administration.

At least one journalist raised the issue recently, wondering why 'mining dependent' people who were protesting were getting promises of official doles, while journalists were not.  

The local television/cable networks (Prudent, Goa 365, HCN, RDX News, In Goa 24x7 among others) have all grown in recent years. These play a dominant role, not just because of their ability to come out with breaking news fast, but also since politicians and newsmakers believe that being seen is important. The visual media, though newer, has more clout than print. It's almost like seeing (your politician in the news) can lead to believing.

 Recently, journalists meeting in Panjim voiced concern over the "abrupt resignations of journalists in media houses". Goa Union of Journalist (GUJ) office-bearers said advisor and trade union leader Subhash Naik Jorge had "urged GUJ to ask its members not to give in to the pressures of the management and resign." The union see its members as falling "prey to such pressures".

The once Left-leaning Goa Union of Journalists, which organised events in solidarity with the jailed Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, has a new generation at its helm currently. This, coincidentally or otherwise, has happened in tandem with the BJP ascent to power in Goa -- first through defections in 1999, then ruling till 2005, and winning elections in 2012 besides somehow coming back to power in 2017 despite bagging only 13 seats in Goa's 40-member Assembly.

On one side of the GUJ hall is a small photograph of Goa's first private mine owner chief minister, the populist Dayanand Bandodkar (1911-1973). On the other is a giant painting of the social conservative (though radical nationalist) Bal Gangadhar Tilak who had founded the papers Kesari ("The Lion") in Marathi, and Mahratta in English.

In between, journalists at a recent GUJ meeting on May 31 debated issues related to accommodation for journalists, pensions from the government ... and the pressures on their jobs. Some were angry that their fellow members, who had risen to posts of editors, were not siding with union members but instead playing a role in the sackings of staff. (In defence, the management have argued that the staff had left, and actually had not been sacked.)

The Union held a "joint audience" with editors who were members of the GUJ -- with editors Sandesh Prabhudesai, Joel Afonso and Sanjay Dhavalikar remaining present. GUJ said it "heard their version of events especially since they were in the centre of the storm concerning the recent sackings of journalists." 

The GUJ headed by journalist Kishor Naik Gaonkar as president and Gerard de Souza as general secretary, elected in mid 2017, said besides difficulties in getting newspaper managements to implement the Manjitha Wage Board award for journalists in full, since they took over they had to grapple "almost immediately (with) the news of layoffs at Fomento Media" (publishers of The Goan).

There are other pressures too. As newspapers shift to the 'contract' system of payment, the journalists here are obviously in a bind. If they insist on being paid on the basis of the Wage Board scales (notified by the government), they are unwelcome by their managements. To lure them to opt for the 'contract system', the management offer them higher packages. But, along with this comes greater insecurity of service, which could be affecting media functioning overall here. 

In April 2018, there was an outcry from the media over the new rules, or what was called the guidelines for accreditation of media organisations and their representatives.

 These guidelines  laid down minimum circulation and ad revenue levels for applying for accreditation, and kept out non-daily publications. Online news portals were being excluded, given step-motherly treatment or even cautioned against 'cyber crimes', it was felt. This came not long after a reporter (in February) was blocked from attending the Assembly after a report he put out over the state of health of Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar created controversy and found disfavour by the authorities here. (The reporter described the illness as fourth stage pancreatic cancer, while after over three months in a US hospital, the CM is being described as having a "pancreatic ailment" by most of the media here.)

In Goa, journalists say while some organisations have implemented the recommendations in full, others have either implemented them partly or ignored them completely "with the overarching complaint being that the newspaper business is no longer viable", according to the Goa Union of Journalists.

To gain strength to their claims, they formed the All Goa Journalists, Non-Journalist Newspaper Employees and Media Persons Federations. GUJ wrote to the Labour Commissioner alleging that newspaper managements "have furnished false information in their submissions before the Commissioner and sought that action be initiated against the management."

 Recent years have seen governments promising to take care of some of the journos' needs, even while managements (when they were in expansion mode) were willing to lure staff with higher salaries but not pay them their dues in all cases. For instance, the Goa government runs a ‘The Goa Ex-Gratia Compassionate Assistance’ to the Dependents of Journalist Scheme 2017’ scheme. Journalists have been pressing for access to housing, benefits under a government-funded 'pension' scheme, and the like.

 The GUJ also announced it had reached an agreement with the Goa Government to fix a "nominal rent" for the premises officially allocated to it on the sixth floor of the Government-owned Shram Shakti Bhavan.The media in Goa has long been seen as having close relationships with politicians in power. This has been the case with currently ailing Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar too. But, given the mass departures/terminations from The Goan, at one stage, a number of GUJ members also gathered outside the office of Fomento Media at the Sant Ines locality and insisted on meeting the Chief Minister ahead of his scheduled visit to the office.

Journalists here would like the state government to be their ally when they confront their owners.

 

Frederick Noronha is an independent  journalist based in Goa.

 

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