Many Kashmir-based newspapers and TV channels have made a fortune from the conflict reporting and advertising, but the money doesn't trickle down to reporters, who work in difficult circumstances without any organisational support.
Decades of conflict may have ruined India-administered Kashmir’s economy and shrunk opportunities for the region's youth - but one profession that has gained popularity over the years is journalism.
Every year, at least a hundred students receive journalism degrees from Kashmir's colleges and universities, but once out of the classroom, they’re left in the cold, as internships and entry-level jobs are perpetually scarce.
While the local journalism industry in the disputed region is dominated by a handful of newspapers and cable TV channels, most of which reap massive economic dividends from advertisements sponsored by the Indian government, the money doesn't trickle down. As a result, reporters and producers are left to fend for themselves.
Within a year or two, a large number of reporters feel compelled to call it quits.
Burhan Bashir, a 26-year-old journalism graduate, gave up on his dream of becoming a journalist in early 2020. He now runs a grocery shop in his hometown Pulwama, a district in south Kashmir.
“I visited almost every single newspaper office in search of a job. I was nowhere offered a salaried job. I was told to work for free instead. Some offered a meagre salary,” Bashir told TRT World.
Bashir’s urge to be a part of a newsroom was so strong that he ended up settling for less — a bad job offer that fetched him $70 (5,000 Indian rupees) a month, which didn't even cover the cost of his daily transportation.
His plan was simple: he thought that with hard work he could work his way up and his employer may reward him with a minimum living wage of $6 a day. That turned out to be wishful thinking.
By 2019, he came to the point where he "was either to go hungry" for his passion or "live a decent life without it."
"I chose the latter," he said, and looking around at the landscape, that was probably the right decision.
Trickle-down, or just a trickle?
A journalist’s entry-level salary in Kashmir is between $80-$100 (Rs 6000- Rs 7500 rupees) per month. Most newspaper and local TV employers refuse to give raises even if a journalist has spent five to ten years at the same organisation.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) highlighted the severity of the situation in its 2017 report, saying Kashmiri reporters work under extreme conditions like "intimidation by the government, low wages, lack of professional recruitment structure, and support system."
"There are multiple factors responsible for the problem but as an academic I believe what can be done is to aware students beforehand about the harsh realities of the field to avoid exploitation later on. But we cannot outrightly discourage our students as well,” Professor Nasir Mirza, who teaches journalism at the University of Kashmir, told TRT World.
According to the IFJ report, in most local recruitments, there are "no appointment letters, no medical benefits, insurance or pensions or provident fund."
A provident fund is similar to a pension fund, a savings scheme, where the employee can take a lump sum of cash upon leaving his employer - often contributed in equal parts by the employee and employee.
"Written contracts are not drawn up and jobs and work assignments go according to oral agreements which aren’t binding,” it added.
“Most of the media organisations use conflict as an excuse to exploit journalists,” says Shams Irfan, a senior journalist who until recently worked for a local weekly.
“The situation is bad here, but not as bad as newspaper owners want us to believe.”
In Kashmir province alone, there are 164 publications comprising daily newspapers, weeklies, fort nightlies and magazines.
According to government data collected by the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) active in Jammu and Kashmir territory, advertisements worth $8,296,664 (603 million rupees) were issued from April 2019 to August 2020 in Kashmir. Of that total amount, the major share (35 to 40 percent) goes to a handful of leading daily newspapers.
“Around half a dozen leading daily newspapers get 4-8 lakh rupees ($5-10,000) worth of advertisements from the government every month," a source in the government's DIPR told TRT World.
"Even the newspapers at the extreme tail-end who have very low staff get ads worth 60,000 rupees ($805) per month”.
The source added that even obscure weekly magazines manage to raise around $1500 to $3000 from government ads every month.
Kashmir's leading newspapers like Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir also get a sizable chunk of advertisements from the private sector.
Speaking to TRT World, an owner of a leading private advertising agency puts the rough estimate of generated revenue to three times more than that of the government ads.
Apart from these sources of income, news organisations also earn a significant amount of money through online platforms like Google ads.
“This estimate of revenue generated from private ads does not include the revenue of corporate ads which are costlier than the normal private ads,” said the private advertiser, who wished to remain anonymous.
According to Indian labour laws, a journalist comes under the highly-skilled category. He or she is entitled to a minimum wage of 400 rupees a day that amounts to 12,000 rupees ($160) a month.
“As such we have not received any such complaint from the media fraternity till date. Even if a case gets registered, the legal process demands written documentary evidence in the form of an appointment letter or something,” Abdul Rashid Var, Commissioner Labour department Kashmir said.
The poor pay and working conditions, naturally, have knock-on effects.
In 2017, a free medical camp was organised by the Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) for journalists of Kashmir valley where several health-related issues were found common among them. It was found that stress and anxiety disorders, fatty liver, and hypertension were the most prevalent. In the concluding report, among other reasons, DAK attributed the rising anxiety and stress disorders to “low paying jobs”.
Journalists in Kashmir live on a razor’s edge with more than 20 reporters losing their lives in the last three decades. Amidst the raging conflict and draconian media policies imposed by the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi, journalists in Kashmir face a bleak future.