International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) together with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) facilitated a seminar on union organizing in the digital age, 6-8 November 2019 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Participants from all over South Asia – Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – together with fellow Unionists from Europe discussed current challenges for journalism and union organizing campaigns in face of the rise of online media and the digitalization of societies.
FES Nepal used this opportunity to talk to Sabina Inderjit, Vice President of IFJ, Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary at IFJ headquarters in Brussels, Belgium and Jane Worthington, Director of IFJ Asia-Pacific Office in Sydney, Australia about the state of journalism and common challenges for journalist unions around the world and South Asia.
FES Nepal: There’s a digital disruption going on in journalism worldwide. What are the main drivers and what are the most important impacts on journalism and journalists today?
Jeremy: The media industry is going through a revolutionary technological change, from digital publishing to artificial intelligence, and it is a change which has an impact on jobs, on working conditions, on quality, professional ethics and truth – in fact on every aspect of the production and distribution process of news and media. The economic model which sustained journalism for so long has collapsed.
Globally, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in traditional media. But at the same time, new jobs are being created in digital media – which, however, has smaller budgets and fewer resources, journalists receive lower pay, are in more precarious working conditions with fewer social benefits than the jobs they are seeking to replace in traditional media. As a result, there is a growing mass of freelance, contract and casual labour – which for unions and journalists’ associations are harder to reach and more vulnerable which, in turn, has an impact on journalism.
All these emerging issues present us with enormous challenges. So, our job now is to seize the opportunities digital offers both in terms of opening new forms of journalism but also in building strong unions in digital media, capable of defending labour and professional rights and in fighting for good jobs and decent work.
FES Nepal: Sounds like collective action and unions are more needed than ever! How do you see these developments impacting media landscapes in Asia and more specifically in South Asia?
Jane: The digital economy’s impact on media in the Asia-Pacific is at this point both transformative and destructive, with new media evolving at a rapid rate and traditional media’s foundations being severely eroded. The result will be a complex labour environment for media unions and representative bodies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Given the digital disruption and the change in the nature of journalism itself, jobs in the legacy media in South Asia are also the same as what Jeremy mentioned in the global context. This is going to be the overall phenomenon in South Asia, and we’ll see more flow-on in the years to come. To make matters more challenging; internet shutdowns, website closures and the criminalization and undermining of quality journalism is a hefty challenge – bringing with it a scourge of misinformation and fake news.
FES Nepal: What does this mean for journalists in South Asia?
Jane: It means that quality journalism and professional ethics are questioned. As far as the IFJ is concerned, we have the responsibility to turn the challenges into opportunities. For that first thing, we need to do is organize media workers and bring more journalists into unions to strengthen their collective voice. One of the first things many unions need to do is revise their constitutions to better represent journalists in this new media landscape and form better representation for journalists in contract, freelance and precarious work. The collective efforts of the members of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) can go a long way to raise awareness of these issues. We have no option but to adapt the changes brought by digitalization and prepare ourselves to move ahead with the digitalization – in spirit and speed.
FES Nepal: What is the role of Unions in the face of these challenges?
Sabina: The unions have a very critical role to play as the digital media conundrum adds to the already existing challenges. Foremost, the Unions must recognize the repercussions it’s having on its membership, bargaining strength and denial of basic rights of those working in this field. The unions need to be far-sighted and proactive as the situation has changed drastically.
Traditionally, trade unions were protecting the rights of journalist employees against anti-labour policies of their employers. In the new era, when the meaning of “being employed” is evolving, the major role of the unions should be to help the members to catch up with the fast-changing world and enhance their position in the labour market. It is very visible in journalism that digitalization and the internet have seriously affected this profession as on the one hand, it is creating new opportunities, on the other, there are severe threats.
Therefore, unions must be change agents and journalists must realize the importance of unionizing to safeguard their future and better serve the society in the time of misinformation, disinformation and fake news. The unions can’t afford to be complacent and need to take on the challenge head-on for their own survival as well as for protecting the rights of not only journalists engaged in this field but also the citizens who must get credible, reliable news to be well-informed, which is crucial to any democratic society.
FES Nepal: What are the major insights of your discussion during the workshop and the most important take away for IFJ?
Jane: The three-day workshop organized jointly by IFJ and FES in Kathmandu brought together established leaders as well as young digital media workers because we recognize the vital need to bring these voices together and strategies for the future.
During the meeting, they discussed emerging issues impacting the craft of journalism and we also discussed the grim realities of job losses and increased controls on journalism online. The threats to journalists have evolved.
In the past, journalist safety in the field was the predominant theme. But today we are talking about economic security, payment of fair and decent wages and building the negotiating power of journalists – especially many young journalists who are entering the industry but without any of the security or benefits that journalists in the past came to expect. These meetings are also about better understanding each other’s issues and stories. The situation in Afghanistan remains as unclear as ever and women journalists are also enduring a range of pressures on them as professional journalists that create a great cause for concern. We also discussed the massive impact of job losses and non-payment of wages in Pakistan as well as the impact of the internet shutdown in Kashmir. While the circumstances vary from country to country, there are lots of common experiences to be shared.
As part of the workshop, IFJ and SAMSN expressed their commitments to build stronger unions and associations, fight for journalist safety and media freedom, and protect ethical journalism and campaign for a just transition from offline to online media. Also, they passed the Kathmandu resolution agreeing on the same. SAMSN members and IFJ are committed to adhering the Kathmandu resolution.
The Kathmandu resolution serves as a guiding document for collaboration among FES, IFJ and its South Asia Affiliates. Our future activities will be guided by the commitment made in Kathmandu.
FES Nepal: If you want to keep up to date on IFJs work follow them on Twitter @IFJGlobal and Facebook @InternationalFederationofJournalists. IFJ Asia-Pacific you can also find on Facebook @IFJAsiaPacific and Twitter @ifjasiapacific.
Thank you for your time. We wish you all the best for your important work in the future and hope to welcome you again in Nepal!