The internet was buzzing with news yesterday that the Times Of India and its sister publications have issued a new social media policy to its journalists. According to reports, the new policy is said to restrict journalists from sharing article links through private accounts, creating separate accounts and sharing the details with the company, letting the company post through their accounts and giving the company the permission to continue posting through these accounts even if the user has left the Times Group. Though the Times Group has still to either accept or deny the allegations, senior journalists we spoke to said it was worrisome that major publications are taking such steps.
On the condition of anonymity, a journalist with a Times Group confirmed that a two page ‘social media contract’ was received by staffers a couple of weeks ago, which contained many of the points which have been mentioned in internet rumors. However, the journalist also mentioned that most employees had chosen not to sign the contract, further adding that though the company had announced that accepting the new policy was mandatory, no measures have been taken yet to enforce it. (Disclosure: We are yet to see the original copy of the document).
Officials of the Times Group remained unavailable for comment at the time of writing of this article.
It should be remembered that earlier this month there were rumors that journalists working at The Hindu had also been asked, via email, to refrain from tweeting links from rival publications. A correspondent working with The Hindu Group, however, said, “I have personally not seen the email but have heard it from a lot of people. However, there has been no change in any way. The whole thing is illogical as social media does not function this way. Maybe media owners are just getting paranoid.”
The recent case with the Times of India has further raised questions whether social media is making established publications wary or even insecure. It also makes one wonder what safeguards need to be taken to protect freedom of press in the digital age. A senior journalist with a well-known daily (who did not wished to be identified) said, “It is really dangerous, especially right now when you have so many corporate controls in media already. To see one of the few, remaining independent media houses take this step with no dialogue or discussion is sad. The bigger issue here is the dissemination of information irrespective of the source, which is the primary responsibility of any publication. This step is petty and churlish; especially when you consider that they are not at all doing badly.”
John Thomas, a former newspaper and news agency editor and currently journalism teacher in Bangalore, said employers can come up with modifications to service conditions or code of conduct to protect their interests as required, but those provisions and methods of enforcement must stand the test of the law of the land. “Prima facie it appears being proposed by TOI interferes with individual freedoms including that of communication guaranteed in India. This has to be tested in court. However, since many employers have recently made employees sign private agreements to circumvent the Majithia Wage Board and such other conditions regarding benefits under contractual employment (and employees have signed those to keep their jobs) the success of these orders on social media use too will entirely be dependent on employees. How many will or will not comply, will determine how this will work out,” he added.
We also wrote to the Press Council of India (PCI) seeking their views on such reports, which if imposed, could seriously hamper the free and unbiased flow of information. A reply was not received at the time of publishing.
When asked whether bodies such as the PCI need to take some positive steps in this regard, Thomas agreed, and added that other media bodies like the Editor’s Guild and media trade unions should examine these reported orders by The Hindu and the BCCL. “There are surely conditions (such as the right of the company to use an individual's social media ID after he/she has ceased to be an employee) that are insidious,” he said.