When a senior Indian journalist landed a job with Europe’s largest news magazine in the mid-90s, little did she imagine that a decade of “brilliant” innings would end in a row over racism.
Delhi-based Padma Rao, 53, a current affairs journalist who spent 14 years as the South Asia bureau chief for the German publication Der Spiegel (DS), covering the Kargil and Sri Lankan wars, among other events, is “hurt and disgusted” with the way things panned out.
“The editors who hired me, gave me the best years of my professional life. The humiliation began when the new editorial leadership came in around 2007,” she says.
From demoting her to researcher to refusing to renew her contract, things came to a head in 2009 when, after a bout with early cancer, Rao, also the single parent of a college-going son, requested a regularisation of her contract out of a sense of urgency for social security.
This was refused, she says, following which they sent her a letter praising her ‘incredible contacts’, adding that ‘the only thing standing between you and a permanent position is the beautifully-written story, as can only be expected from a native German speaker’.
“That was outrageous,” she says.
“Not only that, after 14 years of work, I was being paid € 5,000 when the starting salary of a foreign correspondent was some € 8,000.”
The possible reason for this shift? It smacks of “a neo-colonial attitude to the Third World”, where a new set of guys, not as experienced, are unable to reflect the original tenets of journalism, feels Hermann Denecke, former German Radio Network correspondent in Delhi.
Rao, who worked with several Indian, American and German media organisations, before being associated with DS brought several scoops to the magazine, including exclusive interviews with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
His former media advisor, Sanjaya Baru, in an email to Rao confirms her as the face of DS in India saying ‘[...] the interviews that Der Spiegel got with PM were because of you. So as far as the PMO is concerned, you were the face and voice of Der Spiegel in India and they cannot deny that.’
Though her job was identical to that of other foreign correspondents of DS, Rao had an annually renewable freelance contract, a pay scale much lower than her counterparts, no pension, shares in the company, insurance or any other benefits.
“Because I was professionally fulfilled, I swallowed the fact that the company kept putting off my requests for a permanent contract or adding a small element of social security,” says Rao.
She feels her case can serve as an eye-opener.
“There should be guidelines for foreign publications that can dish out higher salaries but get away with violating laws and flaky contracts.”
Madhavi Goradia-Divan, lawyer and author of Facets of Media Law, says, “Today, the media have become powerful in India, journalists should insist on better terms in their contract and firm them early on.”
Rao is hopeful of finding justice in her country even if she did not in a country that has enjoyed a reputation of being a welfare state with a fair judiciary.
“My lawyer there fought my case for free, merely out of conviction,” she says. Soldiering on with an Indian lawyer who won a similar case in 2008 for journalist Laurinda Keys of Associated Press (USA) in India, Rao remains shocked at how a handful of “arrogant editors” of “Germany’s most respected magazine” behaved with her.
She feels this attitude could be part of a high-handed trend. Pointing to two unrelated cases, concerning German automobile giant Porsche and tyre manufacturer Continental, Rao says, “Both companies displayed similar callousness towards their Indian partners. In the latter’s case, German courts reportedly delivered same kind of arbitrary ‘justice’.”