Indian journalist Ravish Kumar doesn’t have time to be pessimistic about the state of the media and press freedom in his country. Even from his hotel room in New York City — where he is promoting “While We Watched,” Vinay Shukla’s documentary film chronicling Kumar’s recent life and work as he found himself at the receiving end of harassment, threats and even violence — his journalism continues. Just before he spoke to New Lines, he recorded a news story on the viral video of two Manipuri women in India, who were stripped naked, paraded and assaulted by dozens of men during a deadly conflict between ethnic groups that spurred outrage across the country. But instead of headlining the primetime show on NDTV India, a leading Hindi news channel in the country, this video was for his YouTube channel. Till late last year Kumar and his signature greeting — “Namaskar, Main Ravish Kumar” (“Greetings, I’m Ravish Kumar”) — had been a mainstay of Indian TV for over two decades.
A household name, Kumar is known for his on-ground reporting and anchoring laced with satire. Perhaps 6.6 million YouTube subscribers and millions of views on his videos could be one way to gauge the news anchor’s popularity. In addition, apart from several journalism awards, Kumar in 2019 won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award — often called the Nobel Prize of Asia — “for harnessing journalism to give voice to the voiceless.”
Kumar resigned from NDTV in December, a day after the channel was taken over by Indian billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani, a close aide to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“He’s seen as the extension of the power of the day,” Kumar said. “I don’t think that the kind of journalism that I do, he has the guts to allow that.”
The news of his resignation was covered by all mainstream Indian newspapers as well as international media, and it trended on all social media platforms. In a YouTube video that now has more than 9 million views, Kumar said, “Today’s evening is an evening where the bird is struggling to find her nest, because someone else has taken it away.” Since then, BJP ministers and spokespeople, who had previously boycotted NDTV, have returned to give interviews. A nine-part documentary series on Modi aired on it, along with positive stories about the prime minister.
At a time when most TV news channels in India were turning into government mouthpieces, Kumar was one of the few voices to highlight the repercussions of majoritarian Hindu nationalist politics, sensationalism of the Hindu-Muslim divide on TV news channels and the rise of fake news in India, at the cost of falling ratings, death threats and increasing hostility from the government. The documentary begins by giving a flavor of Kumar’s new shows.
“When your government labels you a Communist and comes after you, it’s time for you to realize you’re losing your rights,” he says to the camera before the visuals switch to shots of activists, poets, academics and lawyers, who were known human rights defenders, being arrested for conspiring against the Indian government.
It was Kumar who coined the popular term “godi media” (“godi” means “lap” in Hindi), which has since come to mean “lapdog media.” In 2016, after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry took NDTV India off the air for 24 hours “for compromising national security during a terror attack coverage,” Kumar returned on his show with mime artists to make a point about silencing of media in India. After that episode, until it was taken over by Adani, NDTV and its founders faced multiple tax raids, court cases and cutbacks in ad revenue.
“But NDTV’s decline is not the story of the decline of the media,” Kumar told New Lines. He was alluding to the declining quality of TV news in India, manifesting in the anger, yelling and intimidation of the news anchors. A report published by the Network of Women in Media, India found that high-decibel screeching and frenetic finger-pointing was the staple of daily TV news channels, and media watchdog Newslaundry has often highlighted how spewing hate against Muslims, inciting communal violence and equating criticism of the government with being “anti-national” and “pro-Pakistan” has become normal on Indian TV news. For instance, in 2020, early in the pandemic, when Muslims in India were accused of deliberately spreading Covid-19, the terms “corona jihad” and “corona bombs” were repeatedly used to describe them on Indian television.
Reporters Without Borders, which maintains the Press Freedom Index — on which India has fallen from 150th to 161st place since last year, stated that “violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis,” and the takeover of NDTV “signaled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media.” Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, online and offline attacks against journalists have increased. Indian authorities have also targeted some journalists by prosecuting them under counterterrorism and sedition laws. BBC’s documentary on Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots was banned in India, and its offices were raided by tax officials last year. Similar trends of media crackdowns and press censorship have been observed in illiberal democracies such as Turkey and Hungary.
NDTV journalists were often taunted by those in other channels for being “anti-national and anti-India,” said Kumar, and faced social isolation from the fraternity. “But we didn’t care about it; at least we had a space to do good journalism. The organization didn’t take away our freedom of speech and the small group of journalists that we were, were doing double the work to protect this space.”
Kumar is one of the most recognizable faces on Indian TV, and admirers seek handshakes and selfies as he steps into public spaces. But venturing out has become increasingly unsafe for him. Over the past decade, he has been subjected to targeted harassment, a consequence of the routine trolling faced by journalists who dare to criticize the establishment. Relentless death threats have become a part of his daily life, while trolls maliciously share his personal number on social media.
“The phone calls and messages have continued. I still receive 400 to 500 messages daily,” Kumar said. But sometimes, he receives messages from men apologizing for harboring violent thoughts for journalists like him. “But the scale at which television channels have made the mindset of the masses communal and corrupt, in comparison this number is very small. But it does give encouragement. Viewers, who have been following my shows for long, have become even more responsible with time. This very small section of the society, whatever is left of it, motivates me to keep on working.”
For the past six months, Kumar has been producing shows on his YouTube channel as a one-man team (he is still based in Delhi).
“I am living a life of exile in this profession to which I have given 27 years of my life. But my viewers are very generous, no matter where I record from, they watch my shows. Yesterday, I recorded a show from this hotel room, the lighting and frame was off, but in five hours, it had over 900,000 views,” he said. But he is not on YouTube by choice.
“A lot of people are guilt free, thinking that everything is OK and I am able to earn money. But they should realize at what cost it is. My household is running, but how this fraternity has abandoned me has been horrifying, which cannot be compensated.”
Kumar has not received an offer from any news channel or publication, he said, and he believes there is no channel left where he will find the freedom to do his news show.
Shukla thought of making this documentary when he came across one of Kumar’s news shows in 2018, where he had interrupted the bulletin to berate his own viewers, asking them to question the lies, stop watching TV and look for information elsewhere.
“I could see that there was this huge figure in the Indian media who has begun to wonder if the society for whom he is doing this work even cared for him anymore,” he told New Lines.
Before he started shooting, the filmmaker said he had a different impression of Kumar.
“I expected he’d have a big team around him and a lot of people because of how well known he is. But when I first went to shoot, I realized how small his office was and only two people were sitting there,” Shukla said. “What was also a revelation for me was the amount of work that goes into journalism. Journalists have been dehumanized. We don’t understand their process, craft, struggle and mistakes, and that has led to a certain kind of desensitization. So being around Ravish, in the NDTV newsroom, helped me understand and see journalism.”
Many approach Kumar nowadays wanting his opinion of the future of Indian news media.
“It’s difficult to even anticipate any revival of any sorts of the Indian media,” he said. “I feel bad for saying this, but Indian journalists have been ideologically transformed and are doing journalism with the entitlement of the state. Even if there is a political change, it will not change the situation in the media. The way the newsroom has been diminished in Delhi (the center of national media), there has been a cascading effect in local newsrooms across states in India as well.”
While there has been a decline throughout world media, said Kumar, there is media diversity in a country like the U.S.
“One has Democracy Now alongside Fox News, and CNN alongside ProPublica,” he said. “In India, there are hundreds of news channels, but their content has become communal and criminal. To get a media that is not being weaponized, which shares information and keeps the government accountable will be a herculean task. I don’t think that is possible at the moment.”
Often journalists who are critical of the establishment are accused of harboring outrage and activism. Supporters of the BJP level that sort of criticism at Kumar, who regularly has taken on the Indian TV news ecosystem and the Modi-led government.
“If a person is saying how the Indian media has collapsed, that is not activism — that is the reality,” he said. “You cannot apply the ethics of the profession to someone when the profession has abandoned them.”
In other times, the 21-months-long Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 is recalled, when civil liberties were suspended, the press was censored, and journalists were jailed.
“But the scale at which Indian media has collapsed right now cannot be compared to what happened during the Emergency,” Kumar said. “The media then did not get communalized; it was not targeting a section of the society. It did not incite people. It was not creating a hateful environment.”
Is there hope for Indian media, or does the future look bleak?
“There is no hope,” he said. “Today, you will not get a job in the media to do journalism. That is a fact. If I do not say that I will be lying. So perhaps to say that is perhaps the biggest hope right now.”
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