Screenshot: Prime Time with Ravish Kumar, May 9, 2018, NDTV. YouTube.In India today, one cannot talk of science, history or politics without a reference to mythology. Godmen and astrologers make their daily pronouncements on the TV channels. So, how does one report the emergence of an independent journalist in a sea of embedded media. One attributes it to the divine intervening to reform His degraded profession!
Sorry, this outrageous statement was designed to make you read this piece on Ravish Kumar, a TV anchor from India. In order to be read or heard today, one has to shout and shock. In the confrontation-loving high-decibel society, the one who shouts the loudest wins. In order to be read or heard today, one has to SHOUT and SHOCK.
Most newspaper readers have got addicted to hyperbole and rhetoric and the TV viewers to screaming anchors. Journalism promotes vitiated public discourse and falls victim to it. “On the other hand,” is a phrase banished from journalism. Fair journalists are hunted and silenced. Those of the other kind are bought and deployed to make maniac noises in favour of the ruling establishment and against its critics.
A sober beginning to this article would not have worked. “Indian journalism in crisis” would strike no new note since this is not typical of India alone. America’s President is told every day that free press is essential for sustaining democracy.
The theme of this World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was “Keeping Power in Check: Media Justice and the Rule of Law”. One heard stirring calls on governments to strengthen press freedom, and to protect journalists. Many depressing headlines marked the occasion. One from India said: “Bastar journalist charged with sedition for sharing cartoon lampooning the government.” With seven complaints registered against reporters in one month, the police of the Chattisgarh state are notorious for acting against journalists. Old headlines of journalists murdered featured in opinion pieces.
The threats to press freedom even by the so-called democratic governments were discussed. Some references came up to the internal threat from within the profession. Veteran journalist Thalif Deen recalled that once a Malaysian politician, asked about the leading newspapers in his country, shot back: “We have only misleading newspapers”.
Reports about the dark spots carried references to fake news, enforced disappearances of journalists, authoritarian governments tightening grip on press freedom, getting away with murder in Slovakia, pre-election tension threatening free speech in Brazil, Azerbaijan blocking news websites, Kenyan journalists feeling heat, and to internet freedom rapidly degrading in Southeast Asia.
There is a hostile environment in India in which Ravish Kumar and other independent journalists work. They are attacked by the devotees of the Modi Government. Ravish Kumar’s fans keep alerting him and wishing for his safety and security. Ravish Kumar works for a Hindi TV channel. Thanks to the translation of one of his books in English many more citizens can understand the dangers to democracy that he warns against in his Hindi programmes.
The Free Voice: Ravish Kumar on Democracy, Culture and the Nation is a more searing document than a Free Press Inquiry Commission Report. Of course, it is more interesting to read. The author recalls that within a few months in 2017, journalists were forced to gather twice to condemn violence against colleagues. In a sequel to this book, he will have to say, “our speeches made no difference as threats and violence against journalists continued or even increased”.
The chapter headings give a flavour of Ravish Kumar’s short book: The Robo-Public and the Building of a New Democracy. The National Project for Instilling Fear. Wherever a Mob Gathers is Hitler’s Germany. The Robo-Public and the Building of a New Democracy. The National Project for Instilling Fear. Wherever a Mob Gathers is Hitler’s Germany.
The book covers an area wider than just press freedom. Ravish Kumar refers to the wars for religious pride. He writes about the ongoing battles against what some radical Hindus call ‘Love Jihad’. “Every other day a handful of goons go on a rampage because a girl of one faith chooses to marry a boy of another faith.”
Internal threats to press freedom are not new. In many democratic countries, including India, advertisers and media owners diminished it. Some of the organisations fighting for press freedom during the cold war era never dealt with this internal threat. The state was their only target and change of regime their goal.
A western media mogul inspired his Indian counterparts to transform journalism into a profit-making ‘infotainment’ business. The media feeds the readers and viewers with what they supposedly want. The owners dumped the editors who thought the readers should be given what is good for them and for society! What the newspaper readers really want remains a controversial topic. The readers’ appetite can be whetted by titillating stories and images. If a tabloid prints a naked woman’s photo, its rival has to flash two women. It is said that readers of a British tabloid do not care who ruled the country as long as they see the photos of porn stars every morning! What the newspaper readers really want remains a controversial topic.
Most TV anchors can be called the children of a former TV star, an American of Irish origin, who gained mass popularity for his extreme right-wing views and for his ability to silence his studio guests with insults. His pernicious influence afflicted a host of Indian TV journalists.
Badge of honour
Ravish Kumar seeks to counter such trends night after night, challenging his Hindi TV viewers to change to another channel if the issues of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and sick hospitals and under-funded state schools do not interest them and if they are obsessed with the Hindu-Muslim debates engineered by the vote-grabbing politicians.
His selection of topics can bore the viewer looking for titillation. The disclosure that so many schools have neither teachers nor buildings and so many officially electrified villages turn dark at night may interest some concerned citizens. But most others want to know whether Rekha was seen with A or with B at last night’s Bollywood bash. So, Ravish Kumar’s news and discussion agenda drags his channel down in the ratings competition and affects its balance sheet. However, his channel wears it as a badge of honour and Ravish Kumar gets an honourable mention in select circles of media critics and enlightened TV watchers.
Screenshot: Ravish Kumar's Speech On Fake News Order At Press Club Of India, April 2018. YouTube.He refrains from using the formula to win the ratings war. Apart from politics, he covers education and health extensively, highlights public grievances, failures of the administration and hypocrisy of politicians. He does this effectively, gently and with a literary flair. Irony and satire mark his coverage at a time when many other journalists either lack this talent or dare not use it lest an intolerant government is offended. Ravish Kumar seeks to give voice to the powerless. He cajoles the powerful to hear the voices from the margins.
Such journalistic conduct was taken for granted once but “old-fashioned” journalism has gone out of fashion. Ravish Kumar is conscious of his profession’s failures and indulges in self-criticism. He distilled his disappointment in a memorable programme titled “TV stricken with TB”. That night, black screen was all that there was to see. A powerful commentary made up for the loss of picture. The surprised viewers were told that the black TV screen was not due to a technical problem but was designed to make a point!
Unleashing the Rottweilers
The risks that Ravish Kumar takes by practicing developmental journalism pale into insignificance when compared to the risk to his life and limbs that he takes by criticising the Modi Government. He is spared no threats, abuses and insults. And these are not just via the social media. He has been chased and his live interviews interrupted by bikers. After one such incident, he telecast a programme recreating the scene through computer graphics and images of menacing shadowy figures. It seemed like a thriller film clip.
Many others like Ravish Kumar face similar problems. The women journalists refusing to be embedded anger the ruling party activists even more. A minister calls them “presstitutes”. Not many fellow journalists protest. Some because they have been won over by the ruling establishment flaunting its power to punish and reward. The women journalists refusing to be embedded anger the ruling party activists even more.
Ravish Kumar and his ilk work in a hostile environment. Dealing with independent journalists has been outsourced since official measures to curb press freedom attract too much frontal criticism. This kind of threat is new for India. It once went through a much darker but brief period when the state suppressed press freedom and arrested some dissenting journalists. That was when the Indira Gandhi Government declared Emergency and suspended the civil rights. Then the suppression of press freedom was blatant and was there for all to see. These days “crowds” deal directly with the critics of the government which may signal to the police force to look the other way. Dealing with independent journalists has been outsourced.
This method is subtle and insidious and invites less criticism. When the state suppresses press freedom, it becomes an identifiable target for the NGOs and brave newspaper editors. The BJP-ruled Government of Rajasthan tried to curb press freedom through an official order but had to retreat in the face of powerful protests.
A safer strategy is to unleash state-sponsored or state-inspired Rottweilers against a few targeted journalists. Dissenters and critics can be silenced as easily by threats of physical and psychological violence delivered by goons personally or through social media, as by a local police inspector knocking at the door at midnight.
Once goons terrorise, discretion trumps bravery. Self-censorship attracts little attention and the government achieves its objective without getting blamed. This has become common in democracies where unconstitutional conduct against suspected terrorists is outsourced by the governments.
Reporting rising sectarian violence makes independent journalists more vulnerable. When the accused persons belong to a political outfit, the party activists attack the reporters. Ravish Kumar writes: “Today, the number of people who spread hatred by highlighting this reason or that or by exploiting various inequalities has increased exponentially.” He talks about the erosion of liberty and dignity, the undermining of the Constitution and democracy and the collapse of institutions.
Screenshot: Ravish Kumar Acceptance Speech 'Journalist of the Year', 2016. You Tube.The author scrutinises the Government’s mal-intention and society’s response. It is a field report on the spurt in intolerance, hate and sectarianism. It is about an emerging dictatorial order underpinned by mobocracy and populist politics spreading like wildfire in this post-fact era. The tradition of debate and dialogue has been abandoned. To be a critic of the ruling establishment is to be the enemy of the nation. To be a critic of the ruling establishment is to be the enemy of the nation.
Ravish Kumar records the proliferation of programmed Indians who can see only one face (that of the Prime Minister). “They are programmed to dismiss not only contrary opinion, but also discussion. They listen to nothing, they read nothing. Those who behold a different sight are enemies and traitors – in the context of India, they would be anti-Modi, anti-Hindu, anti-national.”
He continues: “Fake news first falsified news and journalism and it is now turning the citizens fake. The Robo-public is a fake public. A fake public makes a fake Republic, a fake political consciousness, a fake democracy.”
Ravish Kumar begins the book narrating his own encounter with fear that affects all those who speak out. He describes the deadly feeling while handling a report about the sudden death of a judge dealing with a case featuring allegations against a powerful politician who went on to become the President of the ruling party. Ravish Kumar chose to speak out. Ravish Kumar chose to speak out.
Some honest police officers or independent judges protecting the powerless must have been gripped by a similar fear during their careers, but Ravish Kumar recalls his experience with a literary flair. So, his introduction to the book becomes a moving and frightening document.
He breaks the shuddering silence surrounding that sensitive news story. He delivers the sensitive report on NDTV concluding with the words: “Now whatever will be, will be”. The closing sentence, he says, was “for my viewers, and also for myself”. Having done the programme, he finds release from the fear that had held him in its suffocating grip for two days.
This independent journalist says he makes the journey from fear to courage every day. “My days start with the trolls’ abuses and threats and end with the thought that I should be careful for the sake of my job.”
Republic of Fear
The recent transformation of the nation into a Republic of Fear has been observed by all but only a few like Ravish Kumar have recorded it for posterity that will inherit an officially revised history of the nation, its religions, and its leaders.
The author says: Post 2014, the political winds began to change course. Criticism of the government began to be equated with criticism of the nation. A factory called the IT Cell was set up and many varieties of fear were manufactured inside its basement.
The trolls of the IT Cell mounted fierce attacks on anyone who dared to ask questions. They were called many things, from anti-nation, anti-religion to even pimps of the opposition media…. Even serving ministers began to attack reporters. The IT Cell (of the ruling party) rapidly transformed media into lapdog media. He notes that many anchors and journalists crept into the laps of power and began to sing praises of Prime Minister Modi.
Ravish Kumar refers to the IT Cell running the WhatsApp university that specialises in teaching fake and poisonous history. He quotes politicians threatening to kill critics or announcing rewards for their heads.
The threats to the freedom of the press, like the violation of human rights, used to cause greater concern in international fora and the western capitals during the cold war. These days the “international community” is not shocked by the murder of journalists in India or the threats to the freedom of the press. It is different if such incidents take place in a country that refuses to be a “strategic ally” or that has neither oil nor market to offer. It is different if such incidents take place in a country that refuses to be a “strategic ally” or that has neither oil nor market to offer.
The recent Commonwealth summit in London did not take much notice of these issues. The Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Commonwealth Human Rights initiative tried in vain to sensitise the leaders to such problems in the member-nations. The activists should try and slip the reprint of the chapter “Speaking Out” into the pack of agenda papers of the summiteers at every forum! Ravish Kumar’s prose may move some of them.