The critic on the inside: Ravish Kumar speaks to TNM on the state of Indian journalism

“If Raja Ram Mohan Roy was carrying out a socio-religious reform movement today, television anchors would have called him a traitor of Hinduism,” Ravish Kumar says.
The critic on the inside: Ravish Kumar speaks to TNM on the state of Indian journalism
The critic on the inside: Ravish Kumar speaks to TNM on the state of Indian journalism
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At 9 pm every night, viewers turn to their favourite news channels for the Prime Time Debate. While some prefer a level of drama, others choose programmes that are more sombre. In this crowded news slot, one journalist has made a distinct mark for himself in Hindi. Ravish Kumar, who won the Ramon Magsaysay award this year, and was in Bengaluru on Sunday to receive the inaugural Gauri Lankesh National Award for Journalism, has been hailed for highlighting under-reported problems of ordinary people.

In an interview with this reporter, Ravish makes a startling pronouncement: "I know my livelihood is connected to the news but the media in India has now turned against its own citizens and we should be wary of this.” Newspapers and TV channels now are a threat to democracy in India, he says. 

“To protect India's democracy and to save the self-respect of Indian readers, people should stop reading newspapers and stop watching television news. If we want to be misled, why do we pay for our media? As long as public does not create pressure on media, this will not change. Whenever we (journalists) meet someone, be it a taxi driver or our own relatives, we need to tell them how journalists are not being allowed to do their job. It has to be told that newspapers and TV channels are keeping the public in the dark,” he says.

Here are excerpts from the interview: 

If people are to stop watching the news and reading newspapers, where does the public turn to for information? Is citizen journalism or alternative sources of news the way to keep ourselves updated?

It is difficult to do citizen journalism in these times. If members of the public are not supporting journalists from mainstream media, how can we expect them to support citizen journalists? It is highly risky, and cannot supplement mainstream journalism.

The focus should be on mainstream journalism. The idea of citizen journalism is like outsourcing our jobs. Does a doctor say, “become a citizen doctor,” and ask people to decide the medicine themselves? Does a lawyer say, “become a citizen lawyer and represent yourself in court”? Citizens are citizens, and cannot be expected to do journalism. The citizen pays money and invests time in buying a newspaper or watching TV news – but there is little journalism left in them. 

It is also not necessary to bring in alternative journalism, the kind practiced by news websites, into this discussion. Most people in the country follow mainstream media and alternative sources have not yet replaced this. Our focus should remain on changing the structure and composition of mainstream media. 

In times like this, how important is the need to have journalists from all backgrounds? Will diversity in newsrooms solve the problem?

I wish there were more working class reporters and people from various caste backgrounds in the media. There is a need for diversity and for more journalists to understand the problems of the working class. On Ambedkar Jayanthi, there are rallies that draw lakhs of people. But is that even seen in the newspapers or television channels?

The media platform has been hijacked by the elite and it needs to be understood that we exclude many groups from getting their due space in the media. Even a Dalit editor will be restricted from publishing their views. 

How difficult is it to report from a place like Kashmir where access to information has been shut down?

The tendency to support anti-democratic elements have grown stronger in Indian society. Reporting from Kashmir is difficult because people cannot speak to their own relatives. It is a jail of sorts. If the government has taken a decision, why won't they go to Kashmir and discuss the decision with the people there? Why have rallies across the country in Bhubaneswar and Patna? And why not in Srinagar?

Ravish Kumar receiving the Gauri Lankesh National Award from Journalism from Teesta Setalvad and HS Doreswamy

Are comedians taking the space that was once held by journalists i.e speaking truth to power, and speaking about rationality?

It is true that the work journalists should do is being done by comedians. Many TV channels air shows on astrology or add to communal tension which is not in line with scientific temper or rationality. 

If Raja Ram Mohan Roy was carrying out a socio-religious reform movement today, television anchors would have called him a traitor of Hinduism. 

While it is true that comedians are doing our jobs and asking question but what is their impact in society? People must not treat this as a joke. If the media was portraying similar issues, it would be taken more seriously. 

Comedians are introducing diverse ideas to a small section of the society but why can’t this happen in the news media? Today, satirists and cartoonists are losing their jobs. If anybody does a caricature of Prime Minister Modi, either he loses his job or he goes to jail. The impact of mainstream media cannot be replicated by comedians and satirists. 

As a Hindi journalist, what do you think about the idea of 'one nation one language'?

As a Hindi journalist, I feel one nation one language is a rubbish idea. My mother tongue is Bhojpuri and I learnt Hindi like other people have learnt English. I wish I was like a taxi driver in Bengaluru who knows as many as five languages! People from Hindi-speaking states should keep quiet on the language debate until we learn a few southern Indian languages. In Uttar Pradesh, 10 lakh students failed Hindi subject in 10th and 12th board exams.

In Hong Kong, a mass-movement was started against the government calling for the withdrawal of a proposed Hong Kong extradition law. Is that something that could happen in India?  

The spaces for protest or dissent in India is shrinking. In Patna, there was a space between the High Court and Secretariat has now been shifted to a place that is in a corner. The situation I am told is similar in New Delhi and Bengaluru. How will democracy survive if we don’t expand these spaces?

There is a small segment of the youth that is resisting but the number is small and scattered far and wide... Look at what is happening in Jadavpur University. It is not just in JNU that protests are erupting like this. We should support the youth in the country in developing a democratic instinct like this.

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