An Indian journalist’s struggle for a free media

Ravish Kumar wins Magsaysay Award for his efforts to preserve and promote critical, socially responsible journalism

An Indian journalist's struggle for a free media
Indian television journalist Ravish Kumar is one of this year’s recipients for the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his commitment to a “professional, ethical journalism of the highest standards.” (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Mark Saludes India September 16, 2019

In the age of instant information via social media, an Indian journalist has been working to create a “space for ethical journalism” in the so-called mainstream media.

For his “people-centered reporting,” Ravish Kumar of India’s New Delhi Television Network has been named one of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, “Asia’s Nobel Prize.”

Raised in Jitwarpur, a village in Bihar, northeast India, Kumar pursued his early interest in history and public affairs through postgraduate studies in history at Delhi University.

In 1996, he joined New Delhi Television Network, one of India’s leading TV networks and worked his way up from a field reporter.

After NDTV launched its 24-hour Hindi-language news channel — NDTV India — targeting the country’s 422 million native speakers of Hindi, he was given his own daily show, “Prime Time.”

Today, as NDTV India’s managing editor, Kumar is one of India’s most influential television journalists.

With “Prime Time,” Kumar was able to provide a voice to people whose opinions about issues are often ignored.

Through the years, he has interacted easily with people, especially the poor, generating unique stories that he also uploads on social media.

All the while, the television host insists on the “professional values of sober, balanced, and fact-based reporting.”

Kumar’s kind of journalism, however, brought in critics, and even “haters.” He has received death threats and has been harassed by extremist groups and politicians.

Threats to media

Being a journalist in India today is not easy.
 
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by the group Reporters Without Borders notes that Indian journalists are being attacked online as well as in the field.

It noted that all those who dare to criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology are branded “anti-Indian scum who must be purged.”

Kumar said the report only validates claims that the media in Asia “is in very bad shape.”

He said big corporations and governments have connived to “ideologically transform and radicalize” newsrooms into “an extended arm for propaganda.”

He said television is being used as a venue to propagate hate.

“The community is completely divided and the media is indulging in spreading hatred,” he added.

India’s media have always faced challenges in the past, “but they never propagated divisive policies,” said the journalist.

“Now, this has become legitimate. This has become a reference point of media ‘deteriorism,'” he said.  “This is very saddening.”

No space for good journalism

Kumar said corporate houses, which own most news services in India, have become propaganda machines of the government.

“They are sacking good journalists who are not writing propaganda,” he said.

There are more than 800 television news channels in India with about 900 private satellite television stations operating, half of which devote their time to news coverage.

Added to these are 17,000 newspaper titles with a circulation of more than 400 million. As of March 2019, there were 560 million internet users in India, the second largest number in the world after China.

Kumar said whatever is going on in media space is controlled by big businesses with “very less space left for real journalism.”

He said that in the past news channels that broadcast racism did not get advertising. “Now, the more racist you are, the more advertisements you get,” he said.

“There is ample space to say anything that suits the government but there is less space for truth-telling,” he said.

‘People-centered journalism’

Media watchdogs have been warning against increasing violence committed against journalists in India. Journalists who openly criticized the government lost their jobs.

Kumar said there are many good journalists in India but their influence in mainstream media has shrunk in recent years. “Today, they are on Twitter,” said Kumar.

“They spend their time on social media to criticize and question everything,” he said because good journalists receive no support and are even attacked.

He warned that the media industry will not survive “unless we reform mainstream media.”

Kumar said there is still hope and a lot of reasons for journalists to continue but they should strive to create a “space for journalism that puts service to the people at its center.”

He said journalists have a duty to tell the public that the media has been hijacked by people in power.

In awarding Kumar the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the award panel body recognized his “unfaltering commitment to a professional, ethical journalism of the highest standards.”

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