India's journalists intimidated into silence, says veteran broadcaster

Indian journalist Ravish Kumar speaks during a press conference with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Manila on Sept. 6, 2019. [AFP]

 “Journalism is dead,” declares Ravish Kumar as the veteran journalist discusses the crisis he says India’s media are confronting.

“If you want to find journalism in India today, you need to pick up your magnifying glass,” he told VOA.

Kumar quit his job as an evening news anchor in November 2022, after more than 25 years with NDTV, one of India’s biggest networks. At the time, he cited concerns about editorial independence after billionaire Gautam Adani, a close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bought the network.

“They pocket money from the market in the name of journalism, and still they are not doing journalism,” Kumar told VOA.

Broadcasting in Hindi, Kumar had built a reputation for taking the government to task with tough questions. He has twice been awarded the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award, and won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, among others.

He says India’s journalists have been intimidated by the government, and don’t ask questions because they fear backlash.

“Everything from the government is going to the public without being scrutinized by the mainstream media,” Kumar said.

When he resigned, Kumar said he had a Facebook following of millions. So he hoped his social media popularity would help as he launched a YouTube channel.

The channel, Ravish Kumar Official, has more than 9.6 million subscribers and through it, says Kumar, he can tell the stories India’s mainstream media won’t cover.

Kumar says he hasn’t watched NDTV, and has no plans to do so, since his departure. But with his own channel, he can cover stories that he says the mainstream media ignore.

He feels India’s media failed to adequately cover issues such as electoral bonds. The bonds would have allowed unlimited anonymous donations to political parties. He also says political corruption isn’t adequately covered.

“I demonstrated that one politician, a member of parliament, had been behind bars for six months and there’s a picture of him coming out from the jail,” Kumar said. “Two Hindi newspapers made this non-significant news.”
But taking on political stories is a risk at a time when press freedom in India is in decline.

“I don’t know whether or not my channel will survive, and what kind of action will be taken,” Kumar said. He added that this kind of apprehension and anxiety “runs through every YouTuber who is doing journalism and who are questioning the government of India.”

And, as an independent journalist broadcasting on YouTube, “You have to do everything on your own,” said Kumar. “That comes with its own sets of problems and challenges.”

Kumar starts his days at 5 a.m. and is often still working at 9 p.m. He produces two shows a day, with a team of eight people.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, has long warned of rising hostility and pressure on India’s journalists.

“Since Narendra Modi came to power, we see the persecution of journalists and the media has intensified,” Celia Mercier, who heads RSF’s South Asia desk, told VOA.

“We have cases of censorship, intimidation, attacks, repression of critical voices, cyber harassment,” she added. “And it’s all the more worrying in a country considered the world’s largest democracy.”

When Modi came to power in 2014, India ranked 140 out of 180 countries on the RSF World Press Freedom Index. In 2023, it ranked 161, where 1 shows the best environment.

The Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA emails or calls requesting comment.

RSF and other watchdogs have also cited India’s use of laws, including on information technology and national security, to target media that report critically.

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for instance, has been used to target reporters.

“We have seen this anti-terrorism law used to crack down on journalists in the case of NewsClick, which is an independent media,” Mercier said.

The media advocate said a special cell of Delhi police raided the news outlet in October.

“It was a deployment of 500 police officers and the head of this independent media, NewsClick, has been detained for the last six months under the anti-terrorism law,” Mercier added.

International news organizations have also been affected. The New Delhi and Mumbai offices of the BBC were raided in February 2023. The action, described by the government spokesperson at the time as a “tax survey,” came weeks after India described a BBC documentary on Modi as “propaganda.”

UCLA information studies professor Ramesh Srinivasan said that with the loss of press freedoms, India is losing its larger Ghandian vision.

“It is directly tied to the Modi government and its neo-authoritarian actions,” Srinivasan told VOA. “A number of independent journalists have been intimidated, harassed, bullied and some independent media networks have been shut down.”

Kumar says the government hasn’t threatened him yet, but he worries his news channel may be next.

“If YouTube shuts down my channel, my journalism ends with that,” he said. “Because no news channel or newspaper is willing to publish my column.”

Kumar says as challenging as his life has become, quitting NDTV and starting a news channel was his choice.

“No regrets I made the right decision,” he said.