Magsaysay lecture delivered by Ravish Kumar: Media and citizens under pressure
Excerpts from the acceptance speech and the lecture delivered by Ravish Kumar, Managing Editor, NDTV, the 7th Indian journalist to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award
• Information helps build nations. Fake news, propaganda and false history on the other hand helps create mobs
• You can evaluate a government only when the media is independent and free
Perils of Knowledge Inequality
We have always measured inequality in terms of health and economy, but it is time for us to now also measure knowledge inequality. Today, when the resources for quality knowledge have become confined to a select few cities, we cannot even begin to imagine what the repercussions of this knowledge inequality in smaller towns and villages are. It is clear that their source of knowledge is the propaganda machine of 'WhatsApp University'. One cannot blame today's youth since it is a fact that they have been denied better education. It becomes all the more important here to evaluate the crisis of the media. If the media characterises itself as 'WhatsApp University', what will be its influence on its audiences and the society? It is a good sign that the citizens of India have begun to understand this. Indian media is in a state of crisis which isn't accidental or random but structural. Being a journalist has become a solitary endeavour as uncompromising journalists find themselves being forced out of their jobs by news organisations. Multiple women journalists are speaking out and surviving on freelance earning. With the internet shut down in Kashmir, news channels abided by the government's stand. Yet, we should also account for those who have dared to report from within that shutdown and face the wrath of the army of trolls. While journalism as an organisation may have tinkered into non-existence, journalists continue to survive. Can we restore the sanctity of reporting news? I hope audiences will value truthfulness in reporting, and the diversity of voices and platforms. A democracy can thrive only as long as its news is truthful.
We are living in testing times, as journalists and as common citizens. Our citizenship itself is on trial right now and make no mistake about it, we need to fight back. We need to rethink our duties and responsibilities as citizens.
Our world is filled with determined citizens who in spite of pervasive hatred and a manufactured information deficit, have chosen to fight back and bloom like the cactus flower does in the midst of a barren hopeless desert. Wherever the fertile plains of democracy are being subverted into deserts, the exercise of citizenship and the fight for the claim over — and right to — information have become perilous, but not impossible.
Citizenship effectively requires a free flow of verifiable information. The state today has established full control over the media and the corporations. The implication of this control over the media and in turn your information flow is that it limits and narrows the scope of your citizenship. In other words, the media controls diversity of the news stories, and specifies what interpretation of news events are acceptable. The media is now a part of the surveillance state. It isn't the fourth estate anymore, but the first estate.
Do you know why the millions of people fighting for democracy in Hong Kong renounce social media? Because they could no longer trust a language that they know their government speaks better than them. And so, they created their own language and communicated protest strategies and tactics in this newfound syntax. This is an innovative vision of the fight for citizenship.
In order to save their rights, the citizens of Hong Kong are creating (parallel/similar) spaces where lakhs of people now talk in a new register. Where they fight in new, innovative ways and gather at and disperse from protest sites in a matter of minutes. Where they have created their own apps and have altered the use of electronic metro-cards. They have modified their phones' SIM cards.
The citizens of Hong Kong were willing and able to extricate themselves from the authoritarian network of information. This tells us that the state has not yet defeated citizenship.
Kashmir is another story. An information and communication blackout imposed for several weeks. More than 10 million people cut off from any information or trade whatsoever. There was an internet shutdown. Mobiles were rendered useless.
Can you imagine a citizen without information? What happens when the media, which is meant to gather, process and relay information, supports the shutdown of all sources of information? In doing so, the media stands against the citizen who is trying to learn about the world around her — not as a matter of curiosity, but for her survival and her family's well-being.
It is an unfortunate coincidence that most of India's neighbours are also its neighbours on the Press Freedom Index. India, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar - all fall within 50 ranks of each other, right at the bottom of the international press freedom index released by Reporters Without Borders.
A few days ago, going through my Twitter feed, I encountered a notification issued by the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority which gave clear directions to the country's news channels on reporting the situation in Kashmir.
Very aptly (and un-ironically) titled 'Advice', the directions in the notification included suspending all Eid celebrations as a token of mourning, reporting news of Indian atrocities on minorities, telecasting news which was in solidarity with Kashmiris and observing 15th August as a black day.
It was specific to the extent of recommending the use of only black and white colours on TV channel logos on the15th, which happens to be India's Independence Day.
One merely has to look at the kind of headlines which are used on Indian TV channels with respect to Pakistan. Every night, our 8 or 9 pm news shows design flashy, apocalyptic headlines, turn every piece of casual news into an insult for Pakistan and keep viewers hooked while they have their dinner under the blaring cacophony of these anchors and their panelists shouting themselves hoarse.
Mainstream media promoted "citizen journalism" to reduce operating costs for itself. It outsourced its risk to you. Blogs and websites were blocked inside newsrooms. Even today, several newsrooms do not allow reporters to express their personal opinion. It is another matter however, that when the 24-year old woman 'Riverbend' started documenting the Iraq war and its devastation in the form of everyday blogs and which was later published as the 2005 book Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq, prominent media houses from around the world conceded that their reporters could not have done what this unnamed girl had done through social media.
Today if a Kashmiri girl decided to write a blog on the lines of Baghdad burning, our mainstream media would label her as anti-national. The media today is increasingly delegitimising the space of citizen journalism because it is not interested or invested in journalism. Under the garb of journalism, the media is today the comprador of the state.
In my opinion, citizen journalism is the need of the hour when the media and mainstream journalism turn hostile to information. When the struggle for information itself is described as anti-national, and disagreement is decried as treason, 'testing time' is a meek euphemism for where we are today.
When the media turns against the citizen, then it's time for the citizens to take on the role of the media. She has to do so knowing that the chances of success are slim in these times of state brutality and surveillance.
India's mainstream media is working night and day to convert our citizens into "post-illiterates". It has given up on trying to convert superstitious beings into rational thinking beings. Its syllabus consists of unthinking nationalism and communalism. The mainstream media has begun to consider the state's narrative as pure information. There are numerous channels on television but the manner and content of news on all these channels is the same. Opposition is a derogatory word for this media.
India is a great nation… however, a majority of its mainstream and television media has gone to the dogs. Indian citizens possess a great passion for democracy, but every night news channels arrive to trample over that passion. While evening in India may arrive with the setting of the sun, it is the reportage from news media that spreads the darkness of the night.
Democracy is actually alive and kicking among the people of India. Every day, there are vociferous demonstrations against the government, but the media has a screening process wherein it decides to keep these protests out of their bulletin. There is no reportage of these protests, since for the media they are a futile activity. No democracy can be a democracy without public demonstrations.
As a result, the people involved in these demonstrations have now begun recording videos themselves. In these videos recorded on their phones, they take on the role of journalists themselves, providing a break-down of the scene of action, later sharing the videos on the WhatsApp groups of the participants in the demonstration.
The definition of citizenship trumpeted by the media doesn't allow for the raising of slogans against the state. This is why citizens are attempting to preserve that essential part of themselves by creating videos for their WhatsApp groups. They begin to upload their videos on YouTube. Agitators begin to practice citizen journalism. By uploading their videos on YouTube, agitators have become citizen journalists.
When the state and media unite to control citizens, is it possible for a citizen to be able to act as a journalist? To be a citizen and exercise the associated rights, it requires a system that has to be provided for by the same democracy that the citizen belongs to. If the judiciary, police, and media become hostile towards the citizen, and the part of society that is aligned with [is/indistinguishable from] the state begins excluding them, how much can we expect a defenceless citizen to fight? Yet, the citizen is fighting back. The cactus is coming alive.
I started getting trolled by the issues of the people. "Will you not speak up for us? Are you afraid of the government?" they asked me, incessantly.
I started listening to them. Prime Time's temperament changed. Thousands of young men and women began to message me, telling me how central and state administrations would not conclude examinations for government jobs even 2 or 3 years after they were declared. Job appointment letters would not be sent even after results were published. If I were to ballpark the number of youngsters involved in all these exams, then the number of men and women waiting for their results would come to around ten million.
The impact of Prime Time's "job series" was soon felt and many pending exam results were published and appointment letters issued. As late as 2018, Bihar, the state that I come from, had not published results of exams conducted in 2014. My WhatsApp number has become a public newsroom. When my secret sources within political parties and the government began to distance themselves from me, the public became my open resource.
Prime Time has become increasingly reliant on people's WhatsApp messages for its composition/creation. This was our subversion of the WhatsApp campaign launched by those in power against me. On the one hand, party "IT cells" spread communal hate and xenophobia by bombarding broadcast lists and groups with millions of messages, and on the other hand real news was travelling to me through the same medium.
While the mainstream media parroted the falsehoods that Indian universities were rising in global rankings, students from countless colleges sent me their classroom and staff strengths. Had these students not approached me, how could I have reached out to a college with 10 or 20 teachers and 10,000 students?
Journalism is never complete without citizens and citizenship; it is an exercise of the latter in the service of the former. In times when the media was defining the citizen as per the state's parameters, citizens began to define me in their terms. The cactus' flowers of hope began to bloom in this democracy.
I still remember the message I received from a girl in Chandigarh. She was watching Prime Time when her father turned off the television. She did not heed her father and went on watching the show. She is a citizen of India's democracy. As long as that girl is there, democracy will be able to surpass the challenges in front of it. I want to mention here the many people who trolled me and abused me, but then apologised of their own accord.
If I have received lakhs of abuses then I have received thousands of such messages too. I also remember the boy from Maharashtra who was so distraught by the hatred being spouted on a news debate on his shop's television that he left to find solitude elsewhere.
When he tried to watch Prime Time at home, his brother and father insisted he turn it off because they said I was anti-national. The mainstream media and the IT cell have run this campaign against me. And they have run it well, for the willing compliance of citizens in restricting the information available to them is a sign of legitimised surrender - abdication.
I say this because in order to be a citizen journalist today, you have to struggle with the state and also the citizen who is behaving as per the state's desires.
Media and social media contribute to the process of isolating, silencing, and intimidating citizens by placing them in the midst of mobs, virtual and real. The perception of risk rises - and the experience of fear paralyses. Today's citizens are under immense pressure. The challenge before them is to find out how to fight against this media, which runs its business in their name.
In his prayer meeting on the 12th of April 1947, Mahatma Gandhi discussed newspapers. His comments can indeed be quite useful for today's divisive media. Gandhi recounted how a leading newspaper of the time had published a report alleging that no one in the Congress Working Committee was paying any heed to him. He responded by saying that if the newspapers were not going to be authentic then India's freedom was of no use. Newspapers are scared today. Any criticism is misconstrued into an invective against the nation.
India's newspapers and news channels incite and provoke conflict between communities. Gandhi had said - you should throw away these wretched newspapers. If you want any news/information, ask each other. If you do want to read, then carefully choose those newspapers which are being run in the service of Indians/India's citizens. Those that teach Hindus and Muslims to stay together.
Had Gandhi been alive today he would have said what he did on the 12th of April 1947, and what I am repeating here today.
Since 1958, six Indian journalists, apart from Ravish Kumar, have won the Ramon Magsaysay Award. They are:
- Amitabha Chowdhury
- Boobli George
- Verghese Gour
- Kishore Ghosh
- Arun Shourie
- R. K. Laxman
- P Sainath