Ravish Kumar: News channels are being used to crush democracy in India

Ravish Kumar has been at the receiving end of trolls for standing up to the government and posing inconvenient questions. In this frank exchange with NH, he hauls TV news channels over the coals

NH photo by Raviraj Sinha
NH photo by Raviraj Sinha

Bhasha Singh & Vikrant Jha

Television news anchor, commentator, blogger and journalist Ravish Kumar has an iconic status in Hindi Television journalism. Known to call a spade a spade with disarming simplicity, Kumar has been at the receiving end of trolls for standing up to the government and relentlessly posing inconvenient questions. In this frank exchange with Bhasha Singh and Vikrant Jha, he hauls Television news channels over the coals. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you think happened to the Indian media in the last four years?

Unfortunately, the media have been serving only the powers that be and generating controversies that serve their purpose. There are diversions being created to take attention away from serious issues. The Aligarh Muslim University controversy is a case in point. It is an engineered controversy and so was the controversy around JNU.

Take a recent programme on Aaj Tak which set up a debate between “Rashtravad and ‘Jinnahvad’”. A few academics who were trying to put the context to the controversy were pitted against the usual suspects, the supporters of the current regime. Even before a word had been spoken, the narrative had been set between ‘ nationalists’ and supporters of Jinnah. It was, I would say, a set-up. Nobody would remember what was spoken. But most viewers would remember the supporters of Jinnah. Make a list of all the issues that are being discussed on TV channels and you would know whose interest they are being served.

Hasn’t TV always played a role in politics?

TV played a huge role in Narendra Modi’s quest for power and in sustaining his charisma while in power. And now it is playing a role in his quest to return to power. Political parties now have their own feed and they provide the channels with the footage. Some channels attribute the footage to parties when they air the clips, but most don’t. This way the visuals are being controlled. This is being used to create a wave. If you analyse how much coverage each party got during the recent Karnataka elections, you will have a clear picture. The opposition have to fight Television first if they wish to safeguard democracy.

How can one fight?

You have to tell the news channels. The opposition leaders must tell the media. In their rallies, the first thing an opposition leader must say is that “you must have seen our three rallies get ten seconds of coverage on TV and the ruling party’s three rallies receiving three hours…”. I’ll not respect the leader who does not do that because it means he neither understands democracy nor does he understand his own fight. Everyone takes it as a joke, but it is no joke. Look at the number of surveys during Karnataka elections. How many surveys do you need for one election in just one state? These surveys are used to hide the real concerns, the real problems of the public.

Are media owners hobnobbing with the Government or the journalists as well?

It is a good time for journalists who choose to support the Government. All that they are expected to do is to report on what the Government and the ministries have forwarded them. On TV you just have to show rallies and shower praise on the Government.

When Narendra Modi started campaigning in Karnataka, TV channels portrayed it like the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar on the crease. The media made it seem like Narendra Modi would win the game single-handedly for the BJP.

You are suggesting that the media no longer have an adversarial relationship with the Government…

Later this month the Government will be completing four years in power. A large number of conclaves are planned and in all these conclaves, there will rarely be anything from the ground. Everyone will talk nice things about the Government. Many of these conclaves will be hosted by media outlets and the sponsors will invariably be companies close to people in power.

The sad part is, news channels are being used to crush democracy in India. There can be nothing more saddening. We did not get democracy as a boon and for free. Hamein vardaan me nahi mila. We paid a price for it. For years, thousands of people were put in prison. Hundreds of thousands fought for democracy and freedom. Can we let 600 to 700 TV channels to destroy everything?

But people do draw parallels with the Emergency andbelieve that an unnecessary fuss is being made over what is happening now …

I will not look at the present through the glass of history.Were people singing folklores in praise of the Emergency? Did people write books praising Emergency?  Even during the Emergency and after it was lifted, people were critical and opposition parties struggled relentlessly against the Emergency unlike today’s opposition.The media too was critical of the move. And in the name of what happened then,how can we take what is happening today lightly? We take democracy very lightly.

What is Television doing currently? It is humiliating the opposition and running it down. By opposition, I do not mean only the political opposition. The first opposition to the ruling establishment are the people, the civil society. The electronic media is ridiculing this opposition and providing them no space to raise their concerns. Television as a medium is not only anti-democratic, but also completely anti-citizen.

Smriti Irani feels there is need to monitor media, especially social media. What do you feel about it?

I’ve not followed it up closely enough. But they feel that things at times get out of hand on social media when people start questioning and criticising the government on certain issues. It becomes unpredictable, unlike TV which is fixed. On social media, there is still some space as people write, they circulate jokes. For instance, the social media was full of jokes after the Prime Minister’s Pakoda remarks. So, controlling the social media is to control its unpredictability. People who are propagating hate, obscurantism, what has the government done against them? Nobody is talking about fake news, instead they themselves propagate the content of fake news in their rallies. But nobody talks about it. No channel asks questions.

Do you see things changing in 2019?

We are in 2018 right now; I don’t see any change so far. But TV channels are already in 2019. In India, if you turn the TV on, you will feel like you are living in 2019 as if 2018 is forgotten. There are programs already named ‘Mission 2019’. Even if political parties have not started their campaign, news channels have already started batting for 2019.

You refer to mob culture and propagation of fake news in all parts of the world in the book. Is there any country which has successfully fought it?

Different countries have been able to fight fake news and propaganda in different times. During 1920s and 1930s when fascism was at an all -time high, countries like Sweden, Belgium, Finland and several other countries could counter it. When a Swedish political party learnt that the president of its youth wing was extremely influenced by Hitler and was taking money from him, the party sacked the entire youth wing of the party. Because of the sacking, the party lost municipal elections. But that party wasn’t perturbed and started gate-keeping inside their own party.

Is there a similarity between Hitler’s Germany and Modi’s India?

There is similar mob-culture and propaganda politics in India currently. There are issues, that I call the national syllabi, like Triple Talaq, Jinnah and Namaz which are being propagated. A week ago, nobody knew how many people performed Namaz in Gurugram. The national syllabus has now been launched in Gurugram. It is just a build up to religious fanaticism.

Would you say the trolling on social media is ‘organised’?

It’s one hundred percent organised. At times, I’ve wondered if there is an infrastructure where people work in different shifts just to troll. Initially, I used to get calls from a number once a day or once in two days. Sometimes the calls were also made using International cards where I would get calls from numbers starting with +44 or other ISD codes.

The ones calling are, as I told you, ‘office-bearers’ of some communal organisation which believes in creating communal disharmony by taking out a procession with hundreds of people holding swords and wearing a saffron bandana. They seem to be giving a command performance, waging a psychological war against targets. I have seen nothing like this before.

Who do this ‘troll organisation’ target ?

The target are the people who criticise Modi-government, the ones who ask questions, the ones who talk about secularism.

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Published: 24 May 2018, 6:39 PM