A Disturbing Peep Into The Decline Of India’s Media

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While We Watched – an award-winning documentary by Indian filmmaker Vinay Shukla is a timely, prescient film on the rapid decline of mainstream broadcast media in India. The film shows how the mass spread of disinformation and propaganda in the name of news in the South Asian nation has seeped into Indian society and created further divisions.

The documentary had packed screenings across Europe and the US but is yet to find a distributor for a theatrical release in India. While We Watched recently won a Peabody award for its “powerful defense of independent journalism and its poignant portrait of everyday courage in the face of radicalized politics and publics.” The documentary also won the prestigious Willy Brandt Documentary Award at the Human Rights Film Festival, in Berlin. The documentary is a wake-up call and a cautionary tale of the death of independent media in India.

The documentary centers around Ravish Kumar, a prominent Indian broadcast journalist and a popular news anchor of NDTV, India’s most trusted and respected news channel that stood out from the rest. The film was shot by Shukla from 2018 to 2020 before the channel’s recent acquisition by the Adani group – a multi-national Indian enterprise known for its close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Using close-up shots inside office spaces, the documentary follows Kumar as he goes about his daily work, trying to maintain a certain level of editorial independence for his daily news show at a time when there is increased pressure on all media to conform.

In the opening scene, Ravish walks past a demolished floor of a building which we later learn is the office floor of NDTV which had to be shut down due to financial constraints faced by the media company. While most of the mainstream broadcast media drown in the cacophony of polarizing debates that are more like shouting matches, further amplifying the government narratives instead of questioning them, Ravish emerges as a saner voice on air. He questions the government on relevant issues in the country – unemployment, rising inflation, student issues, and farmer suicides – which are discussed in his popular prime-time program.

Instead of giving in to sensationalism and ideological debates rampantly amplified on a number of other Hindi and English news channels, Ravish sticks to his news sense grounded in decades of reportage experience. He always tries to give voice to the voiceless on issues that matter to a common person on the street.

But this striving for independent news coverage comes at a cost amid the Television Rating Point (TRP)-driven toxic news media environment in India where communal discord and hatred for the other is sold in the name of news and debates on air. In a speech, Ravish gives after he is invited to a college function when a student tells him that she is a big fan of his show, he tells her amid laughter from the audience: “You should tell my producers. According to them, I am the zero TRP rating guy.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a selfie with reporters during the Diwali Mangal Milan at BJP headquarters in New Delhi in 2015. Image: PTI

Throughout the documentary there is a sense of one man standing, sticking to his principles, while those around him, including his colleagues who have worked with him for decades on his prime-time show, start leaving him one by one. Once, while picking up his wife after office, he asks her if he too should leave the profession. Many of his colleagues are leaving and getting better offers in other news channels. Many cakes are cut throughout the documentary, and farewells are done on their last day. His colleagues and other employees move on, leaving him behind. He can only watch them leave.

There is also a threat of real physical harm that looms large as Kumar gets phone calls from unknown numbers who threaten him for not toeing the government line, accusing him of being anti-national. He ignores some callers, but engages with others, questioning them even as his family grows increasingly worried. He can no longer recognize the India he has grown up in and wonders what it has become, especially after the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014.

The journalists and media organizations, that don’t fall in line and question the government, are increasingly threatened, and their journalists are booked and arrested. In early October 2023, independent news website NewsClick’s founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha and its HR director were arrested following police raids in the office of publication, and the homes of the publication staffers whose electronic devices were also seized. The publication has been investigated since 2021 for allegedly receiving ‘Chinese money’ and accused of disrupting India’s sovereignty and integrity. It is not surprising that India’s ranking in this year’s World Press Freedom Index has dropped to its lowest score of 161 out of 180 countries.

The film shows clips of popular mainstream news channels whose leading anchors and editors gloat about their increasing TRPs off-air, propagating polarising debates on air. They seek to suppress dissenting voices by calling them anti-nationals, and regularly platforming Hindu right-wing voices demonizing minorities and rights activists.

Journalists protest against authorities’ growing restrictions on media, outside the Press Club of India, New Delhi, India on 18 February 2021. Image: Pradeep Gaur/SOPA

Even as his colleagues leave the news channel, Kumar emerges as a lone voice trying to do the right thing till the end. Kumar later left the news channel where his primetime news show reached millions of viewers every night, much before the Adani takeover. After leaving NDTV, Kumar has continued his independent journalism and reaches out to his viewers through his popular YouTube channel which has garnered more than seven million subscribers in a short span.

Soon after poll results were announced in the summer of 2019, bringing the Modi-led BJP government to power again for the second term, Kumar says in the documentary during an election day show on the news channel: “This result has changed India. Please welcome this new India, the India in whose search you restlessly wandered, the India you have been desperate to bring out. Today, you got this India.”

While We Watched provides a harrowing peek into that new India, where dissenting voices and independent media are sought to be criminalized, by turning the camera toward the messenger.

Majid Maqbool

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and writer based in India administered Kashmir

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