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Amid a crumbling Indian media landscape, journalist Ravish Kumar remains resolute

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here in the U.S., Americans who watch Fox News likely don't watch CNN, and that goes both ways. In India, the media landscape has become an even more deeply divided echo chamber. And in recent years, with the rise of Hindu nationalism, some Indian news anchors have openly sided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during broadcasts, labeling critics of the Modi government anti-nationalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: For every Indian soldier killed, a hundred Pakistani soldiers killed. There is a very strong sentiment now. And the...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Anti-nationals in India - they must be made to pay, too.

CHANG: One journalist who found himself targeted by those remarks, accused of being an anti-nationalist, is Ravish Kumar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAVISH KUMAR: (Non-English language spoken). Indian media is in a state of crisis, and this crisis is not accidental or random but systemic and structural.

CHANG: Kumar was a news anchor and senior executive editor for the news network NDTV in New Delhi for many years. The documentary "While We Watched" tracks his life as a journalist at the center of those political fights at a time when his own newsroom was crumbling around him. Vinay Shukla directed the film.

VINAY SHUKLA: When I came across Ravish, I was very surprised. You will very often hear news anchors saying things like, we are here to serve the audience, and whatever the audience wants, we'll deliver. When I came across Ravish's broadcast, with him, I found a news anchor who was not only questioning the government but also questioning the audiences.

CHANG: I talked to Shukla recently, along with his documentary subject, Ravish Kumar, and I asked Kumar why he felt the need to begin speaking out to his viewers and to the rest of the world about the state of Indian media.

KUMAR: These media are not working for dissemination of information. They are working hard to stop information reaching to the viewers and to the voters. This situation is very serious. This is not a routine story of media decline, I think.

CHANG: There are multiple moments in this film where you get death threats. Like, at one point, while you're fielding menacing phone calls, you start singing a patriotic Indian song to someone who is attacking you on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHILE WE WATCHED")

KUMAR: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: I was so struck by that moment because I don't know how I would feel if I were listening to someone yell at me like that. What possessed you to break into song like that right on the phone?

KUMAR: To just - to make him calm down. I asked him, can you sing a song with me? We both love country, so let's sing. And suddenly he fell into my trap and started singing. And you heard that...

CHANG: It was like a lullaby is what you're saying.

KUMAR: Yeah. Yeah. But it's not good to hear when someone is threatening you, your daughters, your wife, your life. It hurts you.

CHANG: Well, some remarkable things happened at NDTV, Vinay, as you were filming this documentary. For example, many of Ravish's colleagues began abandoning the network as the newsroom begins to fall apart. There's this other scene in the film where the network's broadcast appears to just literally freeze on TVs all around India. Can you talk about what happened in that moment when the broadcast froze?

SHUKLA: I mean, the broadcast would freeze sporadically and in different regions, not necessarily all across India. But those are - you know, it's difficult to find out why that sort of stuff was happening. But it was a very common occurrence with Ravish's show.

CHANG: Did you think the government was playing a direct role in that?

SHUKLA: I can't say with absolute certainty that the government was doing it without the evidence to back it up, right? That's where you require a very strong journalism kicking in and investigating why this is happening. Unfortunately, investigative journalism in India right now has taken a hit.

CHANG: Right.

SHUKLA: So these are the challenges. We are left with a lot of questions. It's unfortunate.

CHANG: But I am curious. What was the story that you set out to tell, Vinay, at the beginning of this project? And how much did that change by the time you were finishing the film? Did you see an evolution in your own storytelling, in your objectives?

SHUKLA: When I started filming this project, I remember thinking that Ravish - he has been doing this for nearly 25 years when approached him. And I thought it will be some big, swanky office wherein, you know, he'll have a large team of people who are working with him because, you know, I - my only reference for how it could be was, like, films. I had seen these big sort of newsroom thrillers...

CHANG: Right.

SHUKLA: ...In which a couple of people, you know, stand around the table and say, we are doing this story and that. You know, that's how we are going to change everything. I got to NDTV, and I saw him and his colleagues operate in - with the most minimal teams. Like, Ravish's team, at any point, was less than five people. And, you know, the first day I was there on the shoot, I remember seeing a cake being cut.

CHANG: Because somebody was leaving the office.

SHUKLA: And somebody was leaving the office. And it was a very, very honestly tragic moment when you see somebody who's committed, you know, nearly three decades, two decades of their life to a profession, and one day they're asked to leave not because of their own flaws but because of where the profession is now at. So at that point, I realized that this film is like the "Titanic," but it's not about Jack and Rose. It's about the people who decided to stay back on the Titanic and go out playing their violins...

CHANG: Wow.

SHUKLA: ...About the people who are still trying to do their job and struggling with it.

CHANG: Ravish, by the end of this film, you were still at NDTV, but, of course, that changed last year, when a billionaire who's aligned with Prime Minister Modi - his name is Gautam Adani - he took over the network. And that's when you finally resigned. Now you host a show on YouTube. Can you talk about the decision to leave NDTV?

KUMAR: My conscience told me that I should not be working with him. After former owner of NDTV Radhika Roy and Prannoy Roy - once they leave NDTV, NDTV means to me nothing. It will become a kind of propaganda machine or any other news channels.

CHANG: What does it feel like to be fighting for your survival on YouTube? As someone who's been in mainstream broadcast media for decades, what is that like to be on a platform like YouTube now?

SHUKLA: I enjoy my work. I do not know what is the life of my YouTube channel. So it is in the hands of YouTube, some unknown manager, some unknown authority. But till now, I'm very grateful to the YouTube that has been able to support my family, to support my life...

CHANG: And to give you a voice.

SHUKLA: ...And to give you a voice, which - no Indian news channels and newspapers have mustered courage to give me a single columnist's space to write here whatever you want to write. But the only way is to keep working. And that's the hope. Many days I get 1 million views in one hour. Many days I get 2 million views in two hours. So that's the kind of experience I am having with the YouTube viewers, and they are not allowing me - giving us space to feel depressed and to lose hope. So that - they are the hope, actually.

CHANG: That was longtime Indian journalist Ravish Kumar and Vinay Shukla, who directed the documentary "While We Watched." It's out on PBS. Thank you both so much.

KUMAR: Thank you.

SHUKLA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROWN BIRD'S "SHADRACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.