“While We Watched”: New Film Spotlights Journalist Ravish Kumar’s Fight for Truth in Modi’s India
Written by GRB on 21/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at press freedom in India — often referred to as the world’s most populous democracy — under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi is head of the Hindu nationalist BJP party. He was once banned for nearly a decade from the United States on charges he did not intervene in a massacre against Muslims in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat, which he headed. But he’s now being embraced by President Biden and other world leaders. In June, Biden hosted Modi for a state dinner. Last week, Modi was the guest of honor at France’s Bastille Day parade, as French President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for him, as well.
Meanwhile, back home, the leaders of 26 opposition political parties in India announced a new alliance this week that aims to oust Modi in next year’s general election. The coalition is called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, with the acronym INDIA. Modi called the new alliance a, quote, “hardcore corruption convention.”
All this comes as one of India’s last bastions of free media, NDTV, has been taken over by the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, who is from Modi’s home state of Gujarat, believed to have close ties to the prime minister. He is the richest man in India, the third richest in the world.
Now a stunning new documentary captures what happened when one of India’s most prominent TV journalists, NDTV’s executive editor and longtime anchor Ravish Kumar, reported critically on Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies. The film resonates far beyond India. It’s called While We Watched. This is the trailer.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] What’s happening on TV today is not journalism. Every channel echoes the same tune.
SAURABH SHUKLA: [translated] This is a big story, and nobody is running it.
CALLER 1: [translated] How dare you criticize our country? We will murder you.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] In the absence of information, conversations will turn violent.
SUSHIL MOHAPATRA: [translated] [reading] “Ravish Kumar, I warn you: You better change before it’s too late.”
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] A spineless journalist breeds a hopeless society. Hello! I’m Ravish Kumar.
HINDU NATIONALIST 1: They want to break the country. This will not be tolerated.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] News channels are poisoning your mind. Those who ask questions are called traitors.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Somebody is following us.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] Since when?
Will they shut us down?
CALLER 2: [translated] You Pakistan lover, you traitor!
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] Would you like to sing with me? [singing] Better than the entire world.
HINDU NATIONALIST 2: Ravish Kumar, you swine, I’m warning you!
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] Is this the India you dreamt of?
Maybe I should quit.
SAURABH SHUKLA: [translated] Should we only do reports that governments let us?
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] I have the same doubt.
CROWD: [translated] No! No! No! No!
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] Name one country where there is so much hate on TV.
HINDU NATIONALIST 3: He is anti-national!
HINDU NATIONALIST 4: Die, NDTV!
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] You think I’m a traitor? We’re not traitors! If we choose to remain silent, it will cost us the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new documentary While We Watched. Some have called the film an “elegy for press freedom” in India. It comes to U.S. theaters this week.
For more, we’re joined in New York City by its director, Vinay Shukla, and by its subject, Ravish Kumar, the acclaimed Indian journalist and author, who was the senior executive editor of NDTV India, where he hosted a number of programs, including the channel’s flagship weekday show. In 2019, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Vinay Shukla. If you could talk about your decision to make this film about Ravish, who you followed for some two years, and in so doing, being a kind of fly on the wall in the newsroom and in his home, we see what happens to press freedom. It’s a kind of microcosm in India. Talk about this journey you took with Ravish.
VINAY SHUKLA: I think, in the beginning, when I used to — you know, when I used to watch the news, there was so much noise. I would speak to my friends very often, and they would say that they have stopped watching the news completely because it’s not good for their mental health, so on and so forward. And I used to find that very distracting — or, very concerning, because news is a system, is a major system of public information, at least in India. And, you know, I believe we come to the news because we want to learn something that will make our lives better. So, when so many people are switching off from the news, that was something very concerning for me.
In India, just to give you context, fact-based reportage has really taken a backseat. And there is — you know, opinion and debate shows are the norm. So, when I came across — I remember watching one of Ravish’s broadcasts. And very often you have news anchors who will tell their audiences that “We are here to serve you, and the audience is number one.” Ravish was actually scolding his audiences, that “You should be doing better. Please stop watching TV, and that’s the only way we can all get better.” I found that to be ironical, that here was somebody in the news business who was asking people to stop watching the news. And he was also being very, very vulnerable on television. You know, he was wondering aloud if there was an audience out there for him. So I really found that to be a good starting point, because I think over a period of time we have all become very desensitized to the crisis that people who are working within the news industry are facing. And with Ravish, I thought I had a good protagonist to try and investigate that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As you said that now Indian television news channels are dominated principally by debates and also extremely aggressive anchors, I’d like to go to a clip of one of India’s most popular news show hosts, Arnab Goswami.
ARNAB GOSWAMI: I believe that being a nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And this is a clip from a 2016 segment featuring an interview with Umar Khalid, a student activist and former leader of the Democratic Students’ Union at JNU, a university that’s considered India’s Harvard. He was one of the most prominent voices in the protests against the execution in 2013 of Afzal Guru, who was convicted of the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. The protests also criticized the execution of Kashmiri separatist leader Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged in 1984. Umar Khalid has since been accused under the so-called Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. So, this is Arnab interviewing Umar Khalid.
ARNAB GOSWAMI: Look at your poster, which argues for self-determination for Kashmiris, the same line that Pakistan takes today. Look at your statements, which say that Afzal Guru’s wishes —
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: — will be fulfilled. Look at — look at your slogans!
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: Look at your — look at your pathetic — look at your pathetic slogans, that call for India’s destruction. You cannot be on my side holding an Indian passport, carrying out education that is subsidized by the Indian taxpayer —
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: — and have the temerity to say that “I will provide a platform for people who say that we will work relentlessly ’til India is destroyed”! Look at your statements that label India a spiteful state. Look at your statement that says that the lasting call of Azadi —
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: — rings loud in the heart of every Kashmiri. You are a secessionist, under the argument of death penalty!
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: And for far too long, ladies and gentlemen, in this country — for far too long in this country, under the garb —
UMAR KHALID: [inaudible]
ARNAB GOSWAMI: For far too long in this country — and I will not be interrupted at this point of time by him, so I request, please, just reduce his volume!
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Arnab Goswami interviewing Umar Khalid. I’d like to ask Ravish Kumar: If you could talk about how representative this is of the broader media landscape of Indian television news programs?
RAVISH KUMAR: Amy Goodman, thank you for having me here. A lot of viewers who watch my show follow your work, and they have sent a huge regard to your work.
Having said that, this clip you just showed about Arnab Goswami, in the beginning, he was the one, but now we have many more like him. Entire Indian news channel systems have become — there are many news channels, hundreds of news channels, but they are the same. Anchors are doing the same kind of job, what you just showed to your viewers, that how Arnab Goswami is shouting and alienating a young boy and delegitimizing him from his citizenry, from his right to speak and right to stand for anything he believes that is wrong.
This media is — we have to be very clear that this media is — Indian media is not — is the biggest story, one of the prominent story of any democratic world now. And this is not a routine media decline story. See, the destruction is very huge, on a vast scale. And after this destruction, this media has turned into a weapon. The weaponization of Indian media is something to worry about. And this media is, day in, day out, going, branding people, say that you are a traitor, you are pro-Pakistani, you are anti-national, anti-Hindu — all things in the name of religion and in the service of prime minister.
So, we do have a kind of media, but we do not have media where you have any kind of alternative voices. So this crisis is not a routine crisis. We have to be very careful, that no sober society can afford to have a kind of rogue media, which is so weaponized, which is so communal hatred spreading. The anchors are — they are just not loud and shrill. This is just facade. They are — their voices are laden with such hatred against one community in the name of religion. They are inciting masses. They have become weapon of mass destruction.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ravish, so, explain. You were the senior executive editor at NDTV. Then Gautam Adani has taken it over. Explain how NDTV was different from all these other television news channels.
RAVISH KUMAR: It was different in many ways. NDTV did put up a brave fight, Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy. They were also framed with many charges. But they could not save their channel. Yes, they faced a lot of resource problems, but they never intervened in the editorial work or our job. So, they tried, to the last of their core, to save this channel and to have a space where you can raise alternative voices, you can raise questions, you can raise — you can give a platform to many peoples, like you just had a headline of northern India, the danger of waterborne disease. Indian media has left this kind of stories once prime minister returned from France. And they are again doing their agenda in the service of their politics.
So, NDTV was different in many ways. And, yes, you rightly said it was the last bastion of Indian media. Now you do not have one channel which is doing differently. You have a number of channels who all are doing the same content, and that content is communal hatred, with full of falsehood.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the documentary, While We Watched. In this clip, Ravish, you are talking with reporter Saurabh Shukla about the challenges that you’re all facing working at NDTV at the time.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] I’ve been losing sleep over this. There seems to be no way out. This is a new move. They want to make sure we have no reach. We are becoming irrelevant.
SAURABH SHUKLA: [translated] At least here at NDTV, we’ve got each other’s back. It won’t be the same elsewhere.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] I can keep talking about what’s wrong in the world, but people’s ideologies have changed so much. How are we going to reach them?
SAURABH SHUKLA: [translated] There are no easy solutions, sir. This is our life.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go to another clip from While We Watched, where Ravish Kumar bids farewell to a departing colleague. Then we see him in conversation with his wife in the car.
COLLEAGUE: [translated] It’s my last day today.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] Is there anyone left in your department?
COLLEAGUE: [translated] A few of them are still hanging on.
TEXT MESSAGES: I am just worried for your safety. I don’t know how to deal with this pressure.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] The newsroom keeps getting emptier every day. You need resilience and a tough spirit. But everything is standing against you.
NAYANA DASGUPTA: [translated] It’s getting harder for me to see you like this. [in English] There’s so much despair and despondency, and it strikes terror in the heart.
RAVISH KUMAR: [translated] I don’t know what to do anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ravish Kumar talking to his wife in the car. Ravish, if you can talk about your decision to resign? I mean, every night — what was it? — at 9:00, millions of people around India tuned in to hear what you had to say, also your reporting on the streets as you brought the voices out of people. Talk about that decision you came to, and what Modi had to do with it, the prime minister.
RAVISH KUMAR: It was very tough to reach a decision like this, because I’ve been born and brought up professionally on that [inaudible] itself. When Gautam Adani took over NDTV, it was very clear to me that the journalism of NDTV is over now. And that decision was proved after that when Hindenburg report came out, and still NDTV went out to make nine documentaries praising the achievement of Narendra Modi’s government during nine years. So, I knew that you cannot see Gautam Adani as an independent businessman. Yes, he may be, but he is seen in the public that he is an extension. Oppositions blame, alleged, that this man is a part of prime minister’s politics. So, yes, he said that there will be a difference between editorial and management, but now we can see that where this channel is going on.
And before Adani, Amy, ministers and a spokesperson from the Bharatiya Janata Party started by courting us. They did not appear in my show and my other colleague’s show. Now one minister go on record, and it’s reported by Newslaundry. If I am correctly rephrasing it, she says that — she’s a prominent minister. She’s saying that “I have not spoken to you for long, and now I believe there is a regime change.” That’s where she is making it officially that we were boycotting you, now we are not boycotting because there is a regime change. What is this regime change? Prannoy Roy is gone, and Adani is in. So, it was very clear to me. Though it was very hard and it was very heartbreaking decision for me to leave NDTV, and, yes, but I had to take this decision. I could not work under that man.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain, first of all, what happened to Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, who were the founders of NDTV? You show a little bit of that in the film. And then explain why the press in India is referred derisively to as “Godi media.” Explain what that means.
RAVISH KUMAR: Yes. I’m not very privy to all kind of informations and stories which Prannoy and Radhika gone through. I believe they should tell their own story. But, yes, they fought a lot of cases, and even this man you showed, he covered live and spoke many bad things about him when his house was being raided. It was covered by, live covered by. But, yes, they faced a lot. And I can sense that — they have a house in front, just besides NDTV office. They must be feeling sad when they come out of their house. But they have to tell their story.
But Indian media, we have to be very careful. We cannot be casual about this. This media has become very dangerous. Right now this is shielding our government, our prime minister every day. They are not giving space to opposition. This media has become so anti-opposition, so anti-minorities, anti-Muslims. You cannot imagine the scale I am talking about. I can give any number of examples to elaborate my point. But I still think that Indian media is gone. We have many things in India. We still have many robust systems, which makes us hopeful that, ultimately, democracy will survive. But we do not have media in a true or partial journalistic sense, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Vinay, can you explain — I mean, given the fact, you know, the description both in the film, as well as what you both have been saying, the media climate in India, is there any prospect at all that your film will be released there? And has it been shown at all, even in private screenings?
VINAY SHUKLA: OK. So, I think there is — it’s a two-part answer. I have received a lot of love from people, whenever I go out, whenever there’s a post about the film. People are really, really waiting for the film to come out. And, you know, the film premiered in Toronto last year. We’ve been winning awards since. Every time I talk about having won an award or screened the film internationally, people are always like, “When will you bring it back home?” So, there is a fair amount of demand amongst the audiences.
I haven’t so far had any offer from a distributor to put the film out, which, of course, is challenging. On my previous film, I made a very, very political film before this, and, you know, I was able to release that in theaters, and it ran for many weeks. So I am hopeful that I’ll be able to do that, because, ultimately, I made this film for audiences back home. You know, I made this for my cousin, for my parents, for my friends. This film is made in a language in which I believe that I will be able to communicate and speak to them. So I’d really like to show them the film, and I am really, really hopeful.
AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official state visit to the White House last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post highlighting what they call the “press freedom crisis in India.” The ad said, in part, quote, “India is the world’s largest democracy, yet it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media,” unquote. During Modi’s visit, he and Biden held a joint news conference. Modi was questioned by Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, who’s believed to the first journalist to ask Modi a question at a news conference since 2015. This was the interaction.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Mr. Prime Minister, India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, but there are many human rights groups who say that your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics. As you stand here in the East Room of the White House, where so many world leaders have made commitments to protecting democracy, what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: [translated] We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say “deliver,” this is regardless of caste, creed, religion or gender. There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.
AMY GOODMAN: Following that news conference, The Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui faced an intense online harassment campaign by supporters of Modi. Ravish Kumar, it’s something you are very familiar with. First, were you surprised that she got to ask this question? And, of course, underlying all of this is your views of what’s happening to India under Modi right now, as he’s being hailed by world leaders, what you see happening at home. If you could respond to all of that?
RAVISH KUMAR: Yes, I was surprised, and I thought that whoever arranged this press conference done a great maneuvering job, because our — sorry to say that our prime minister, who comes from a leading democracy in the world, hasn’t done any press conference in nine years of his government. And he came to power on the pretext that earlier prime minister is not speaking, he’s not a vocal man. The prime minister gave a number of his speeches, but he could not hold one press conference and take questions.
And I was happy because — for one reason. This is the one prominent questions which is chasing our prime minister to ask for many years, and finally someone had got chance, and she asked that question. This is the question he’s running away. And in many ways, yes, her question was representative of many questions which we are raising, that a communal — a vicious communal media has become so weaponized, and the communal hatred is so high in India, and there is a reason behind this. Anchors have a legitimacy. Trolls have a legitimacy, political support, administrative support. And the question was very right, and I do not think that question was answered very well.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ravish, could you explain the question of communalism in India? Muslims constitute about 14% of the country’s population. Two hundred million Muslims or more live in India. Why are Muslims the target, repeatedly, of the Indian press?
RAVISH KUMAR: Since 2014, nobody had idea. And if you look at the Muslims’ organizations, even they did not say anything which should be countered like this. They were very quiet. But suddenly, this media turned into a communal machine. It has become a factory of a communal hatred. And anchors changed from within, and they started spreading communal hatred. Even Supreme Court, Amy, on many occasion, have strictly criticized this kind of media and asked government that “Can’t we stop this kind of media?” But nothing has been done. If you surf any news channel, even right now, you will find one or other journalist doing communal agenda. So, it has been legitimized by media. Media’s job was to question this kind of communal agenda, but it has become a direct tool to spread this kind of communal agenda. And the scale is very vast. I am not talking about Indian newspapers. I’m only talking about here about Indian television. It’s shameful there is no other issues are being covered, but every day every anchor has come up with some kind of communal grievances and giving voices to majoritarianism.
So, this kind of television journalism, we have. And we are not talking about this. Individuals have suffered because of that. There are many incidents where people on the street thought that they have the support of television. They have normalized such things. Then, even at home, elders are discussing and legitimizing this kind of communal biases to — in their younger generation. So, no institution is there to stop.
When lockdown happened during COVID, suddenly these journalists started blaming one group of Muslims’ organizations. And many were arrested, targeted. And there were many, many places we had an incident like that. People went on the street and start checking identity card of fruit sellers, vegetable sellers, that “Show your identity card. If you are Muslims, you are not allowed to sell here.” So, it was a kind of atmosphere which was created by these television channels. And after many months, many courts have said that television channels have done great damage to this country, and this kind of fake news fakery has been propagated by the news channels. So you have many official accounts of their communal agenda criticized by the Supreme Court. I am not saying alone.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Ravish, explain. You know, you’ve said that trolls have become the authority in India, and authorities have become trolls in India, since 2014 — in other words, since Modi came to power. Explain the power of these trolls and how much false news, disinformation, is circulated on WhatsApp, and the effects of that.
RAVISH KUMAR: Amy, when trolling started in Indian public life, many people who are active in public sphere used to tell me that these things will come and go. But I could sense that these are not social trolls. These kind of trolls are not coming from random part of the society, but it has a support. It has an institutional support. And now they have become the authority in itself. If they start trolling you, you will find that cases are being filed against you. You will find that police have reached to your doorstep.
I know one female journalist who had to leave her town, who was a very bright, young female journalist, who was promoted a few days back, but because of trolls, she was fired. And she lost her job. And she was brought to police station, where these goons were asking her to apologize. And she had to apologize in front of the police.
So, this isn’t — these trolls are not normal trolls. They have the power of the day, power of the government. They may be invisible, but their impact is so visible on your career, on your life, on your mental health, that you cannot imagine. And I am not — yes, I am the one case, but many female journalists are suffering from — their sufferings are not being told. And they are not — but, yes, these trolls have been — successfully marginalized any journalist, any female journalist. Their state of mental health are in greater distress. So, they have the power. They have the political power. And they have the legitimacy to drag you in any controversy, and they can do whatever they want to do with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Vinay, you end the film with Ravish winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award in the Philippines, considered the Asian Nobel Prize. The significance of this for you, Ravish, and what you’re doing now as you resign from your position as this renown primetime host on NDTV, as it was taken over by the richest man in India, allied with Modi?
RAVISH KUMAR: I am doing my — I’m running my own YouTube channels. And, yes, I’ve got huge support from my viewers. But I have to say one thing, that we have been sentenced to kind of professional exile in our country. Many journalists like me are not getting jobs, and they have been isolated. So, yes, if there was not — if we had not YouTube, we would have not survived in this profession. So, I am grateful to YouTube that I am earning my bread from that, but I do not know when this channel will be killed with one notice or one notification, and the uncertainty of this YouTube channel is great, is so vast. But, yes, I am grateful that — we all are — many people like me are earning their bread, but we have been sentenced to professional exile. Over to Vinay.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Vinay, as we wrap up, I want to ask you how covering and living with, almost, Ravish Kumar, his family, his community at NDTV for two years changed you. You’re a well-known filmmaker. But what this has meant for you?
VINAY SHUKLA: I was, honestly, very, very surprised when I got there and I started shooting, because there’s a public perception that you have. Ravish is a very fairly well-known anchor. And, you know, people are polarized. People have very charged opinions about him. So, when I began shooting, I was thinking that, you know, he would have a team of 10 people and a lot of people around. He was operating from a very small room with a very, very small team.
And I was also very, very impressed, to put it very simply, by the amount of rigor and work that goes on within the entire newsroom. I am very, very invested in processes. And when I was there at NDTV and on that floor, I was suddenly given a very clean insight into how much it takes from people to be able to do the job they do. You know, journalism has been dehumanized so much in the last decade or so. And for sure, there have been some bad agents. But the disinformation campaign against journalism has been so strong that we have forgotten to understand the processes of journalism.
My film is, you know, my love letter to journalism. It shows you the costs, the emotional and financial costs that journalists have to pay to be able to do what they’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Vinay Shukla —
VINAY SHUKLA: And I am keenly interested that we have a larger conversation around the systems of journalism. You know, very often we tend to focus — for example, today we have Ravish with us, and, you know, it’s the story of NDTV. But for as long as we are concerned about one individual, one organization, one government, it’s a very short-term, myopic view of things. It’s fundamental for me to understand, at least in India, and even across the world, what are the systems that we are building that will help us build a better journalism. You know, what are the systems that —
AMY GOODMAN: Vinay, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to encourage people to see this profound movie. Vinay Shukla is the director of While We Watched. And Ravish Kumar is the acclaimed Indian journalist and author who’s featured in the film. He was the senior executive editor of NDTV India, where he hosted a primetime nightly news, the flagship weekday show. Tonight I’ll be moderating a panel with Ravish and Vinay after the film is shown at New York City’s IFC Center.
Next up, we speak to a first-grade teacher in Wisconsin who was fired for protesting a decision by her school district to ban her students from singing “Rainbowland,” that hit song by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton.