PROFILE | RAVISH KUMAR
Fighting for India's free press
Indian journalist Ravish Kumar speaks to Rappler about receiving death threats, journalism, and giving voice to the voiceless
Text by Vernise L Tantuco
Photos by LeAnne Jazul
Ravish Kumar: Fighting for India's free press
MANILA, Philippines – When Indian journalist Ravish Kumar heard that he won a Ramon Magsaysay Award, he was speechless. Minutes before, he thought he was receiving a call from a "troll." Instead, it was the foundation's president Carmencita Abella on the phone telling him the good news.
Kumar's assumption wasn't unfounded. Verbally abusive calls and text messages are, after all, a regular part of his life as a journalist – a journalist whose reporting has been described as sober, balanced, and fact-based in a media landscape that is increasingly the opposite.
In India, there are around 17,000 newspaper titles and around half of the 900 private satellite television stations on air are devoted to news coverage. In spite of this, India's free press is shrinking, ranking 140 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2019 Free Press Index.
According to RSF, attacks against the press in India include police violence, attacks by Maoist fighters, and reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt politicians. Earlier this year, journalists were attacked by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the lead-up to the 2019 elections. Hindutva, the ideology that led to the rise of Hindu nationalism, has also led to coordinated hate campaigns against journalists who speak about subjects that aggravate its followers.
Kumar is all too familiar with the accusations and the threats: that he's anti-prime minister, anti-national, and that they will find him on the road, lynch him, kill him, harm his family. He can characterize his attackers, those he calls "trolls," by the way they speak.
"These kinds of messages, they are very authoritative," he described to Rappler. "And the sense of entitlement in the language comes from where? It can only come from the government of the day. The power of the day. So they behave like the power and the government is with them. So if you go to the police, nothing will happen."
Kumar made his way up from being a field reporter for the New Delhi Television Network in 1996 to having his own daily show Prime Time today. He remembered receiving death threats back in the '90s too, when he would take calls during the night shift. He said they had the same language, tone, and entitlement back then, but whereas they could only reach him through a phone call before, now all they have to do is leave a comment on his Facebook page.
Being on the receiving end of verbal attacks and death threats for more than 20 years hasn't softened these blows.
"I am a human, I do have a concern for my security. Also there are lots of lives around me involved, so many times...I feel insecure, but not for longer periods," he said.
His initial reaction to these threats is always fear, followed by questions of whether or not he will really die this time around.
'If you kill a journalist…you become voiceless'
Despite his fear, Kumar remains passionate about journalism and continues to call out injustice when he sees it.
For instance, once they heard he's going to the Philippines to receive his award, his friends warned him to be careful not to "go overboard." Though they wished him well, Kumar questioned why he shouldn’t speak out.
"Why is society censoring me? Why are friends censoring me? I find this very problematic. Society should be saying, 'Say whatever you want to say, we are with you.' If society starts screening you, that you should say this and you should not say this, this is a very disturbing situation for any democracy."
Kumar insists he isn't brave, but that he has learned to be so out of fear. The attacks affect his peace of mind, he said, because he is concerned about the condition of society: If he can't feel safe, how would less protected, less well-known, less salaried journalists feel?
"If you kill a journalist, if you throw out a journalist, you become voiceless."
He recounted the case of Indian journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal, who faced arrest after exposing a government school for feeding children only bread and salt for lunch. Government schools in India are required to serve lunch to fight malnutrition.
Criminal prosecution for journalists critical of authorities is not uncommon in India, according to RSF, as some prosecutors will invoke Section 124a of the penal code, under which sedition is punishable by life imprisonment.
On these kinds of threats to journalists, Kumar said: "I appeal to the society, every time, that if you kill a journalist, if you throw out a journalist, you become voiceless. So your future is darker than the one who lost the job, just for reporting what should be reported."
Mainstream media should also be reformed, he said, as many news publications in India are owned by businesses that have their own corporate interests.
"Societies should be educated and told, retold, again and again, that this is not the media it should be," he said. "They are not working for you, they are working for the government, they are doing propaganda, they are not allowing journalists to do journalism, and they are selling their product in the name of journalism, in the name of you, in the name of me, and in the name of any journalist."
'Connect yourself to the people'
Kumar has written many stories over the course of his career, but the story that's most memorable to him is one that brought about change and benefitted a community.
The story is about an area near Delhi with a bad sewage system that led to flooding every year. To solve the community's problem, the government regularly raised the roads in the area until they were level with – and eventually surpassed – the rooftops. After Kumar's report, a proper sewage network was put in place.
Kumar lit up when he told us that he occasionally runs into members of that community when he rides auto rickshaws or buys street food. He laughed fondly as he recounted how they would offer him free rides or food to thank him. He refuses and offers to have tea with them instead. "Journalists should not be given anything free, yes?" he said.
Being on the streets, meeting new people, and speaking to them is one thing Kumar takes pride in and he encourages young journalists to do the same.
"Expand yourself, broaden your connection with the people," he said, telling them to read a lot too, to take the profession seriously, and to find time for their personal lives.
Kumar himself enjoys reading and spending time with his family, who joined him at an awarding event for the first time on Monday, September 9, when the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation conferred the honor to Kumar and 4 other awardees.
After our interview, Kumar appeared excited to join his family in their hotel room with a view of the ocean. He apologized for his phone, which silently lit up throughout our talk.
When asked why he wouldn't just change his number, he responded that he'd never. While he gets trolled often through that number, he also receives well-wishes and tips through it.
And he'd never give up that kind of connection to people. – Rappler.com