“A scared journalist gives birth to dead citizens,” said Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best-known TV news presenters, in his speech bidding farewell to television and announcing his entry to YouTube. It was December 1, a day after he had resigned from NDTV, where he worked for 27 years, lastly in the capacity of senior executive editor at NDTV India, the Hindi news channel of the group.
“I love TV. I fell in love with the medium. That’s likely why I am feeling heartbroken,” Kumar said, adding, “(but) India’s media space has changed. Think of the thousands of youths who are studying journalism, spending millions of rupees, but will have to work as brokers as there is no institutional space left for journalism.”
Developments at NDTV have been dominating discussions on social media platforms since November 29, when a letter from the channel to the stock exchange revealed that Gautam Adani, one of the world’s three richest people who is perceived to enjoy considerable proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had taken over a 29.18 percent stake in NDTV by converting a decade-old debt into equity (shares).
Besides, the Adani Group floated an open offer on November 22 to acquire an additional 26 percent stake in NDTV. This would allow them to have the last word at NDTV India and NDTV 24×7, the English news channel.
The news triggered a flood of social media posts, using hashtags like #RIPNDTV – announcing the death of the institution. Some went on to say that the last bastion of independent TV journalism in India had fallen.
“RIP NDTV? It was good having you as a breath of fresh air in a toxic media space,” wrote senior Supreme Court lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan in a tweet. YouTuber Dhruv Rathee wrote, “Govt will most likely not grant licenses to any future ‘independent’ TV news channels. So this can be effectively considered as the end of TV journalism in India.” Cartoonist Satish Acharya posted a series of cartoons and wrote, “NDTV was our voice. This VOICE will rise again, maybe in a different name & form.”
The “death” did not come suddenly – its imminence was announced in August when Adani’s AMG Media Network acquired the company that had given an interest-free loan of 4 billion rupees ($49.4 million) to the Roys, the husband and wife team that founded NDTV. AMG Media Network decided to convert the debt into shares of NDTV.
When the hour finally came, there was an outpouring of obituaries from former journalists at the channel as well as journalists working in the print and digital media. There also were many tributes and eulogies to the Roys, whose exit from NDTV’s board of directors is now considered a matter of time. Various leading print and digital media outlets published articles that described the event as the “end of an era.”
This is because NDTV has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of India’s few remaining news channels known for independent reporting, and perhaps the one with the greatest pan-India presence. Most other broadcast media houses have been accused of toeing a pro-government line, especially since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014. A Reuters-Oxford University survey earlier this year found NDTV to be India’s most trusted TV news channel.
People’s apprehension of NDTV losing its independence with the ownership change became stronger after Adani, during a recent interview, explained his understanding of the word.
“Independence means if (the) government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong. But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that,” said the tycoon, whose empire includes operating multiple ports and airports in India and mines in India, Australia, and Indonesia. His media venture is a “responsibility” rather than a business opportunity, he said.
Adani’s understanding is strikingly different from that of NDTV stalwarts, who believe that the media is supposed to question the government and examine its policies and claims.
Many obituaries of Indian television journalism have been written over the past few years owing to the noise, jingoism, sensationalism, choice of subjects for debates, displays of religious majoritarianism, toxicity and the spread of communal hatred by reporters and anchors. These have been attributed in part to the rat race for higher ratings and in part to their competition in coming out as the greater nationalist.
The pro-government media has subsequently earned the nomenclature of Godi Media, a term Kumar popularized. Godi comes from the Hindi word gode, meaning lap, and is generally used to mean the government’s “lapdog journalists.” The print media has not been free from these charges either. The 2022 edition of the Press Freedom Index ranked India at 150th among 180 countries, its lowest rank ever.
NDTV stood quite an exception from these ills plaguing the Indian broadcast media. Even though it fell behind newcomers like Times Now, India Today group, Network 18 group, and ABP, former NDTV senior managing editor Aunindyo Chakravarty recalled, “In other networks, editors were under pressure from the proprietors to get ratings; in NDTV I was being told not even to look at the rating charts that came every week.”
Kumar’s exit from television was no smaller news than NDTV’s “death” itself.
The Magsaysay awardee journalist, an anchor in Hindi, India’s most-spoken language, has emerged not only as one of the towering figures of Indian journalism but also as one of the most-vocal TV personalities critical of the government and the pro-government media. His 2016 show, in which he darkened the screen to protest the noise and sensationalism of TV media, has been considered a landmark event in Indian TV journalism. This year, a documentary on him, titled “While We Watched,” has already bagged one international film festival award.
With his resignation, a famous quotation from his Magsaysay speech went viral. It said: “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”
Understandably, Kumar had also become a popular target for bullying and trolling by the supporters of the ruling dispensation. Therefore, on November 30, #rubbish also trended on Twitter – it is how India’s ruling party supporters refer to him – as they celebrated Kumar’s exit. The last bastion of anti-national evils had finally been conquered, they said in jubilation.
Not just the common ruling party supporters, but even journalists known for expressing pro-government and Hindu nationalist views more often than not offered their two cents on NDTV. Aditya Raj Kaul, currently executive editor at TV9 Network, branded the channel in a series of tweets as “pro-Islamist separatists” and “pro-Congress,” which “made terrorist Yasin Malik a hero for Kashmir terror” and “tried to paint Narendra Modi a villain for Gujarat riots.”
“Their bias was very clever and subtle,” Kaul said, adding, “They chose a terrorist over a democratically elected leader. ‘Islamist Terror’ was banned in their dictionary. But Hindu Fascist was acceptable language.”
Kumar would probably ignore such condemnation from the likes of Kaul or wear them as badges of honor. He was preparing for this exit since the August developments and had recently launched his own YouTube channel, which recorded a spike in the number of subscribers as soon as Kumar’s resignation became news. By December 3, it had more than 2 million subscribers.
Kumar avoided being emotional even in his farewell speech, which was viewed 6 million times in about 48 hours. “Some people now know that every institution is under their control… by finishing off the media, the people and the opposition have also been effectively finished. While this is true, this is also not eternal. One day, when people will be fed up with their hatred, when hatred will burst like blisters, they will look for a new land, and remember one journalist,” he said.
Institutions may have been crushed, but there is life among the people and this will give birth to new and better institutions, Kumar hoped.
Whether his foray outside the established media industry helps boost independent journalism in India in any way remains to be seen.