Magsayasay on Ravish: Space for Independent, Responsible Media Has Shrunk in India

The full text of the Award's citation offers a picture into the unique news environment within which the journalist continues to do his work every day.

Journalist Ravish Kumar, who has long been regarded as a voice of clarity and balance on Indian news television, is one of the 2019 recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award. The Award, regarded as one of Asia’s highest honours, recognises “greatness of spirit and transformative leadership” in the continent.

In its official citation for Kumar, the Award notes Kumar’s ethical steadfastness in the face of rising jingoism in the name of news.  It recognises his efforts in putting up a good show for his viewers but also never compromising on the value of the news in the process. The citation also acts as a thorough critique of the state of Indian mainstream media at the moment.

The full text of the citation is produced below: 

The world’s largest democracy, India has seen the space for an independent and responsible Indian press shrink over the past years.  The factors behind this  are many: a changing media landscape because of new information technologies, the increased marketisation of news and opinions, growing government control, and, most worrisome, the rise of popular authoritarianism and religious, ethnic, and nationalist fundamentalisms with their consequent divisiveness, intolerance, and susceptibilities to violence.

Also read: What to Believe — And Not Believe — About Fake News in India

An important voice against these threats is television journalist Ravish Kumar. Raised in Jitwarpur village in Hindi-speaking Bihar, northeast India, Ravish pursued his early interest in history and public affairs through postgraduate studies in history from Delhi University. In 1996, he joined New Delhi Television Network (NDTV), one of India’s leading TV networks and worked his way up from being a field reporter. After NDTV launched its 24-hour Hindi-language news channel — NDTV India — targeting the country’s 422 million native speakers of Hindi, he was given his own daily show, ‘Prime Time.’  Today, as NDTV India’s senior executive editor, Ravish is one of India’s most influential TV journalists.

His more important distinction, however, comes from the kind of journalism he represents.  In a media environment threatened by an interventionist state, toxic with jingoist partisans, trolls and purveyors of “fake news,” and where the competition for market ratings has put the premium on “media personalities,” “tabloidisation,” and audience-pandering sensationalism, Ravish has been most vocal on insisting that the professional values of sober, balanced, fact-based reporting be upheld in practice.  His ‘Prime Time’ programme on NDTV India takes up current social issues; does serious background research; and presents issues in well-rounded discussions that can run up to twenty or more episodes.

Also watch | I’m Not Anti-Modi, I Merely Ask Him Questions: Ravish Kumar

The programme deals with real-life, under-reported problems of ordinary people — from the lives of manual scavengers and rickshaw-pullers to the plight of government employees and displaced farmers, to underfunded state schools and the inefficient railway system.  Ravish interacts easily with the poor, travels extensively, and uses social media to stay in touch with his audience, generating from them the stories for his programme.  Striving for a people-based journalism, he calls his newsroom “the people’s newsroom.”

Ravish is not above engaging in some theatrics himself  if he feels it effective, as in an innovative show he did in 2016 to dramatise how debased the discourse had become on TV news programmes.  The show opens with Ravish coming on screen to talk to the viewers about how TV news programmes had descended into a “dark world” of angry, strident voices.  The screen then goes dark and, for the next hour, there is nothing but a cacophonous audio of sound bites from actual TV programmes, venomous threats, hysterical rants, the sounds of a mob baying for the blood of enemies. For Ravish, it is always about the message, dispassionately delivered.

Also read: NDTV’s Ravish on the Dark World of News Television

As an anchor, Ravish is sober, incisive, and well-informed.  He does not dominate his guests but affords them the chance to express themselves.  He does not balk, however, at calling the highest officials to account or criticising media and the state of public discourse in the country; for this reason, he has been harassed and threatened by rabid partisans of one kind or another. Through all the perils and aggravations, Ravish has remained consistent in his effort to preserve and widen the space for a critical, socially responsible media.  Keeping faith with a journalism that puts service to the people at its center, Ravish sums up what he believes a journalist is in the most basic terms: “If you have become the voice of the people, you are a journalist.”

 In electing Ravish Kumar to receive the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognises his unfaltering commitment to a professional, ethical journalism of the highest standards; his moral courage in standing up for truth, integrity, and independence; and his principled belief that it is in giving full and respectful voice to the voiceless, in speaking truth bravely yet soberly to power, that journalism fulfils its noblest aims to advance democracy.