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India's Modi Muzzles Free Press

Saba Shah Khan of VOA's Urdu Service Speaks With Journalist Ravish Kumar

Recently Saba Shah Khan of VOA's Urdu Service spoke with prominent journalist and Modi critic Ravish Kumar. The following is a transcript of that interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

VOA: PM Modi has said that a free press makes a stronger democracy. He reaffirmed his commitment in supporting a free press on the World Press Freedom Day. So what is the reason that India’s press freedom rating has slipped two notches down to 140 this year?

Kumar: It is not at 140—to him it is number one. The press that as you say is at 140 he considers as “ease of not press”. We will have to understand that what he claims sounds good but it is not based in reality. If he believes in free press, than why does he pick [himself] whom he will grant interview to, and to whom he will not? For instance if I am a journalist, I will ask for an interview.

Did Akshay Kumar request for an interview himself, did he get paid for it, does he belong to any news channel that recorded it? Then how does that interview get distributed to all? We don’t have answers to these questions.

So he needs to answer a lot of questions with reference to the press, not just this, but there are many questions that need to be answered. Not just with this episode, but with reference to the Audio Visual Fund as well – how the fund is distributed and what kind of bargaining goes on behind the scene.

I feel that the news outlets and newspapers that he does not like are not given advertisements. He feels that he needs to begin his morning by saying something “good” on Twitter, and he says such things, but what he says is not be taken too seriously.

VOA: How much responsibility do you think lies with the Modi government in the decline of the press rating?

Kumar: It’s not just the Modi government, but the press institutions as well, that are in the private sector, and run on the trust of their readers and viewers; they too have a big responsibility. If the press does not do its job, that serves the purpose of the government in the sense that no one is being critical of government actions. But the assessment of any government should be based on the freedom of the press during its entire tenure.

VOA: Atish Taseer is a journalist and writer; his Overseas Indian Card was recently revoked by the Indian government, after he reportedly wrote an article critical of Prime Minister Modi and his government. How do you see this action, and how does it reflect press freedom in India?

Kumar: Saba, I am against the cancellation of Taseer’s OCI card. But it was bound to happen. Some other journalists and anchors like Abhsar Sharma and Punya Prasun Bajpai lost their jobs for the same reason. Now people who were criticizing Modi or his government from outside [India] must have been worried what action could be taken against such people who are sitting outside the country and pointing fingers on Modi. Because they could not fire journalists writing for the Time or New York Times.

If Trump couldn’t fire them what could it do? So the only weapon they had was to cancel his citizenship---the OCI card that he had. This was a very cheap shot and I think that the Prime Minister should reconsider this decision.

It seems to me that slowly they are going to adopt these tactics – someone being fired or someone being denied a visa, or the OCI card being revoked. This will gradually become a norm and what will happen is that the critical voices will disappear from the media completely.

It is also true that so many important developments are not being reported in the news media or not being treated on their merits. For instance when the opposition was sent back from Jammu and Kashmir, that news was not placed on the first page of the Indian Express, a prestigious newspaper.

When some people were brought to Kashmir through a dubious NGO, which gave rise to questions surrounding their visit, like, what channel was adopted to bring them in, and through what process did they come through, and who they were and what credibility they enjoyed – all these things were not published. It is very difficult to write and report. It has become the fight of an individual journalist, which is not good.

VOA: The number of women journalists in Indian media is much smaller as compared to men. Why is that so and what are the impediments in their professional work?

Kumar: The number of women is smaller though but in whatever number they are, they are doing a brilliant job.

If we only look at it in terms of numbers we will not be doing it a justice. Look at the Hindi news channels, there are women. However, their language, the expressions and vocabularies they are using, and the mannerism and style is no doubt the same that has been crafted by their male colleagues. They are also part of the same propaganda machinery.

They may even belong to a minority community: they may be Muslims or Dalits, but their presence doesn’t make a difference because the base of the main stream journalistic organizations has been destroyed They are not doing journalism, they are doing propaganda.

However, whatever their number, some of the female journalists are remarkable.

VOA: Some of the women journalists in India have faced violence in the performance of their duties like Rana Ayyub and Gauri who was murdered. How common are such incidents? Is there any support system for these women journalists that can provide them protection and help get justice?

Kumar: It is not a jungle-like atmosphere; many women are moving around and they are traveling. But the problem is that when they go out among the public they face the same kind of problems that someone else can also encounter.

Of course, the degree of problems faced by women is much higher but still the fact is that their writing style is superb. They are very brave but some of the news they dig in is not being published in the media. The stories are being blocked by curbing the institution of reporting.

VOA: A tech company released data that showed governments of various countries were using a certain software Pegasus to spy on their journalists. India was also on the list. How does that make you feel as a journalist and how does it impact a free press?

Kumar: We journalists at some point or other have been through this when ours or some others phones have been tracked, so let’s not talk about it, we all know that.

Fight, and let people know that it is very important for free press to exist. If the free press ceases to exist, you may lose the cause of democracy. The absence of free press would mean the common man would cease to exist; their voices will be silenced; their rights and their very well-being would be squandered.

The common man, for their own survival, will have to rise and fight for a free press, and NRIs [Non Resident Indians] will have to standup, because the complexities of privacy and phone tapping are better understood in America.