“While We Watched” is a 94-minute tell-all documentary that shines a light on the sorry state of Indian media through the lens of veteran independent journalist Ravish Kumar, who now runs a YouTube channel with 6.73 million subscribers.
The documentary, directed by Vinay Shukla, charts Kumar’s journey as a senior executive editor with New Delhi Television, one of the country’s earliest independent news channels, before he resigned last year. Many veteran journalists, including founders Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, have left since billionaire Gautam Adani’s conglomerate took majority control of the media company last December.
In recent years, many independent media groups in India have seen a similar fate.
For example, in 2015, nearly a year after the Modi-led government came to power, veteran journalist couple Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose quit CNN-IBN over uncertainty regarding editorial control after it was acquired by energy giant Reliance Industries, headed by billionaire Mukesh Ambani. In an email bidding farewell to his colleagues, Sardesai wrote, “Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism, and maybe I am too old now to change.”
Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index shows that India has been slipping since Modi came to power. The South Asian country now ranks 161st out of 180 countries monitored.
“Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive, but things changed radically in the mid-2010s when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians.
“Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signaled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media.”
The documentary, which took two years to complete, deals with the disturbing themes of misinformation, media complacency and mainstream media herd mentality in promoting similar news topics touting the ruling party line and shrinking resources for independent media.
Kumar, the protagonist of the documentary, is seen going through the motions at work and home. He is emotional but with conviction, and his depiction is not hagiographic. However, he does appear larger than life as viewers see him up close, with his face occupying the screen sometimes — a conscious decision on the director’s part, which he later revealed in a Q&A after a screening.
As we traverse the media landscape through Kumar’s eyes, we see him struggle and persevere to cover the news. We see him meticulously write his copy with extra caution, ensuring that his facts and representation of events are accurate. He is seen pursuing stories that media largely promoting sectarianism have covered with coats of either religious fervor or a nationalist agenda.
Kumar talks about Umar Khalid, issues of water scarcity and the government’s culpability, but one of the most harrowing scenes is when Rakesh Sisodia — part of a mob who lynched a Muslim man named Mohammad Qasim, a cattle trader from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district — is shown admitting to the crime on a hidden cam by a two-person team of undercover NDTV reporters.
This culture of impunity — as the majority of the media coverage leans toward and aligns with the narratives promulgated by the government, often on communal lines — has caused fear among those critical of the government policies.
Kumar poignantly questions the trajectory of Indian media since the Modi-led Hindu nationalist government has come to power. He laments the state of the Indian media. The shift in news coverage in many liberal-leaning media outlets regarding the topics they cover and how they cover them, a nod to the government’s actions, is palpable, and the shriveling of liberal and left-leaning independent media is inescapable.
“Today or tomorrow, or 10 years later, when someone will dig into the YouTube repository to see what these people were doing, they’ll discover that NDTV wasn’t following a herd/being part of the crowd,” he said in an address at a media ceremony, which is shown in the documentary.
In one of the scenes, Kumar asks a person harassing him over the phone, calling him an anti-nationalist, what does it mean to be a nationalist? Under the garb of nationalism, he argues, many assume the role of religious fanaticism, which perpetuates hate towards religions other than Hinduism, and Islamophobia runs rampant.
The documentary is punctuated with office cake celebrations, a comic relief but an ominous metaphor for an increasing number of farewells as many journalists part ways with the Adani-owned media company. In fact, the viewers see the once-flourishing and reputable brand of journalism shrivel in front of their eyes, with depleting resources, shrinking office space and journalist-employees on their way out.
Another recent instant of stifling dissent was when the Indian government banned the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” earlier this year, calling it “hostile propaganda” and “anti-India garbage.” It has since been screened privately in homes and at special viewing held in academic institutes across India and abroad. The documentary recalls a 20-year-old collective poignant memory of how Narendra Modi was held “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence in the anti-Muslim riots in the northwestern state of Gujarat in 2002.
Shortly after the documentary was launched, the BBC’s offices in India were raided. The Indian tax police showed up at their Delhi and Mumbai offices to conduct a “survey” and subsequently seized several journalists’ documents, phones and laptops. The offices were later sealed.
“Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before and must cease harassing BBC employees immediately, in line with the values of freedom that should be espoused in the world’s largest democracy,” Beh Lih Yi of the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
In recent years, several nonprofits and think tanks critical of the Modi government and its policies have shuttered their offices, too, following government raids. In 2021, the country’s tax department raided Indian news outlets Newslaundry and Newsclick following critical coverage of government policies.
In the documentary, Kumar is shown not only criticizing the media coverage but also the viewers who are unable to decipher that most of the mainstream media is selling government-induced propaganda through its coverage. He challenges people’s rapidly altering belief systems and begs them not to watch the news.
Kumar, who popularized the terms “Godi (lapdog) media” and “Whatsapp University,” talks about how media desensitizes the viewers. They’ll soon become an information-less society with no outlets left for critical perspectives.
The film’s title “While We Watched” rang true several times throughout, but it sums up quite well when Kumar said, “I don’t want one side to get so powerful that when you keep asking questions, you won’t get any answers. Newspapers and television channels should undergo a five-year inspection to see what is happening in the country and what is media printing.”
Manmeet Sahni is an independent journalist from New Delhi based in New York. She writes about politics, human rights, inequality and social movements. Her bylines have appeared in Documented, The Article and others, and she is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged