In 1982, in the wake of Indira Gandhi‘s Emergency, the Ramon Magsaysay foundation awarded Indian Express editor Arun Shourie with the Magsaysay Award. Shourie’s citation was 575 words long.
In 2019, NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar has been honoured with what is considered to be the “Asian Nobel”. Kumar’s citation is 878 words long.
The length of the respective citations could just be a coincidence, but it reveals how much media freedom has shrunk in India and how rare it has become to find courageous mainstream voices who are not undisguised chamchas and closet cheerleaders.
And, coming as it does in the wake of a long and continuing effort to unleash the taxman on NDTV to curb its journalism, it is a thundering slap on the Narendra Modi government, acting at the behest of motivated interests such as Subramaniam Swamy, S. Gurumurthy and other sanctimonious muck-rakers.
All things considered, it is also a resounding salute to Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy, who built a world-class organisation with values, committed to journalism.
Ravish Kumar citation
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 marketization 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.
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,” “tabloidization,” 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” program 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. The program 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 program. 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 dramatize how debased the discourse had become on TV news programs. The show opens with Ravish coming on screen to talk to the viewers about how TV news programs 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 programs, 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.
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 criticizing 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 recognizes 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 fulfills its noblest aims to advance democracy.
Arun Shourie citation
Throughout human history abuse of power has often been an irresistible temptation. Such abuse is most conspicuous at national and international levels, while what directly hurts ordinary people is usually little noticed. Thus those guilty of evil readily escape punishment, and their would-be imitators are not restrained. There are immediate victims but in the long term the total society, brutalized to ignore their sufferings, pays the higher price.
Speaking for the abused and upholding justice then becomes the task of those who care and have courage. Only they can insure that their society does not slip into callous disregard for its least fortunate or tyrannized members. Yet modern intellectuals increasingly are crippled by a comfort cocoon that curbs their capacity for courageous action. Or they lash out, using simplistic political formulas that lack constructive relevance.
Arun Shourie came indirectly to his crusading newspaper career. From the comparative affluence of being an economist with the World Bank he became a fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research in 1976. During the Emergency he began writing articles and speeches for leaders of protest. In 1980 the publisher of the Indian Express invited him to become Executive Editor.
It is the distinction of Shourie and his Indian Express colleagues that by exceptionally thorough investigative reporting and incisive writing they challenged the lethargic ways threatening Indian journalism. India has gifted and intrepid writers but during and after the Emergency newspapers offered them shrinking forums for significant work. Numerous small magazines appeared, attempting to offer alternatives, but their articles, even when solid, tended to be dismissed by those in power.
Shourie and the Indian Express with 10 geographically dispersed editions and the country’s largest circulation?could not easily be ignored, and the mirror they held up reflected some ugly images. Young men and women were being killed by the police in false arrests. In Bihar state unconvicted prisoners were deliberately blinded, not because this was their due under the law but because police thought this was what they deserved. In several states pretrial detainees outnumbered convicts four to one; some had been held in filthy jails awaiting trial for more than 10 years, damaged in mind and body by mistreatment, their case documents mislaid.
India’s political hierarchy was shaken last year when in the Indian Express Shourie revealed how the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State within a few months collected more than US$5 million by creating artificial shortages of cement, industrial alcohol and other prime commodities, which he then allocated. His justification was that these funds were for a charitable foundation. To Congress Party parliamentary leaders who charged “frame up,” Shourie responded by publishing more details, until eventually the Chief Minister resigned.
Loyal readers in India insist that more than a journalist, Shourie is an ombudsman who is affirming the right and duty of every citizen to initiate and secure redress. Shourie is equally a scholar. His assessment of the Sikh religious quandary, his book on Hinduism and his Institutions of the Janata Phase and Symptoms of Fascism are contributions to understanding in depth. Soft-spoken, graceful of manner and preferring a quiet home life with his wife and son, this 40-year-old has shown that a conscientious, resolute writer can strengthen public morality.
In electing Arun Shourie to receive the 1982 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of Trustees recognizes a concerned citizen employing his pen as an effective adversary of corruption, inequality and injustice.