While We Watched gives a distressing insight into the current media crises in India, which might, in fact, also concern the rest of us living in democratic nations. We know from earlier studies that TV newscasts are the most persuasive form of media and are, therefore, the battlefield for democracy. The principles of a free press should be to function as the watchdog in a democratic nation. In Shukla’s film, we get a unique insight into how news stations are used to manipulate the public.
The recognised documentarist Vinay Shukla chooses an observational approach by following the popular broadcast journalist Ravish Kumar during his repetitive workdays at the news channel NDTV (New Delhi TV). This is the last media group that still offers a critical view of the ruling Modi government.
It becomes apparent that the Modi government aims to distract the public from real issues like the immense unemployment rate that just passed 10 million a year. So Kumar and his small team go out into the field reporting on corruption and dire conditions of the rural public. This bold criticism of the state of things also begins a tough ride for NDTV. Any form of criticism of the state is twisted into being an issue about patriotism. As pressure builds up through the economic sanctions and the government’s boycott, the NDTV station’s daily functions become nearly impossible. The «goodbye» cakes are served with an increased frequency as Kumar’s staff members depart one by one.
How media works against democracy
While NDTV suffers from poor working conditions and falling viewer ratings, the news stations that promote nationalistic ideology are enjoying growing popularity. Their live debate panels are both entertaining and alarming. During a fierce debate, the anchor man shouts at his opponent: «I am going to label you anti-nationalist tonight.» Such accusations turn out to be dangerous.
The main media is creating a dangerous environment where the aim is to desensitise the public and, in the process, normalise hate. The process can seem to carry the same characteristics that the one that sparked the genocide in Europe. Activists, journalists, lawyers, and literates nationwide are arrested daily on the grounds of being «anti-nationalist.» The fact that no one can ever be certain what «anti-nationalism» makes the situation particularly unpredictable and fearful.
Soon Ravish Kumar and his team face a dilemma. An activist has been murdered in full daylight because someone claimed he was an «anti-nationalist.» No news channel dares touch it, and Kumar considers for a moment not to cover it as well. The potential repercussions could be enormous, but then he turns around, arguing that «it is the beginning of the end of our democracy when… we are afraid they will be called traitors.» Kumar begins the evening news on live television by trying to enlighten the public; «The propaganda is a nationwide project on dividing the population into Hindu and Muslim… it is a cunning game of deception… and the beginning of the end of our democracy.»
The disintegration of free press
Vinay Shukla shows the process of censorship and manipulation. He does not explain the facts, but one picks them up. The fact is that the Modi government has strategically led India into a media crisis. Just during the last four years, over 70% of newspapers have shut down due to pressure from the state.
Ever since Narendra Mobi became the prime minister in 2014, the popularity of his right-wing nationalistic party has been on a steady rise. Modi is also an active member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which Wikipedia defines as a hardcore «right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation.» That can explain why only issues concerning nationalism are on the agenda of the current government.
Last month the BBC released the first part of their documentary series, The Modi Question. The film uncovered Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots in 2012, where 1000 Muslims were lynched while the local police «purposely» failed to intervene. The Indian government responded by imposing an emergency law and immediately banning the film. Within a day, any references, pictures or scenes from the film were erased from all social media. In the process, hundreds of university students were arrested under the accusation of spreading «imperialistic propaganda.» This should be a wake-up call for the rest of the world. Should the world’s largest democratic nation get away with using an authoritarian grip on its media channels? It is time to discuss the rights of a free international press.
At one point, Ravish Kumar states to a group of university students, «one-day justice will come, and someone will review how Indian mass media stirs up hatred and nationalism and how we, NDTV, have stood up against the mob.» Let us just hope he is right. We know from experience that the outcome depends on who will have the authority to write the history.
While We Watched screens as part of the 2023 HUMAN International Documentary Competition.