‘While We Watched’ Is A Wake-Up Call For Indian Journalism In An Age Of Misinformation

Journalists often believe they tell stories of the world, but a pivotal moment arrives when they realise all stories are deeply personal. In the field of journalism, perhaps more than any other, the line between the personal and professional blurs. This truth is laid bare in the award-winning documentary, 'While We Watched', directed by Vinay Shukla. The film delves into the life of Ravish Kumar, a journalist known for his journalistic integrity and fact-based reportage.

The film couldn't be more timely as India is in the midst of another round of elections. In our age of rampant misinformation and media illiteracy, news itself has become a weapon. A relentless barrage of lies, especially during election season, could further cloud public judgment. In this film, we see the full picture of what it is like to be a journalist in India today. 

The ability to critique the government, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, is increasingly being snatched from the hands of the people and journalists alike. Today, speaking truth to power is seen as anti-national or unpatriotic. There's a pressure to sing the praises of those in power, with anything short of unadulterated flattery deemed disloyal.

While We Watched is a stark portrayal of the consequences of critical journalism in today's political climate. We witness the ripple effects of Kumar's work on his personal life. His family, his social circles, and even his home environment are shaken by the repercussions of his outspokenness. This personal cost serves as a chilling sign of the current condition of journalism in a world where the very tenets of the profession are under attack.

This trend is particularly worrisome in India, where big media houses and legacy institutions are often accused of being influenced by advertising or or political affiliation. In this environment, the core principles of journalism: — truth, accuracy, and objectivity — become casualties. When the few independent journalists bravely speak up despite it all, they often face the brunt of mysterious attacks and lawsuits.

Furthermore, a worrying trend of jingoistic journalism is on the rise. This approach discourages any questioning of the workings of Indian society. It promotes a singular view of nationalism, often defined by race or religion, instead of the nation's long-held secular ideals. This "othering" of dissenting voices has an unsettling effect and has fostered an insidious aspiration for a homogenous, controlled, and ultimately undemocratic news landscape.

The documentary poignantly portrays the stifling environment within newsrooms themselves. Independent voices are discouraged, disparaged, and even harassed. One particularly powerful scene captures Ravish Kumar's frustration with the state of the Indian media. He delivers a monologue exposing the manipulation of television news. Here, Kumar himself introduces the now-popular term "Godi Media", a scathing indictment of media outlets that bend over backwards to align themselves with the ruling party and escape any accountability. 

The documentary sheds light on the precarious state of journalism, particularly the struggle of the few remaining bastions of unbiased media. We see these dedicated journalists tirelessly toiling to bring unfiltered stories and news to the audience. However, the film also portrays the toll it takes. Many of Ravish's colleagues, worn down by constant battles, threats, and even the potential for violence, choose to leave the profession altogether.

While We Watched also pulls back the curtain on the heightened tensions within news offices during elections. We can easily imagine the similar pressures brewing right now. Any news, positive or negative, becomes fodder for a media frenzy, all in the pursuit of ever-increasing viewership through target rating points (TRPs). These TRPs are then used to carry favor with political parties, which further compromises journalistic principles. In the past, audiences had to work to discern the true intent behind a news story. Today, news channels have become blatantly open in their support for specific political agendas.

Despite this seemingly bleak outlook, the film manages to offer a glimmer of hope. Ravish's pursuit of truth, his thoughtful reflection, and his urgent voice in challenging times highlight one simple truth: journalists must stand up for what's right and refuse to compromise, particularly when the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. For this relentless battle, Ravish was recognized with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2019. More recently, the film itself, directed by Vinay Shukla secured the George Foster Peabody Award, for its fierce defense of independent journalism.

Lastly, the documentary emphasises the crucial role of the audience. Only when presented with unbiased information can people truly form their own opinions and choose the best path forward. During election season, this becomes even more critical. Amidst the despair and disillusionment, the responsible fourth estate might be the light in the darkness to lead us to better times. 

While We Watched will start streaming on Mubi on May 24.

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