Originally published: https://restofworld.org/2023/india-youtube-journalism/

As Narendra Modi’s government clamps down on the free press, top journalists are going solo to report unbiased news.

19 December 2023 | Sonia Faleiro, Rest of World

n November 30, 2022, Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best-known journalists, picked out a navy-blue suit to wear on the defining broadcast of his career. Based in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, Kumar had worked for cable news channel NDTV for 27 years, becoming a senior executive editor and anchoring some of its flagship shows. He was a household name. And he was about to publicly announce his resignation.

It had been a difficult year for Kumar. His elderly mother was unwell, thousands of kilometers away in the state of Bihar. Death threats had been pouring in on his personal phone from supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took issue with his political coverage. And now, NDTV was facing a hostile takeover by the family of an oligarch known for his decades-long friendship with the prime minister.

 

An NDTV mic behind glass doors of a bookshelf.

Kumar felt he had no choice but to leave before that happened. For years, NDTV had reported critically on the Modi administration, even as the government clamped down on the press. The government boycotted the network and made accusations of money laundering that cost the company lucrative sponsorships and forced it to lay off a significant proportion of its staff. Yet NDTV held strong. It would not become part of the “Godi media,” a term Kumar had coined to describe pliable journalists — a play on “Modi” and the Hindi word for “lap,” as in “lapdog.” Now, the takeover threatened the company’s independence.

“It was going to become just another media band singing Modi’s praises,” Kumar told Rest of World on a visit to his office one evening this August. “The new management would create a newsroom that would be hostile to the kind of work I did. I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to insult me, not even for one day.”

Kumar took to his YouTube channel to announce his decision. Standing tall with his silvery hair swept back, he kept a smile on his face. No one would guess that he had been close to tears while writing this resignation speech. He thanked his viewers for their decades of support. “I feel like the bird that has lost its nest because someone else snatched it away,” he said. He warned his fans to be wary of the authoritarian forces dividing the country. “What we have [in India] today is truly the dark age of journalism,” he said. “Our media ecosystem has been gutted and destroyed.”

Kumar felt he had no choice but to leave before that happened. For years, NDTV had reported critically on the Modi administration, even as the government clamped down on the press. The government boycotted the network and made accusations of money laundering that cost the company lucrative sponsorships and forced it to lay off a significant proportion of its staff. Yet NDTV held strong. It would not become part of the “Godi media,” a term Kumar had coined to describe pliable journalists — a play on “Modi” and the Hindi word for “lap,” as in “lapdog.” Now, the takeover threatened the company’s independence.

“It was going to become just another media band singing Modi’s praises,” Kumar told Rest of World on a visit to his office one evening this August. “The new management would create a newsroom that would be hostile to the kind of work I did. I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to insult me, not even for one day.”

Kumar took to his YouTube channel to announce his decision. Standing tall with his silvery hair swept back, he kept a smile on his face. No one would guess that he had been close to tears while writing this resignation speech. He thanked his viewers for their decades of support. “I feel like the bird that has lost its nest because someone else snatched it away,” he said. He warned his fans to be wary of the authoritarian forces dividing the country. “What we have [in India] today is truly the dark age of journalism,” he said. “Our media ecosystem has been gutted and destroyed.”

Ravish Kumar stands in front of a greenscreen in his home studio.

After recording his final take, Kumar felt his eyes welling up. Over the next few days, the video went viral. It now has 9.6 million views.

Kumar is one of several high-profile Indian journalists who have left mainstream media organizations over the past few years and turned to YouTube and other social media platforms instead. These journalists see their own channels as the only way to continue their work in a country where the government is hounding noncompliant media out of their jobs. Ahead of the general election expected to take place in April or May 2024, in which Modi is standing for a third term, social media may be the last space to share unbiased news. “The idea is to report the news the old-school way,” Faye D’Souza, a former executive editor at the media company Times Network, told Rest of World. “To calmly tell people what is going on.”

But going solo is punishing work in a country that the World Press Freedom Index now ranks 161st out of 180. A YouTube channel or Instagram account does not offer the same protections as working for a mainstream media company: There is little financial security, legal support, or physical protection. Alone in their own homes, several of India’s best-known journalists told Rest of World they are fearful for their future. They spoke of online threats and warnings over the phone, of being frozen out by friends and family; of fears their equipment could be seized, their homes raided, or they could be thrown into jail.

For many, the NDTV takeover that inspired Kumar’s resignation was a nail in the coffin for journalism in India. Akash Banerjee, who hosts the political satire channel The DeshBhakt (The Patriot) on YouTube, said he had lawyers in place. “Because I know the knock on my door is inevitable. The government has a way of getting to you.”

Two lightstands wrapped in newspapers in front of a green screen.A photo of a framed collage of photos of Ravish Kumar and colleagues.

A teleprompter displays Kumar’s signature opening line, “Namaskar, main Ravish Kumar.”

Modi’s attitude towards the media was shaped by one of the most infamous episodes of violence in India’s history. In 2002, when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Hindu mobs went on a deadly rampage against Muslims. According to unofficial estimates, nearly 2,000 people were killed. Modi accused the media of exaggerating the extent of the violence. Speaking to The New York Times five months after the riots, he said his only regret around the deadly attacks was that he did not “handle the news media better.”

Since being elected prime minister in 2014, Modi has used every tactic in the authoritarian playbook to bend the media to his will. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has frozen advertising (government advertising is a major source of revenue for many Indian publications), raided offices, threatened journalists, shut off the internet, conducted digital surveillance on critics, prevented journalists from traveling abroad, and arrested and detained scores of media personnel under false pretexts including charges of terrorism. Modi is disdainful of journalists, calling them bazaru, meaning “for sale.” His supporters use the term “presstitutes” and “anti-national” to hound journalists on social media.

The threat of harassment and financial ruin has worked: Many of the country’s major newspapers and cable networks are effectively propaganda megaphones for Modi. Pro-Modi oligarchs and other individuals with political links to the BJP now own virtually all of India’s leading media, according to Reporters Without Borders, which noted “a significant trend towards concentration and ultimately control of content and public opinion.”

Journalist Manisha Pande’s YouTube show TV Newsance wields humour to criticize the media.

The journalist Manisha Pande recalled her days as a principal correspondent at national newspaper DNA, where she worked from 2013–2014. Pande told Rest of World about a story she had pitched about Modi’s broadening appeal. “I got a call [from the editor-in-chief] saying, ‘Make sure it makes him look good. Do a cover story on how sexy Modi is to the Indian housewife.’” Pande wrote the story, but she wasn’t happy about it. “I had wanted to write about why Modi’s popularity went beyond Hindu populists,” she said. “Not some piece about his sex appeal.”

Pande resigned from DNA that May. The following month, she joined Newslaundry, a media monitoring site, where she is now the managing editor and also hosts the organization’s YouTube show, TV Newsance.

In Mumbai, D’Souza, who worked at the Times Network from 2008 to 2019, at times felt similar pressure to present the government in the best possible light. “I was focusing a lot on things that really mattered to me,” she told Rest of World. “Crime against women, child rights, taxation, inflation. These things also resonated with the audience. But towards the end of 2019, the questions started like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ ‘We’re getting calls about this story.’ ‘We would prefer it if you asked us beforehand.’ I got the sense that they were uncomfortable with the work that I was doing.”

“I got the sense that they were uncomfortable with the work that I was doing.”

Traditional media networks also found themselves increasingly competing with digital formats. In 2016, telecom company Jio brought millions of Indians online with its offer of superfast internet at cut-rate tariffs. As public attention shifted to online platforms, cable news companies tried to keep up. Investment in investigative reporting plummeted. Debates became a prominent feature because they required less time and money to produce.

“I call them kutta-billi debates — cat-and-dog fights,” said Banerjee, who was a broadcast journalist with the English-language channel India Today before starting The DeshBhakt in 2018.

News channels, observed Pande of Newslaundry, were now missing a crucial element: trustworthy news. “When the West talks about the decline in Indian democracy, our response is that we have free and fair elections,” she said. “And yes, we do. But democracy is also about institutions and the media is a huge part of those institutions that make a democracy. If we don’t have a news media that’s giving you credible information, how are you going to go and make that voting choice?”

The pressure on Indian media made journalists even more susceptible to manipulation. Neutrality became a relic of the past as anchors engaged in name-calling, religious bigotry, and xenophobia in service of the government’s majoritarian agenda.

Modi’s government has been known to raid offices, prevent journalists from traveling abroad, and arrest scores of media personnel under false pretexts.

When Kumar filmed his resignation video, he hadn’t planned to make YouTube his career. Although he’d opened an account on the platform in mid-2022, it was largely to prevent others from impersonating him. His most popular video before his resignation was of him riding shotgun in a Tesla in New York City.

But following Kumar’s departure from NDTV, fellow journalist Ajit Anjum suggested a pragmatic lifeline: monetize his channel. Like Kumar, Anjum had enjoyed a long career in broadcast TV before he resigned in 2019, following a confrontational interview with a Modi cabinet minister. Anjum joined YouTube and swiftly amassed more than 4.5 million subscribers. “People will forget you,” Anjum warned, urging Kumar to act swiftly.

Kumar filmed the video about the violence in Manipur seated on a bed in his New York hotel room at 4 a.m.

TV had made Kumar famous. He had started his NDTV career in 1996, as a mailroom clerk. Newly arrived from a village, the Hindi-speaking Kumar cut an incongruous figure in the urbane environment of the English-speaking newsroom. A colleague compared him to a mouse. “No one thought I had a place there,” he told Rest of World. “But I knew.”

When the network launched Hindi-language channels like NDTV India, Kumar’s performance and felicity with the language won him a promotion to the role of translator and editor before he made a name for himself as a reporter in the late 1990s. He was famous for his on-the-ground reporting where he walked around the city in shirts with rolled-up sleeves, bulky microphone in hand, talking to people about the cost of onions or lack of jobs. “English journalists have traditionally been close to power,” he said. “But Hindi-speaking journalists have always been close to the public.”

When he became an anchor, his signature opening line, “Namaskar, main Ravish Kumar,” signaled to viewers the beginning of a conversation that directly affected them. Millions of Indians came to trust the tall, straight-talking figure with the now-distinctive flick of silvery hair.

Kumar was hesitant to leave all that for YouTube. “I’d always thought, ‘What are YouTube views next to TV?’” he told Rest of World, hunched forward on a sofa in his home in western Uttar Pradesh, scrolling intently on his rose-gold laptop. A glass of syrupy Rooh Afza, a cup of tea, and a samosa sat untouched. “It wasn’t worth talking about.”

A bookshelf with a framed photo of Mahatma Gandhi, a sivler Youtube plaque and a collection of books in English and Hindi.

Kumar had known that no TV network would risk hiring him. Even so, the industry’s silence hit hard. He realized he had no choice but to give YouTube a try. “Everything was dependent on me,” he said, ticking off a list of accumulating debts — support for his family, his mother’s medical bills, relatives’ school fees.

Well-wishers came forward to help him set up his new business. Strangers reached out over social media to present him with his first Rode microphone — a YouTuber’s holy grail — and camera lights. Stand-up comic Kunal Kamra, who had himself faced harassment for his critical commentary of the government, sent over a technician to help Kumar navigate his new teleprompter. Others assisted with graphics and a background score.

Kumar created an improvised studio in a small apartment he had used as a guesthouse for his in-laws. He rearranged the dining table to accommodate studio lights and set up a green screen against one of the walls. His videos often follow a similar format. After his signature introduction, he poses a question related to the news of the day, usually focusing on abuses of political power, which he then spends the next 20 minutes answering.

Kumar publishes at least five videos weekly. He writes his own scripts, which can run up to 6,000 words — about 30,000 words a week. The pace is relentless. And sometimes it isn’t enough. His videos need to get upwards of at least 2 million views, he said, in order to be sustainable. But it’s hard to predict what will be a hit. One of his most popular videos, published in April, delves into the murder of a mobster politician and his brother, who were shot dead as the police took them to a hospital in Uttar Pradesh. It has more than 8 million views. A more recent video on a matter that has similarly consumed the news cycle — of 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India — has only 592,000 views so far.

As we talked in his living room that evening in August, Kumar scrolled through his YouTube page, pointing out videos of which he was particularly proud. “I made this in a hotel room in New York,” he said, clicking on a video about Manipur, the northeastern Indian state embroiled in a civil war. He remembered that he started recording the video at 4 a.m. A hotel worker, alarmed by Kumar’s voice, knocked on the door to make sure he was alright. “How do I explain that I’m a journalist?” Kumar said. “That I have to record this video or it won’t be edited in time? That I can’t afford to sleep? But the interruption inspired me to change the script. I wrote, ‘I feel like screaming, but who do I scream at and where do I scream? It’s better that I stifle the scream within.” That video now has 6.1 million views.

Kumar is almost entirely reliant on the Google-owned site’s AdSense program for his income. The revenue he gets from the ads that run before and during his videos is enough for now, he said, to support his family and employ six full-time members of staff, who serve as camera person, researchers, editor, and thumbnail designer.

“It was because of YouTube that I could finally pay my mother’s medical bills,” he said. “Otherwise I would have been humiliated.”

A photo of Ravish Kumar seated at a table working on his laptop surrounded video recording equipment.

On a rainy morning this past August, D’Souza, the former Times Network journalist, was taking a work call from her apartment in Mumbai while sipping on her first cup of coffee. While her 1-year-old-son and fluffy white dog played at her feet, D’Souza and her executive editor thrashed out the best way to break the day’s big news to her followers.

The headline story concerned a deadly crime that had taken place the previous day on a Mumbai-bound train. A police officer with the Indian Railways had shot dead a colleague and three passengers. The media had largely focused on a mental health angle, but a video making the rounds on Twitter told another story: It showed the guard telling one of his victims, who lay dying at his feet, that if he wanted to live in India he had better vote for Modi. “He went looking for Muslims,” D’Souza told Rest of World. “He shot people he could visibly identify as Muslims.”

D’Souza didn’t know whether she could run this story angle on her channels. Several news sites had already done so, but as a small, independent media house, she was in a more precarious position. “We’re being very careful about how we deal with what’s happening in this country right now,” she said.

Anusha Bhonsle sets up the recording tripod and lighting devices in her office.

A photo of Anusha Bhonsle seated and writing on an outdoor bench taken from inside the office, showing her work desk.

Anubha Bhonsle, the former executive editor of CNN-News18, works from her home-office in southwest New Delhi.

Since quitting her job in TV, D’Souza has emerged as a juggernaut among India’s YouTube journalists. From her family home, she runs a media company with a news app, Beatroot News, and her own Instagram feed, which has 1.6 million followers. She has had sponsorship deals with Bumble and Glenlivet whisky, and is in demand as an event speaker. She is also a favorite of the Bollywood set, and her content is often reposted by accounts with tens of millions of followers.

But being a successful journalist in India puts a target on your back. To avoid accusations of bias from the government, in 2019, D’Souza stopped sharing her opinions online. “I don’t put out how I feel about something,” she said. “So you can’t hold that against us.” She calls her decision to self-censor “a conscious security net.”

Posting videos that offend the government and its followers risks jeopardizing YouTubers’ livelihoods. In some cases, the backlash can spill over into physical violence. In August, the sister and brother journalist team behind the YouTube channel Pal Pal News woke up to find that their house in northwest Delhi, where they weren’t living at the time, had gone up in flames. YouTuber Khushboo Akhtar told the Committee to Protect Journalists that she believed the attack was retaliation for the channel’s “critical coverage of the challenges faced by Indian Muslims and other underrepresented groups.”

D’Souza decided not to mention the Islamophobic angle on her Instagram feed, although she doesn’t shy away from talking about anti-Muslim violence in India more generally. Like many of her colleagues on YouTube, she treads gently, but firmly. “My ambition is to lead more and more news providers to change their tune because I think that the audience can’t take the hate anymore,” she said. “We can create a pocket of resistance.”

Anubha Bhonsle has also had to change her approach to journalism. She was previously executive editor of the English-language cable channel CNN-News18, formerly known as CNN-IBN. In her role there, she traveled the world covering major events, from elections to earthquakes. She was drawn to deep dives on tough topics — the upcoming elections, the latest Supreme Court ruling. She resigned in 2017 and now runs her own YouTube channel and Instagram page, also using the name Newsworthy.

One evening in August, Bhonsle welcomed Rest of World into her house in the southwestern part of New Delhi. At the top of the stairs, in a light-flooded space, was the office she had designed for herself with custom bookshelves and white walls. Every weekday at around 8 a.m., Bhonsle makes the short walk from her bedroom and talks to her team of four over Signal. Her more than a decade in broadcasting has prepared her to run her newsroom methodically. By 4 p.m., like clockwork, the Newsworthy Instagram feed spits out the stories of the day.

“We can create a pocket of resistance.”

Bhonsle said India’s mainstream media was now so ill-equipped to report the news that she and her team spent most of their time sifting through propaganda. “The bulk of the work is bloody understanding what’s going on,” she said, with a rueful smile.

The day of our visit, her team had settled on a roster of 12 to 15 stories. After that, it was time to assemble them by gathering information from still-trusted sources such as the wire services and a handful of independent websites. Bhonsle also works with other journalists, but is limited by budget. This also affects her ability to pay for photos and videos, and she relies on a bank of icons and images to build her stories.

Bhonsle, like Kumar and D’Souza, is self-sufficient, but her journalism is subsidized by her day job — a social impact communications firm that she created, which allows her to run her online news platforms. “It’s a challenge,” she said.

For journalists with a smaller audience, the struggle to make a living is even more daunting. The platform’s algorithms make it impossible for all but the leading YouTubers to profit from their work. YouTube uses various metrics for payouts, with one of the most significant being cost per thousand ad impressions, or CPM, which is set by the advertiser. But the CPM can differ by country, with advertisers in India paying much less than those in the U.S., for example.

Earlier this year, Bhonsle produced a YouTube content package addressing the violence in Manipur, including an explainer video, an accountability-focused piece, and a third video spotlighting the stories of students forced to flee the turmoil. Her feed represented the news she felt people needed to have. But there was one thing she couldn’t do: report the news from the ground. “To be honest, I shouldn’t be here in Delhi,” she told Rest of World. “I should be in Manipur. It’s a state I worked in, it’s a place I know. But I’m now responsible for four other people. I can’t just pack my bags. I don’t have that money.”

Working with other local journalists and wire services, much of Bhonsle’s day is spent on phone calls and verifying news sources.

In October, Kumar received a copyright notice for one of his videos. He felt sure he hadn’t done anything wrong, but since YouTube prohibits creators from earning income on videos while they are under dispute, he was forced to contact a lawyer to intervene, and couldn’t earn any money on the video until the matter was resolved.

Copyright claims are increasingly emerging as a way to censor critical content. One prominent Indian YouTube journalist has spoken out about receiving copyright claims from the public service broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, which has exclusive rights to film parliamentary proceedings. Prasar Bharati has previously denied the allegations, saying it did not make copyright complaints on public service content, but Meghnad S, a journalist who posts Youtube videos on his channel Meghnerd, confirmed he had also received a complaint from the broadcaster. Prasar Bharati did not respond to questions from Rest of World.

In response to a question from Rest of World, YouTube said it was not up to the platform to decide who “owns the rights” to content. It said it offers ways for rights holders to request removal of content they believe infringes their copyright, as well as tools for uploaders to dispute incorrect claims.

Meanwhile, the government has been more direct in its efforts to control journalists by blocking access to content under the Information Technology Act, which governs online exchanges, e-commerce, and cybercrime. From 2021 to October 2022,  it used this law to block 104 channels from YouTube. In one high-profile case in January, it directed social media platforms to block a BBC documentary that implicated Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots. At the same time, the BBC issued copyright claims to YouTube against the documentary being circulated without permission.

According to Apar Gupta, a lawyer who co-founded the New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, India’s IT laws have traditionally offered safe harbor protection to online platforms. This means tech companies are shielded from liability for the content posted on their platforms, provided they act “expeditiously” in response to government takedown requests. “YouTube is negotiating a very difficult climate in India,” Gupta said. “If they want to maintain service availability, they have to negotiate an environment in which rule of law often follows political interests.”

From January to June 2023, YouTube received the third-highest number of government takedown requests from India, following Russia and Taiwan, according to the latest Google Transparency Report. The most commonly cited reason was “defamation,” with other categories including “hate speech”, “national security”, and “government criticism.” Responding to a question about these figures, a YouTube spokesperson told Rest of World, “All our policies are applied consistently across the platform, regardless of the creator, their background, political viewpoint, position or affiliation.”

Critics of the platform dispute this position, however, pointing to the now-infamous case of the Hindu extremist Monu Manesar, who used his YouTube channel to spread anti-Muslim hate. Manesar, who belonged to a militant group affiliated with the prime minister’s party, received a YouTube “Silver Creator” plaque for reaching 100,000 followers before he went on the run for allegedly kidnapping and killing two Muslim men (he has since been arrested). By the time YouTube terminated his channel for violating their harassment policies, Manesar had more than 200,000 subscribers. “YouTube seems to be blind,” said Gupta, the lawyer. “It is permitting blatant forms of Islamophobia that leads to violence.”

As the 2024 elections near, the government is cracking down further on platforms like YouTube. An amendment to the IT law gives the government the power to demand that platforms remove anything it considers to be “fake, false or misleading” information about its work. The amendment is currently on pause as it is being challenged in the High Court of Bombay, but should it be approved, internet freedom advocates say, it would give the government absolute power over its own narrative. The Editors Guild of India said the move goes against “principles of natural justice.”

“What matters is if the content goes viral and makes the government uncomfortable.”

In November, the government also proposed a broadcasting bill to regulate online content. The bill leans heavily on the country’s decades-old program code, which was introduced in 1994, when India experienced its first content flood with the cable TV boom. Among other things, the code prohibits cable TV programs that “criticise, malign or slander any individual in person or certain groups.”

Meghnad, who is a public policy analyst as well as a YouTuber, told Rest of World the language of the bill has been kept deliberately vague to allow the government to target critics irrespective of platform. “Anyone talking about current affairs will be counted as a broadcaster,” he said — even if they are only making an Instagram reel or running a WhatsApp group.

But, as the Monu Manesar episode demonstrated, the government is selective about who it targets. “If you are pro-government, they’ll let you have free rein,” Meghnad said. Over the summer, several prominent members of the cabinet, who only rarely engage with the media, made themselves available to a handful of popular YouTube personalities. One, Ranveer Allahbadia, has 6.6 million followers on his channel BeerBiceps, where he usually posts fitness videos and discusses far-out theories (in one video, he spends about an hour and a half talking to a man who claimed to have seen a yeti in the Himalayas).

Among the high-profile names that sat across from Allahbadia was Modi’s minister for external affairs, S Jaishankar, who in May had dismissed India’s declining position in the World Press Freedom Index as “a mind game.” The pair had a friendly chat for about 40 minutes, covering Jaishankar’s thoughts on a variety of issues — from quantum computers to geopolitics. “I’m 100% sure that your sixth sense plays a role in the geopolitical sense,” Allahbadia said at one point, to an approving nod from Jaishankar. “Is there a spiritual aspect?” The video currently has 8.2 million views.

Working without the legal or financial protection of a TV network, journalists like Ravish Kumar are fearful for their future.

Back in Kumar’s home office, the reluctant YouTuber pondered the fragility of his position. “The government has already come for YouTube,” he said. “What if YouTube gets shut down?”

The idea seemed too gut-wrenching to engage with, certainly in the middle of his day with a video yet to be recorded. “If it shuts down my channel, I’ll start another,” he declared.

He got up to walk the few steps to his former dining room, where his cameraperson was waiting for him. He straightened his shoulders and rearranged his face to match the tone of his script. “Rolling,” he said, wearily.

Later, when Kumar walked me to my car, I realized the heavy curtains in his apartment all but blocked out the view; only now did I see the sun was descending. Once known for his on-the-ground reporting, Kumar had been forced to cloister himself away inside.

Kumar said he still receives death threats as a result of his work. When he was at NDTV, the Delhi police had assigned him with personal security. Now, he was alone. When he steps out, he told me, people often greet him, but his eyes tend to turn towards those who hang back, just watching. “The news gets around so quickly on WhatsApp,” he said. “Any minute a mob can gather.”

He shook his head with disbelief. “Elections are approaching,” he said, “and I can’t go out.”

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