I don’t see any reduction in press freedom in India: Navika Kumar

Times Network group editor -- politics addresses allegations of being a Bhakt & more

NEW DELHI: We have seen her interviewing and grilling a number of top-notch ministers and politicians on television, read and viewed sensational stories unearthing some of the most notorious scandals of the past two decades, and most recently heard her crooning Ram Bhajans live with one of the loudest guests on any TV debates, Sambit Patra, but what remains the most striking aspect about Times Network group editor -- politics Navika Kumar is her passion for good journalism and her personality that can make anyone nervous. She remains to be one of the most pivotal voices in Indian mainline media today, chasing some crucial stories and narrating them with poise yet authority. But in the recent past, she has also dealt with merciless online trolling for her reportage and her alleged pro-government stand. The lady, in an exclusive telephonic discussion with, answers these allegations and also shares some interesting anecdotes from her professional journey. Edited excerpts follow:

How did you get into journalism? What inspired you?

I always wanted to be a serious research-writer on the business and economy side and while doing my master’s in Economics at Gokhale Institute in Mumbai, I decided to take training for that. When I was finishing my course, I had two options: one was to apply for a job at HSBC Bank (then Hongkong and Shanghai Bank), which my father insisted that I do and the other was to apply for a written test that The Economics Times was offering. I applied for both, while of course, my family did not know about the latter.

One thing led to the other and I was being interviewed by Manu Sharma who was then the editor at The Economic Times and I was selected. Subsequently, I got an offer from the bank as well but I chose the former at one-third of the salary because that excited me more.

Was it in any way difficult to convince your parents?

Well, at that time my parents were settled in Goa and for them, Mumbai was this big, bad city. Their only concern was about my safety and how I will manage on my own. But that luckily worked out as my sister and brother-in-law were already there in Mumbai who convinced my parents that I will be safe with them.

Then I spent two years at the Old Lady of Bori Bunder and learnt while covering the stock market, the industry, and banks. I learned a lot there.

How did your interest in the political side generate then?

This happened a few years down the line. Soon after my stint with The Economics Times, I joined The Observer of Politics and Economics in Delhi. I left that job before the paper got launched because I got married, had a baby, and then took a four-year break.

I started my career again in 1995 with The Indian Express in Chandigarh, which was a very exciting stint, broke 3-4 very big stories, and got noticed. But within six months, my husband got transferred to Delhi again, and I was planning to quit the job. However, Shekhar Gupta, who was the editor at that time, told me that you have done a great job in Chandigarh, and asked me not to quit and join the Delhi office. I joined the day the Sukhram Telecom Scam was broken and was handed over the telecom ministry.

There I learned that if you have to get your story on the front pages of a general newspaper, unlike The Economic Times, you have to have a political angle to it and that’s how my interest in the political economy started. I used to cover ministries and never the political parties but that’s also how my tryst with investigative stories happened. I then took down Pramod Mahajan, brought out stories like the sugar scam, aviation story, and the MTNL-SC story, which was very-well titled “Hello Your Lordship” by my executive editor then, Raj Kamal Jha.

Another good thing that happened was I got the responsibility to cover every single economy debate in the parliament and while I wasn’t writing any political stories, I got my exposure to party politics and dynamics there. I was there when the Vajpayee government lost the majority by one vote, Girdhar Gamang came out. I heard all their speeches and debates in the parliament and that’s where it all began.

As you mentioned that you brought to the forefront a lot of high-profile cases. Did it ever feel risky or challenging?

I think when someone has to write such high-profile cases, the risk of a story is involved in the facts. So long as you are factual, so long as you have the evidence, I don’t see too much of a risk. Of course, I have my way of getting information out. I know every nook and corner in all the Mantralayas in Delhi. I know how to access files and move around without getting noticed. So, yes, those are the little risks involved.

Also, the way you do a story in print and the way you do a story for TV are completely different. In print, you would collect all the evidence, sit at your office or home, and write a piece. But on TV, you have to locate and be at the position of where the story is.

To give you an example, the first warning into the CWG scam came from the Indian High Commission in London and I had got my hands on a secret letter. I had then to do a piece-to-camera (PTC) in front of the Commission and I did not want to be noticed with that letter. So, that was a big challenge.

Then there was a person called Ash Patel who was supposed to have some links with Suresh Kalmadi. My team and I had to locate his house in London and the privacy rules there are much different and strict. We were doing a PTC and his wife came out, I also got him live on camera via a phone call, and that’s how telephonic interviews started on TV.

Those were some of the slightly risky and embarrassing moments I would say. But other than that, having your facts, I have never seen it as a risk involved.

Reportedly, India is one of the most unsafe countries when it comes to journalists and we are constantly dropping on the Press Freedom Index. As a journalist, have you ever felt threatened or unsafe?

I have had pressures for not doing a story earlier as well. It’s not like it has started now. I don’t see anything different today. It is a universal truth that nobody likes anything written against them but as I said, in journalism, your god is your facts, the evidence you have. You have to differentiate between allegation and facts of the case.

Today, I think opinion has taken the place of facts, especially social media. People say things which they don’t have proof of. I don’t see any reduction in press freedom, frankly.

I say it from experience. I was stopped from doing a story while I was working for print and that’s a secret that will die with me. The dispensation was different then. But I never faced that problem on TV. Of course, people would turn around and say “Bhakt Navika” but who cares? I have the freedom to say what I want, even today.

Glad you mentioned the “Bhakt Navika” part. Of course, in the past few years, there have been allegations, not just on you but your counterparts too, that you are pro-government and have a certain sort of stance. What do you have to say about this?

Frankly, these labels come on social media and people who comment there, I don’t know how much of journalism have they done in their lives and how they are in a position to label anybody. If you think this is freedom of speech, so be it. Congratulations to them!

But for me, the issue here is that I have covered scams then and I have covered stories now. I don’t think the base of breaking stories for me has changed at all. If I find a scam today happening, I will cover it. But if there is no scam, just because it is fashionable to say that somebody stands for something, well, I can’t do it because I am not convinced.

The telecom scam, the 2G spectrum scam, the Antrix-Dewa scam, the CWG scam; there were a billion scams that were going on, I was convinced because I was reporting on them and saw hard evidence on this. At that time, was I the only one feeling this? Wasn’t the public feeling the same? Whatever happened in 2014, isn’t it right that many in India felt that there was a time for a change? But did anybody know it would be an ideal fit? Is there an ideal fit? But a new dispensation comes, you give them a chance, you watch from close quarters and you question them on what you have to question them.

We have done stories on the BJP government too. We did it in Karnataka, the Operation Kamal story. We covered the Sengar controversy; a BJP MLA accused of raping a girl. I had gone hammer and tongs for days, put pressure on BJP till they sacked him and he was sent to jail. When MJ Akbar’s story came out, I chased the story to the point he was made to quit the cabinet.

Do people have short memories? Do they forget? Was that not BJP?

I am not here to appease or impress my critics. I do my job, I do a story that comes my way and I research. I leave it at that. If I had to be driven by what social media was saying about me, I would then be doing agenda journalism.

People may call me pro-BJP because the party frankly represents itself on my channel. I am so happy to take the Congress point of view and you can ask anybody how many attempts I have made in the last four years since I have been handling the calling card policy in Times Now. How many attempts I have made for them to bury the hatchet and represent themselves. I have given them the offers of doing one-on-one interactions, I have requested them to come on debates, putting their view across. But if someone doesn’t want to communicate with me, can you blame me for it?

Why should I have an agenda? If I wanted to be in politics, I could choose to be there. Everybody is free in this country. But I have chosen to be a journalist and I am just doing my job.

Does it ever impact your mental health or you feel negatively impacted by all these allegations?

Frankly, I was not on social media for a long time. My kids set up twitter for me way back but I never used it because I did not know how to use it. And when I learned, I saw all the comments that come on social media, I said I don’t want to be a part of this negativity. We are here to work!

I stayed away consciously until about three-four years ago when I thought that it is a better mode of communication and I can restrict myself. And if you see my Twitter timeline now, I restrict myself to the shows that I am doing, the work that I am doing on my channel. It’s not so much opinion that I want to put out there.

And no, the negative comments do not affect me at all. If they want to say it, they can say it. I am a great Bollywood music buff and I feel kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna…

On that note, once or twice I have also put lyrics to some songs on Twitter and you should see some comments that I have got on those songs even. So you know that it’s okay, you don’t have to bother about it. And I don’t!

But sometimes these memes also get very funny; for example recently when you sang Ram Bhajan with Sambit Patra, the social media was flooded with them. Do you sometimes like to have a good laugh?

I was sitting on my show that day, it was not a factual topic. We were discussing faith and I said we used to have this song in my school assembly and somebody from the studio asked me to hum it. So I hummed it because it was very natural to me, I had sung it for years in school. I felt like singing and it just came out naturally.

I didn’t think that they would assume that I am Lata Mangeshkar. Of course, I am not. But all those who think freedom of speech is so important, why don’t I have the freedom to sing?

It doesn’t really bother me. It’s for me kadam badhaye ja… na darr kadam badhaye ja… Jab tak dumm hai to karenge, nahi hoga nahi karenge! I will do it as long as I have the strength and conviction to do it.

How free are you as anchor or editor of a channel to voice your own opinion and convictions out? Do you have to fit into the thought process or the political leaning that the channel management might have?

When I had left the Indian Express and joined television, I was told I wouldn’t last six months there because I was on the wrong side of the age to make a debut on television and that television was extremely taxing. People told me that I won’t be able to do it because it meant standing outside people’s homes, waiting for comments for several hours and I wouldn’t last there. I was told this by my friends and very trusted advisors that the document journalism that I do in print would not survive in TV at all.

But here I am! I just completed 15-years in Times Now. And the best thing about being in Times Now has been the freedom with which we work, there is no agenda, and the tenets of journalism that have stood the test of time, which is being sure of the facts before you do a story are still alive.

Yes, there have been meetings where we are looking at general outlooks and people’s perception but never anything specific, to or fro in terms of my journalism has happened because of that. Honestly, it is a dream come true.

Editors have come a long way. From being the faceless guardians of the society to be the representatives of people who are revered and followed by people. They are now the faces of the marketing campaigns of the channel. How do you see this evolution? Has it impacted the quality of journalism that you do?

It is the change and evolution of all the mediums. At one time we used to use typewriters to write out print stories. I had gone to the hot press in my first job to see how pages were made and now everything is computerised. Of course, technology changes things and broadcast brings the storyteller to the people. And in that sense, people relate to it more because they see the person, and relate.

Times have changed now, boundaries have receded. Earlier it was just TV and now it’s social media too. Why people associate more meaning to what anchors say is because they know it by their faces. 

And when you are seen, people are observing you closely. You won’t even realise when your pupils dilated or hand moved in a certain direction. I think now, there are so many meanings attributed to even our general way of talking. People are even attributing agenda to me wearing my specs or not wearing them or wearing a salwar kameez vs wearing a saree and how many things will you bother about? I really don’t give it too much thought.

It’s just like the editorial page articles in a newspaper, the prime time shows are the same. There will be a bit of opinion and debate and you will have a certain sort of expression. All-day it is the news and at prime time, it is an opinion and that’s the way even newspapers are. The only difference is that papers have several pages and TV has just one screen, so we get highlighted more.

Any advice you have for the budding journalists?

Journalism isn’t a job, it’s passion. You can’t look at it as a job and if you do, you will never be fair to it.

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