Uma Sudhir: I speak as a reporter from an outpost

By Editors

Uma Sridhar acceptance photograph cropped

Uma Sudhir was presented with the Chameli Devi Award for an Outstanding Woman Journalist for the year 2017 by The Media Foundation in Delhi on 9 March 2018. In her acceptance speech, Uma paid tribute to reporters across the country who do the everyday reporting integral to journalism and to the camerapersons and team work without which TV journalism in particular would be impossible. She also raised the contentious issue of what is “national” and what is “regional,” and questioned the unfortunate, growing tendency to reduce reporters to mere soundbite collectors. This is the text of her remarkable speech.

I am very honoured to be chosen for the Chameli Devi Jain award for 2017. I have several people to thank. First the Media Foundation and the jury: Lalitha Panicker, Ritu Sarin and Rajdeep Sardesai, hugely respected names in the media fraternity.

I thank NDTV for giving me the opportunity to travel to remote areas and report on different kinds of issues. I am grateful to NDTV because they have allowed me the freedom to choose what I want to report on, without dictating the contours of the report. And, more important, for mainstreaming that issue, by making it a headline on the channel.

I need to also thank my team – TV is not possible without a team – camerapersons Nagaraju, Nazir Shaik and others, whose enthusiasm and sustained energy drive me forward even when I feel tired, drained out and defeated. It is not always easy to do long, long hours of travel, reporting, writing and also what may seem like foolishly daring stuff alone, especially if there is a real threat that you could get beaten up if found out or caught during a sting operation. It has happened to us… For instance, we were once kept captive and threatened with beating when we were caught by a child trafficking mafia. We got out – so now I’m feeling okay about it.

Another time, we drove 18 hours to Chhattisgarh from Hyderabad, straight to an encounter site, and reported out of there. We have driven from Vizag (after flying in from Hyderabad) through Srikakulam, all the way to Paradip, almost 20 years ago, during the 1999 Odisha super cyclone. We reached Paradip even before the authorities did. Those were the days of no cell phone, landlines were all gone… so you were virtually walking into a blackhole, until you got back.

Similarly, in Bellary, when we were investigating the illegal mining operations, people scared us, saying it is dangerous: “You may never come out alive and we would never know where you are buried.” But we went in and came out, and I think there was bravado because we had each other for company.

So, having another mad but professional and passionate person with you helps. The contribution of the team, especially the cameraperson, for TV cannot be overstated. One of my colleagues who recently quit said he did that because he felt very lonely after he lost his cameraperson… thanks to downsizing, one of the challenges we are facing now.

But today I am not going to dwell on shrinking journalistic spaces, corporatisation/politicisation of media/news business, political colour in the newsroom, TV debates that turn into slanging matches – a live circus – or how social media that should have been a technological opportunity to democratise the media space is itself being turned into a new weapon to attack free media space… All that is happening and more… and all in this room are well-informed about these issues.

Uma Sudhir

My perspective comes from the states. I speak as a reporter from an outpost. My designation is executive editor but what takes up most of my time and energy is everyday news reporting. There are thousands like me across the country, who do everyday, basic reporting, without any halo or celebrity status or heroism. We need to value that reporting because that’s what tells the real stories across the country.

These days Chandrababu Naidu is very much in the news and what he talks about is cooperative federalism. We in the bureaus also feel the need for cooperative federalism… the parallels apply to journalism as well. The view from Delhi is often very different from the view from the states. It is like the Centre and States. News can’t always be a Delhi perspective on what is happening. So it is often a battle about Your headline Versus My headline.

I am not saying regional headlines should always become national headlines… That is not possible. But why does a Delhi headline become a national headline is our question and concern. “Our” as in we in the outposts. Delhi is not national. Delhi is your neighbourhood, just like Hyderabad is mine. And that is something not just newsrooms but politicians need to understand, too. Just because your GPS address is Delhi, it doesn’t automatically make you a national leader, the issue does not become national nor does the expert become someone with a national outlook or perspective or understanding.

I have been a field reporter for 25 years now – 20 years in television. I can tell you it is certainly not easy. And there is an army of reporters like me across the country, reporting in different languages, for different media, who are driven by the passion for news and for truth. Who do everyday news with the same commitment and passion, hopefully following the basic tenets of journalism like credibility, balance, fairness, with no bias.

The reporters in the field face huge challenges and pressures, and yet report… and this award to me today is, I think, a tribute to that reporter on the ground, because I am one among them.

That reporter is a first responder in the news chain. He or she knows best the ground reality and what exactly is the story. Allow the ground reporter that space, only then can journalism thrive, only then will you get real stories from the ground. Otherwise the real stories will be lost forever.

Last year’s winner, Neha Dixit, had made a reference to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ report that said 27 journalists were killed in 25 years. This year we have again had unfortunate incidents of Gauri Lankesh, Santanu Bhaumik and others. Of course, this is very worrying but at least there is outrage and there is an investigation… But what happens when the journalism in the journalist is killed?

What I am very concerned about is that TV reporters are often getting reduced to sound-bite collectors. They become foot-soldiers who are expected to get soundbites for a TV discussion in the evening for which the angle is already pre-decided. The reporter becomes a mere cog in the wheel and it is dangerous. Because you have no control over where the wheel or vehicle is going.

I am not at all saying this happens in NDTV, I am talking in a more generic sense. The reporter gets reduced to a modern-day version of a stenographer, where all that you need him or her to do is to have a mike in hand and a pair of legs to run around, with no mindspace or training or energy to look for real stories. That is why we are not able to do justice to our mandate to do journalism.

We need to value that reporter, that everyday reporting, because that is the only source from where you will get the news as it happens, when it happens, and from where it happens. We need to value that everyday reporting because that is where the truth is often hidden.

Yesterday evening, out of the blue, I got a call from a young girl who spoke to me in English and said, “Hello madam, I am Sania, how are you, etc.” Then she said, “Speak to my dad,” and passed on the phone to Papalal. Now Papalal is a man who found a baby near the Gokul Chat Centre, one of the two places where twin blasts took place in August 2007. He says he informed the police but they asked him to take the baby home, to keep her safe… Of course this was totally the wrong thing to do – no baby can be handed over to anyone at random – but that evening and night were totally unusual. Even later no one came forward to claim the baby. So Papalal and his wife brought up the baby as their own… until some fundamentalist groups found out that the baby was Muslim and they were angry that she was being brought up in a Hindu household. They wanted her to go a madarsa or a home for Muslim orphan children, so that she would imbibe those religious values. Papalal was even sent to jail on some charges. But, thanks to a series of reports on NDTV, the family got some financial help and a lot of support. So, happily, this girl Sania remained with this family that loves her and is bringing her up as their own.

Sania is now in middle school and doing well along with her younger siblings. The couple named their baby born after that Umanath, as a tribute to a journalist who had helped them keep their first daughter – humbling for sure. (I did not mention this in my acceptance speech.)

Those are things that you can’t attribute a value to… I am grateful to NDTV for allowing TV and editorial space for such stories… that make a difference to lives. There have been any number of such stories of children, people caught up in unfortunate situations, and so on. When you tell those stories, there is overwhelming response and support from people, from civil society, who actually do not expect anything in return for the help they extend.

Children who become victims of conflict situations, farmers’ suicides, victims of violence and discrimination – whenever you tell a story honestly, overwhelming numbers of people react with unimaginable empathy and reach out, contribute generously to change the lives of people who would never know them… That has been a fantastic learning for me… that people like that exist. The silver lining in a world that otherwise makes us so cynical.

NDTV dared to allow me to report on nearly 100 youth picked up after the Mecca Masjid blast and the twin blasts in Hyderabad. This was much before the trial, etc., happened. It is another matter that they were all ultimately acquitted but what we questioned was the narrative dictated by the political and administrative leadership at that time, and the police… This is something that is often very difficult to challenge. (I would have liked to mention this but did not do in the acceptance speech.)

This at a time when there are media houses, and this is primary information, where a channel head is quoted to have said at the time of Chennai floods: “Poor people die all the time, but they don’t make our TRP. Why don’t you move to areas where ‘people like us’ live… where we will get BMWs floating in the waters?”

These are the times we live in. That is why a Chameli Devi Jain award is so important. It stands for all those values that we aspire to as journalists. It reinforces the faith that the work you do matters, that it makes a difference. Thank you.

March 2018

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