Sashi Kumar is a prominent media personality from Kerala, India. In the late seventies he was among the earliest Newscasters in English on Doordarshan, India’s national TV network, and over the next decade, became a familiar face in TV households in India as news and current affairs anchor, film critic and producer and director of topical features on television.
He was the first West Asia correspondent of The Hindu in the mid-eighties. He directed the film Kaya Taran in Hindi based on the short story “When Big Trees Fall” by writer N.S Madhavan. He is the founder of India’s first regional satellite TV channel Asianet.
Sashi Kumar founded and chairs the Media Development Foundation, a not-for-profit public trust which set up and runs the prestigious Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.
Mr.Sashi Kumar shares with Marie Banu the changing trends in journalism in our country today.
Your career graph and most cherished moment ?
My cherished moment, of course, is being part of Doordarshan as a News Producer. Those were the days when it was a one horse race where Doordarshan was the only act in town. We had the advantage of having the entire nation watching us, but today the channels have to vie with one another to get their viewership.
From there, I moved on to print journalism. I was The Hindu’s West Asia Correspondent and started their bureau at Bahrain in mid-eighties. It was the time of Iran-Iraq war and it was quite exciting to coordinate the coverage for The Hindu. I then came back to India to set up a television for Press Trust of India in Delhi. It was then my own entrepreneurial instincts were aroused and I started thinking of setting up a television station all of my own. That’s how I founded Asianet which is based out of Kerala and now seen by a large section of Malayalees across the world.
After 10 years in Asianet, I divested my stakes in 2000 and founded the Media and Development Foundation, a not-for-profit Public Trust. The idea was to give back to journalism what journalism had given me and for some people like us. My good friend Mr. N Ram is a fellow Trustee; Mr. C.P. Chandrasekhar, a well-known economist; Mrs. RadhikaMenon, my wife, and a publisher of children’s books; and Mr. N Murali are also Trustees. We set up Asian College of Journalism to enable excellence in journalism education. Journalism as a distinct discipline was not available in India then. We had Mass Communication, but Journalism is distinct of Mass Communications. We were the pioneers in that sense.
Looking back 16 years later, I can say that we are the leading journalism college in the Country today. We plan to expand and start courses in Financial Journalism and so on. Unless we have ideas and keep translating ideas into actions as far as possible, you stop living. For me, it is not a great act of courage or boldness or self-sacrifice. For me to live, I have to keep doing things and this is part of that whole exercise.
My career graph has been interesting and I have been learning through the whole process. Today, many young adults learn about journalism and talk about it, because journalism is at cross roads and is not as how we knew it. With modern technology, everything is delivered on your smart phone with buzz feed, tweets, and blogs where viewers, readers, and listeners are themselves the producers of journalism—Citizen Journalism is rampant. We are learning as much as we are imparting.
ACJ’s scholarship for Dalit students. Can you give us more details?
Diversity in the news sphere has been a very important part of my agenda. News organisations in India have been earlier very gender insensitive. There were times when news organisations will not take many women, but now we have far more women than men in journalism. In our college, year after year, the proportion of women to men is always in favour of women. A lot of women are entering journalism and with generations we will see the impact of that. It is true that women have not made it to the top editorial positions, particularly in the print media, but that will change eventually.
Like gender injustice, there has also been class and caste injustice. The most invisible part of journalism was the Dalit voice and the presence of the Dalits. We always wanted to change this and hence instituted scholarships for Dalit students. These have fluctuating fortunes to it as the problems were not always the scholarships, but finding qualified young Dalit students who could cope with the course. The medium of instruction being English, they should have the language skills to grasp the programme. We used to despair sometimes on how to change that.
This year is a Dalit year at ACJ where we have six full scholarships offered for Dalit students and also Mr. SurjitAmbedkar, the great grandson of Dr. Ambedkar studying here. I dare say that the Dalit journalists who are working in the industry today are those who have studied at ACJ. This gives us a lot of satisfaction.
About ACJ’s Covering Deprivation Programme?
The overall philosophy of our journalism education is to sensitise the future generation of journalists to the reality of India. Reality of India is not shopping malls, not fashion and designs, not movies and gossip, nor voyeurism—it is also the reality of the ordinary man on the street. It is about people living in rural India who hardly find any presence in media, whether print, television, or radio. We have been trying to correct that.
It is a great, difficult, and daunting task and our students are equipped to handle it. When they move out into the real profession, they find little space to do stories and that has been the kind of relationship into which the students or the journalists who come from here enter into the media organisations and niche out their spaces to publish their stories.
Reality of India is rural India, and our ‘Covering Deprivation programme’ looks at vast areas of India which live in relative deprivation – in terms of child labour, female foeticide, gender injustice, social inequality, unemployment, farmer suicides, and many other areas.
When our students leave from here, there is a reality check. They are mentally equipped to see India not the way they were born and brought up, but understand their duty not to talk about ‘shining India’ but the ‘struggling India’.
What are the features of ACJ’s module on investigative journalism?
Investigative journalism is a specialize module at ACJ. In fact, we have instituted an award for investigative journalism from last year. We give a sum of two lakh rupees for the best investigated story in print for the entire year, another two lakhs for the best investigated story in broadcast. The first prize was won by a lady who wrote about the famous Raj Rajaratnam case and how they were using the maid as the front person for their bank accounts. This article was published in The Caravan.
Investigative journalism is a new thrust area for us. Real journalism is all about investigative journalism. Normal journalism is becoming everybody’s cup of tea. You get all the information you need from Google or Wikipedia. So, the real litmus test of true journalism is how investigative your stories are.
We have too many media channels today. Your thoughts?
Yes, we have many media channels, but we get more and more of the same—whether Times Now or NDTV or India Today or News X or TV 18. You are getting the same headlines in the same order, the same news discussions, and same experts appearing all these discussions. People have no choice. Normally, when you have a variety of channels, you must have variety of news.