Journalist Fabian Kretschmer (left) spent three months in India as a participant in a program of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In an interview, he talks about the first female bus driver in Delhi, the status of freedom of the press in India, and why national stereotypes are sometimes a necessary evil.
Sexual assault of women, the conflict with Pakistan, and the smog and air pollution in large cities - these are the usual topics of German media reports about India. But these ingrained stereotypical impressions hardly do justice to the country of many peoples with around 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Eight German journalists have now been given the opportunity to get to know India a little better over the course of a three-month stay. As participants in the Media Ambassadors India-Germany program, they attended as observers in Indian editorial offices for two months and, in so doing, also had the chance to pursue their own project ideas. Prior to their stay, they received an intensive introduction to modern India and current societal debates through a four-week course at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.
In his interview, Media Ambassador Fabian Kretschmer talks about the status of freedom of the press in India and why national stereotypes are sometimes a necessary evil. Kretschmer works as a freelance journalist in Seoul. In 2013, he participated in the Media Ambassadors China-Germany exchange program. During his stay in India, Kretschmer worked at the English-language newspaper The Tribune in Chandigarh.
Media Ambassador Fabian Kretschmer
The Media Ambassadors India-Germany program is intended to deepen the knowledge and understanding of German and Indian journalists for the respective other country. Mr. Kretschmer, did you gain a better understanding of India over the past three months?
Kretschmer: Truly understanding India is no less than a lifelong quest. The subcontinent is just too complex for a coherent picture to be made on the first try. During the Media Ambassador program, for example, we spoke to quite a few government representatives who above all emphasized the peace-loving roots of Indian society, where varied and diverse religions and cultures live together largely harmoniously. Human rights activists, however, describe India as a society that is deeply traumatized by violence, where torture and sexual abuse are not infrequently also committed by members of the police force. So the conclusions one comes to are always a question of perspective.
Particularly as a journalist, you should always have this skepticism of your own judgment at the ready - and not give in to the temptation of drawing premature conclusions. I believe, however, that the extremely intense first month of the Media Ambassador program at the Asian College of Journalism is the perfect way to get our feet wet in relation to being able to report about the country seriously.
What topics do you feel are missing in the reporting of India?
As a freelance journalist in particular, you constantly have to battle against the prefabricated image of India of a few editors. But I don’t want to judge the predominant clichés per se; instead I see them much more as a necessary evil: after all, they represent an initial point of reference for the readers. Additionally, as journalists we have the opportunity to chip away a little at these stereotypes with our stories.
Of course there are also topical subjects that I feel are missing in the reporting of India. But my main critique really applies to a formal aspect: a large portion of reporting stems from dry press releases - out of necessity since there are not many permanent correspondents in the country. But even some of the correspondents’ reports read as though they had been written "cold" at a desk. I would like to see more reporting that conveys as much as possible of the everyday reality of Indians.
Which topics did you research while you were staying in India?
I tried to dispel the prejudices that we just mentioned by writing a portrait story of the very first female bus driver in Delhi. The story of course also broaches the topic of the gang rape from 2012 that occurred in a bus in the Indian capital - a case that not only shook Indian society to its core, but also severely shaped the idea that other countries have of India. At the same time, a much larger story can be told using this topic: women from rural areas are moving to the large cities and are fighting for their place in the workforce against all of the patriarchal resistance. In India, driving buses has always been a job absolutely dominated by men.
Probably the most emotional research of my last three months was done in the Punjab in the south, where I wanted to get to the bottom of the high suicide rate among the rural population. The individual stories were downright jarring: I often found myself sitting at a farm with families in which only the widows and daughters were still alive. In light of growing debt and a lack of opportunities, many men chose to take their own lives. Despite this situation, those left behind opened themselves up to me and shared their stories with me in a way that I had seldom experienced before. And it was especially uplifting that, after publication, we were contacted by one reader from Austria who would like to pay off the debts of one of the farmers interviewed.
Saritha Vankadarath is the first female bus driver in Delhi. For many, she is also a pioneer of an equitable society.
How does the work of a journalist differ in India compared to that of Western colleagues?
They are actually more alike than different. I find that to be quite an inspiration: even if you were socialized in completely different parts of the world, we still share some of the same professional hopes, desires, and worries. Especially from the German perspective, I look with fascination upon the sheer size of the Indian newspaper market: there is no sign of a print crisis there - at least not yet. And most publications have print runs that would make every German publisher go green with envy.
Was freedom of the press a topic during your stay? The nongovernmental organization Freedom House categorizes the status of the press in India as "partly free"; the ranking from Reporters Without Borders lists India 133rd out of 180 countries.
It was an ever-present problem that was like a common thread throughout the entire program: initially, the subject was broached in lectures by colleagues at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Later, of course, we were able to see the situation firsthand during our job shadowing in the editorial offices. Not to mention the way that, when we would go out for a drink after work, the Indian fellows complained about the omnipresent self-censoring and the eagerness to be politically obedient. But compared to my time as a visiting journalist in China, the situation for Indian journalists is significantly more palatable.
How can an exchange program contribute to improving the situation?
The exchange program can create awareness of the subject by informing German colleagues in editorial offices back home about the political repression going on in the world of media. However, that would get us back to those clichés: in particular because India is considered the world’s largest democracy, this particular problem of a repressed media does not really fit the picture. So, especially as a freelancer, this would be a topic that needs to be taken seriously.
Part of the program is an alumni network that is supposed to grow over the coming years. What would you like to see come from the collaboration between your Indian and German colleagues?
My biggest hope is that the alumni network makes some interesting research projects possible over the next few years. Personally, for example, I still have a whole series of topics I would like to report on, ideally as part of a team with Indian colleagues. Also, there will surely be regular evening get-togethers for exciting lectures and networking.
What will stick with you the most from your three months in India - both in your professional as well as in your private life?
The program has certainly given me a second wind - professionally and personally. Even just the first month in Chennai that we spent having daily conversations with really inspiring people from all sections of society was a real privilege for me. For the other two months - with support from the fellowship as well as the network of the Media Ambassador program - I had complete freedom to dedicate myself to my research.
Additionally, my previous experiences of Asia had all been from the perspective of China and South Korea - my time in India was therefore another piece of the puzzle, enabling me to get to know this wonderful continent better and put the pieces together in a global context. But above all I was able to become friends with quite a few of my Indian colleagues. That’s why I am sure that I will be back sooner rather than later.