Space for media freedom rapidly shrinking in India: Dhruv Rathee


Twenty-four-year-old Dhruv Rathee has a degree in mechanical engineering from Germany and a master’s degree in renewable energy engineering, but he is better known for his videos through which he hopes to educate the masses on political, economic, social and environmental issues.

“I am one-third journalist, one-third activist and one-third YouTuber, and it has been an educating experience,” Rathee told DW in an interview.

Originally from the northern Indian state of Haryana, he currently lives in Germany, preferring to keep his exact location confidential. His fan base on social media has exponentially grown through his videos, many which have been scathing about the political establishment.

Read more: ‘Fake news is a scourge in India’

Following a passion

Rathee began making videos of animated clay toys when he was just 9 or 10 years old. As a teenager, he started a video blog to document his travels but decided to give it a political twist in 2014, when he felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not living up to its promises after winning the polls that year.

“I realized that I needed to do something more meaningful and with more passion. That’s when I decided on politics as it affects everybody’s lives in every aspect. I felt strongly about it,” he said.

His unique style of delivery and cutting to the chase, combined with some hard number-crunching makes him stand out against other political video personalities, and his mix of Hindi and English makes him popular among the urban youth in India.

He also has a “Dhruv Squad,” a dedicated group that manages his fan base. But having mined YouTube’s potential as a political soapbox, Rathee admits there is no formula for successful videos and in turn, the messages he seeks to convey.

Encouraging critical thinking

“When I feel passionate about an issue or topic, it [the video] happens. I feel it at the moment and decide that something needs to be said. It could be about anything… clean energy, environment or politics,” Rathee told DW, adding he was not against the ruling party and his aim was to encourage critical thinking and awareness among the masses.

But is that helping? “I would like to think so.” he said, adding, “Most mainstream media is in the hands of the government. They position themselves and set the narrative for the government. Save a few exceptions, they are running after noisy debates and chaos. I would have been equally critical if another government came to power.”

Read more: Indian TV channels have become ‘graphic war rooms’

Rathee recalls one of his memorable interviews with a former member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Information Technology cell. The interviewee was an insider and revealed the manner in which the party cell aggressively tried to increase its reach in the digital space.

No space for different opinions

Despite the growing use of social media, Rathee laments that the space for critical and independent voices is rapidly shrinking and could get worse, especially with the return of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing BJP into power.

He points out that countering fake news and hate speech is becoming increasingly difficult in the age of social media: “Yes, it [the space for media] is going to get worse. The silver lining in this bleak scenario is that there are a few independent voices against the establishment, but the government is cracking down on them and has tried to pressure them through tax raids.”

The 24-year-old is not scared of online trolls, who can get extremely vicious at times, but he does acknowledge that online attacks have affected some people, including journalists. “People like Ravish Kumar [a television anchor] were trolled badly. Somebody got hold of his telephone number and began leaving frightening messages. But honestly, I have not experienced it.”

Rathee is perhaps protected from right-wing Hindu extremists because he lives abroad, but the YouTuber does not believe that living out of India undermines his credibility as an opinion-maker: “It does not significantly affect my work. Yes, I could have had more ground reports, if I were living in India, but then I can always fly down when I want to.”

Read more: Social media fuels vigilantism and mob attacks in India

For now, Rathee has no concrete plans, especially since India’s general elections are over, but he wants to produce content on other topics: “The political season has been exhausting but that does not mean that the videos will stop. I will focus on the environment also.”