Sudhir Chaudhary, Editor, Zee News, won the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence for his interview with Awindra Pandey, friend of the December 16 gangrape victim.
Over a telephone conversation, Chaudhary tells me that this was one of the toughest interviews he’s done. He also talks about the Zee-Naveen Jindal extortion case and the different lens with which people look at Hindi and English journalists.
How did you convince Awindra Pandey to speak to you? This was the first interview he gave to anyone in the media.
Awindra was not willing to speak to anyone in the press. He was wary of the press. But since he was the only witness in the case who I could speak to, I wanted to interview him.
I called him up at his home in Gorakhpur, tried to convince him and his father, too. He remained reluctant and I suppose he wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind. I tried to persuade him and talked to him about three times. And, then, with all the incorrect reports surfacing in the media, Awindra changed his mind — he decided he wanted to set the record straight.
He wanted his story, his version out there. He, then, agreed to speak to me.
The interview brought out harrowing details of the night. Was it difficult for you to conduct the interview?
Awindra thought this would be a typical media interview – along the “aapko-kaisa-lag-raha-hai” lines and that he would have to give us all the gory details. I remember he arrived at my office in Noida at around 7:30 pm. That was the first time I met him and it was a bit strange for me to meet him face-to-face. I decided to speak to him before going on air and get to know his story better.
That session lasted till about 1:30 in the morning. He would break down several times while speaking. Finally, when he was absolutely comfortable, we started shooting at around 2 in the morning.
This interview was a big challenge. It was not a normal interview, and even I was not sure whether I was ready to conduct that interview. The biggest challenge for me was to ask him questions without hurting his feelings or insulting Nirbhaya. I also had to keep in mind that the interview should make for family viewing and at the same time should also challenge the system. He also kept naming the victim, so we had to stop him and keep cutting him, reminding him not to name her. We had to take several breaks because he was mentally exhausted and completely broken.
There were allegations against Awindra later. Documentary filmmaker Leslee Udwin stated that he had asked her to pay him for an interview. Did he at any point ask you for money for the interview? What was your impression of him?
Well, the question never came up with me. It probably never came up because it was his first interview and at that time he was not famous or a known name. Later on, what happened was that he developed a stardom of sorts and people started knowing him. Whenever such incidents would happen, he’d be called for interviews and debates. I can’t say whether the accusations are true or not, but my assessment of him after my first experience was that he was a victim, badly injured – physically and mentally. He wanted to come out with his story and challenge the system and the media as well.
What do awards and recognition mean to you? Do they matter?
There are two kinds of recognition: one is from the viewers, which I would rate as the top-most award for any journalist. Second is from fellow journalists and those who give awards.
I have received a lot of love from viewers, but I feel there are certain people who view Hindi journalists and anchors in a different light when you compare it to the way they glamourise the English press. There is a big difference between the Hindi and English press. There’s a perception that a Hindi guy cannot be a star and he cannot get big awards.
So I feel very nice. I used to hear that this is the only award that money can’t buy. This award is special. But all said and done, my biggest reward is when people come to me and recognise me and say that they watch my show — that is my biggest recognition.
You were involved in a controversy with the whole Jindal extortion case? Would you like to talk about that…
If a government starts chasing any person – a businessman or a journalist — it can make any fake case against you. It can get you arrested; even The Indian Express was shut down by the government.
In 2012, within a span of a month, there were three FIRs filed against me. One for extortion in the Jindal case, and another for this very interview for which I got an award. The police felt I should not have done the interview as it hindered investigation. And the third one for forgery – the police said I forged a CAG document to air a story against Jindal. In the first case, the police filed a chargesheet in 2013, but it was rejected by the court. The sections were wrong and the investigation was shoddy, the court said. The third case was also dismissed.
As of today, there is no chargesheet against me. And no case. The FIR for my interview is still there. I went to court on January 13, 2013, requesting it to look into it as I was being targeted for political reasons.
Any advice you’d like to give to young journalists?
There are two kinds of journalists. One type wants to interview big people, prime ministers, and influence opinion makers sitting in conference rooms. But you reach very few people that way. The other kind wants to reach out and impact the common man, people living in the remotest of villages. I would advise that you think about how many people, families and lives you can influence. Try and do stories that affect change in society rather than focusing on the PM’s foreign trips and what’s happening in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.