Arnab Goswami outside Alibag court in Mumbai, November 4 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE ARREST OF Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV, has led to a strange situation in Indian journalism. In contrast to the usual din whenever a journalist is arrested, there is relative silence in this case. The big guns of the liberal press have vanished.
Whenever a journalist is arrested or booked under some stringent law, there is an uproar among journalists. In no time, accusations start pouring in against the government for ‘throttling freedom of expression’, creating an ‘Emergency-like situation’ and ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in India. A wave of indignation follows on social media while a harried government retreats into silence.
In Goswami’s case, none of that anger is visible. To be fair, major dailies have written editorials criticising the Maharashtra government and the state police for their high-handedness in the manner of Goswami’s arrest. More substantively, the re-opening of the suicide case involving a Mumbai interior decorator, Anvay Naik, has been questioned. The case was closed last year for lack of evidence but is now being reinvestigated. But where the arrest has been criticised, it has been sought to be ‘balanced’ with other issues. For one, some Union Government ministers taking to Twitter to criticise the Maharashtra government has not gone down well with the English-language press. The refrain being that these ministers never came to the defence of journalists who were detained or arrested by state governments under BJP rule. For another, the refrain has been that the BJP Government is no friend of the press. Whatever criticism was made against the Maharashtra government has been ‘neutralised’ by adding other issues.
How fair are the comparisons between Goswami’s case and other instances where journalists have been detained? There are three issues at hand. One is the case where journalists are detained and booked for posting critical commentary against chief ministers and other powerful politicians on social media. These, in general, are definitely against the spirit of freedom of expression. This is true, without exception, whether the case be from Manipur or Maharashtra. The only limitation being what is constitutionally permitted to limit freedom of expression as outlined in Article 19 of the Constitution. Then, there are cases where a government has arrested journalists when it fears that reporting in particular cases can lead to law and order problems or has been, by design, written in a fashion to create such problems. The vast majority of cases from Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere fall in this class. To give one recent example, the arrest of a journalist from Kerala along with three others, who the local police claim are members of the Campus Front of India (CFI), the students wing of the Popular Front of India, led to an outrage against the Uttar Pradesh government. There were allegations that the state government wanted to hide facts of the Hathras rape and murder case and, therefore, the journalist from Kerala was arrested. One can always ask why were members of the CFI trying to go to Hathras. The state government had reasons to be careful: one of the three, Atiq-ur Rehman, also faces a case in Muzaffarnagar for violence in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. Finally, in none of these cases has a single journalist been the subject of repeated ‘inquiries’, or multiple cases launched over different periods in a bid to silence him. Most of the actions that evoke the spectre of precious freedoms being taken away are one-off actions where a government feels danger to law and order and, in certain cases, national security.
Once these facts are taken into consideration, the ‘moral equivalence’ sought to be created between Goswami and other journalists breaks down. Even if one takes into account that doing journalism in Indian states is structurally far more difficult as compared to criticising the Union Government, Goswami’s case is unique.
A part of the problem for Goswami has been his coverage of issues that rankle the political coalition in Maharashtra. These have often taken the form of no-holds-barred commentary on Republic TV. That is in stark contrast to the format followed by other mainstream TV channels. This has made him unpopular, unfairly so, in a certain kind of political and media ecosystem where criticism and the loss of business have led to a combination of anger and envy. Various cases, from the probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the TRP scandal and the prominence given to actor Kangana Ranaut on his channel, have pitted him against the Maharashtra government. The anger of the state government, led by the Shiv Sena, was evident in the number of times Goswami was called for questioning by the police and, finally, culminating in his arrest in a different case. Usually, this kind of alacrity on the part of the police is reserved for hardened criminals and it can be said—by a league and more—that the editor-in-chief of Republic TV is none of that.
What can be done in this case? There is little the Union Government can do as police is a state subject and unless there is a security issue at hand, the Centre does not intervene in such matters. The wider problem, however, is one of ‘polarisation’ within the press itself. Goswami is almost an ‘untouchable’ because his channel does not adhere to the usual niceties and ideological preferences of the Indian press. The liberal press wants to champion ‘secularism’ and ‘liberal democracy’, ideas that have loaded political connotations. The press itself has become a participant in the political process. This is most acute in the case of TV channels and digital news outlets. The result is that journalists are at war with each other and have picked their political sides. This—more than anything else—permits governments to shrink the space for freedom of expression by pigeonholing journalists as friends and enemies. It is Goswami’s misfortune that he has landed in the wrong category.
Perhaps, this is also the right time to look at institutions that were meant to serve the press by safeguarding its freedoms. At one time, these institutions could carry out their task by building norms and creating a culture that would respect those norms. That consensual equilibrium broke down a long time ago. In some cases, these institutions have outlived their utility by having no independent powers to do what is needed, while in other cases, they have turned partisan. It is futile to look for state-level solutions as they are most likely to be rigged in favour of the state government. The fate of the law to protect journalists in Chhattisgarh is a case in point. An overarching, pan-India, body suitably backed by legislation and empowered with the right kind of legal provisions can go some way in ensuring that journalists are not harried in situations like the one Goswami is facing. Unlike the demand for an all-powerful Lokpal that was in vogue some years ago, what journalists require is a much more limited—but suitably equipped—body to safeguard them as they go about doing their work.