What should one make of the unexpected and sudden concern expressed by union ministers, ranging from to , about the freedom of the press in India? Invoking images of the Emergency, they are telling us in the media that not speaking out against the arrest of a journalist is equivalent to supporting fascism.
Their concern is obviously not for just any journalist. It is, as Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath , for "a leading journalist of the country”, namely Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV. Clearly, journalists not as prominent do not merit the same concern, given that , have been bullied, harassed, beaten up and arrested just in his state.
The ministers and prominent members of the Bharatiya Janata Party expressing their distress at Goswami's arrest have never been bothered about the dozens of men and women in the media, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, who have been targeted while doing their jobs as journalists. So, excuse us for not being moved by this concern for press freedom and the rights of journalists.
Goswami was arrested on November 4 by the Mumbai police for a case of abetment to suicide that had been closed in 2019. His arrest triggered a debate amongst journalists about whether this constitutes an attack on the freedom of the press.
On the face of it, it does not. Journalists are also citizens. If they are arrested for crimes unrelated to their journalism, then it is difficult to assert that it is linked to freedom of the press. Do we support journalists charged with sexual harassment, or sexual assault, or murder?
At the same time, journalists who become a thorn in the side of the establishment, irrespective of its political colour, can be harassed by way of cooked-up cases that are not linked to their journalism. Such actions are not unknown.
In Goswami's case, is for abetment to suicide. Anvay Naik, an architect, and his mother died by suicide in 2018 in Alibaug after leaving behind a note that said the reason was the money owed to them by Goswami and two others. The case was closed in 2019 when the BJP was in power in Maharashtra. It has now been reopened, reportedly at the behest of the family.
That is what the Maharashtra government and the police would like us to believe. Yet, clearly it is not that straightforward. There is a motive. And that is to try and teach Goswami a lesson after his concerted attacks in recent months on members of the current state government and against the Mumbai police. In his now famous hectoring style, Goswami has run a virtual campaign on his channel that has led to several cases being filed against him. None of that has apparently deterred him.
While it is impossible to condone Goswami's style of what he chooses to call "independent" journalism, we cannot also back police action at the behest of their political masters. After all, it is precisely this kind of police action against journalists doing their jobs, and without the profile of a person like Goswami, that is regarded as the real threat to press freedom in this country.
An example is India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. In the last six years, since the BJP took office at the centre and in the state, multiple journalists have been charged, assaulted or arrested. During the Covid lockdown alone, there numbers were 55 across India until June, of which 11 were in Uttar Pradesh. The latest was a journalist from Kerala, , who was picked up on his way to Hathras to cover the gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in September. Not only was he arrested, he has been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition.
The Uttar Pradesh police would not have taken this action without the consent of the chief minister. No union minister tweeted that this arrest was a strike at the freedom of the press. Yet Adityanath also joined the chorus of union ministers in support of Goswami.
What I am arguing is that while one must condemn the manner in which the police is used by the politically powerful to arrest and harass anyone who is inconvenient to them, including journalists, all such cases cannot be seen purely as an attack on freedom of the press.
Siddique was on his way to perform his duty as a journalist. Hence, his arrest is linked to the rights of a journalist. Goswami has been targeted by the Maharashtra government and police for his personalised attacks on them and it would appear that the arrest, in a case not linked to his journalism, is motivated by that. It is part of an ongoing political battle between the BJP and the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government, as this editorial in points out.
What is common in both cases is the way the police, and some provisions of the law, are being routinely misused against citizens — activists, academics, students, journalists and many others. And that it is not just the BJP but even parties ostensibly opposed to it, such as those that have come together to rule in Maharashtra, who use the same tactic. We cannot and should not forget that it is this very Maharashtra police that played a part in foisting cases under UAPA against more than a dozen men and women in the , people who continue to be imprisoned without bail for more than two years now.
What we should also question is the misuse of the provision of "abetment to suicide" by the police as and when it is convenient. While in this case, there was a note naming three individuals, we know that the absence of a note, as in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, or even earlier in the Sunanda Pushkar case, did not prevent the police from pursuing this strategy if it chose to do so. And in each instance, there was a political backstory to the decision to proceed, or not to proceed.
To come back to Goswami, he has few supporters amongst his peers, or amongst those working for him. In fact, it is unfortunate that thanks to his style of journalism, men and women who work for him have also attracted , an action that is deplorable.
Goswami has single-handedly lowered the tone and tenor of television news to the point that the credibility of all who work in that medium is challenged. His popularity — although that is now in question in the case of the apparent that is being investigated by the Mumbai police — has also resulted in mini-Arnabs on many channels, anchors who have adopted the same hectoring tone that is his trademark.
The Maharashtra government, and its police, has succeeded in making a martyr out of a man who has used his power in the media to target, and even demand the arrest of, many who had no voice. Think of students from JNU and Jamia, the women protesting at Shaheen Bagh, Sudha Bharadwaj charged in the Bhima Koregaon case, Rhea Chakravarty in the Rajput case, and many others.
Goswami's arrest will make no difference to the state of media freedom in India, which has been battered and assaulted by the government in Delhi and in many states in India. What it does is to send out a message yet again: that ultimately the state will not tolerate anyone who is inconvenient and is politically on the other side. That even journalists with powerful political backers are not immune. It is this misuse of power by the state that threatens freedom, including freedom of the press.
Update: Eleven journalists have been charged or assaulted in Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown, not 55, which is the all-India figure. This has been corrected.
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