Arrested development

The arrest of Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami on Wednesday in a joint operation of the Raigad and Mumbai police represents an almost laughable travesty of justice on the part of the Shiv Sena-Congress alliance in Maharashtra. The case on which the action has been taken is two years old, involving the suicide of an interior designer who had left a note accusing Mr Goswami and two others (who have also been arrested) for bankrupting him by not paying the money they owed him. At the time, Mr Goswami had denied the charge and the police closed the case. It was reopened in May this year, ostensibly at the behest of the interior designer’s daughter, who had approached the state home minister. Indeed, the home minister had tweeted then he had ordered a CID investigation of the case that same month. Several questions arise. First, why has it taken the police six months to act on the home minister’s orders? Second, it is unclear why the alleged non-payment of dues required a dramatic arrest, that too in a joint action that invaded the privacy of Mr Goswami’s home. The timing and the extreme nature of the actions make it difficult to avoid the suspicion that this is little more than a state vendetta, especially given the recent history of conflict between the two over the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June. 

It is true that Mr Goswami has much to answer for in the manner he conducts his TV programmes — including the tasteless commentary on the circumstances surrounding Mr Rajput’s tragic death — the wild allegations he makes against critics of himself or the regime and, not least, the charges he and his organisation face on fixing viewership data. It is possible that he may not have paid his bills too (he and ARG Outlier, the parent company of Republic TV, allegedly owed the designer Rs 83 lakh). But due process dictates that Mr Goswami should have been questioned in his office first and asked to show proof of payment before a charge of abetment to suicide was brought against him. Indeed, the case against Mr Goswami may have carried more credibility had the state chosen to follow due process, and act with equanimity.

That said, the supreme irony of the entire sorry incident is the righteous outrage displayed by almost every Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister from the Union home minister downwards. None of them has been known to be great champions of press freedom — or, indeed, freedom of speech as a universal value — but their sudden discovery of these virtues and descriptions of their former allies-turned-rivals as fascist are certainly noteworthy. To be sure, neither this government nor the BJP has a monopoly on putting the media under pressure or violating human rights, but its record is worse than that of its predecessors (excluding a brief period of censorship during the Emergency). Its use of extreme laws such as on sedition to deal with media criticism, its selective use of state prosecutorial agencies against critics of the regime, and its hostility to NGOs are all well known. Both the BJP and the Shiv Sena need to understand that press freedom is not a partisan issue, and it is not divisible on the basis of who is friendly or hostile to a government.

 



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