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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Arnab Goswami’s arrest and our vexed approach to free speech

Let us liberalize speech and fix our justice system to stop the scandalous treatment of undertrials

The arrest of Arnab Goswami, the managing director of Republic TV network (and the news channel’s public face) accused of suicide abetment, raises profound questions about how the rule of law applies in India. The law was taking its course in Mumbai, where the Bombay High Court asked Goswami to seek bail from the sessions court, where the case is being heard, and not skip the process.

Undeterred, Goswami approached the Supreme Court, which granted him interim bail, while other apparently minor matters such as electoral bonds, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and habeas corpus cases from the former state of Jammu and Kashmir remain pending. Indeed, while the court ruled in Goswami’s plea, it has adjourned the habeas corpus petition of journalist Siddique Kappan, arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in early October. Kappan was heading for Hathras in UP to report on the rape of a Dalit woman. In August, the UP police had arrested journalist Prashant Kanojia over a tweet that allegedly disrupted communal harmony.

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As a news anchor, Goswami is known for his bold, aggressive and courageous questioning of the powerful, be it the prime minister (of Pakistan, naturally) or the president (of China, of course). His approach inverts a long-held media norm by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. He shouts at those he deems anti-national, and his methods of interrogation tend to confuse his curiosity with the nation’s.

Many prominent leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including cabinet ministers, who seem to think that Goswami’s arrest is a grave threat to free speech, have expressed outrage. They were scrupulously silent when other journalists were arrested, but then this lot was writing things they may not have agreed with. But, I know, it’s unwise to expect coherence or consistency from politicians.

To be clear: Free speech is a right that everyone has, not only those in the media. And no political party in India has a record that shows a real commitment to free speech. Furthermore, India’s laws regulating speech impose severe restrictions. And these are applied unevenly. Most of those laws were written during the colonial era, and were meant to silence and control subjects who had to be subjugated; the laws are embarrassing in a democracy because, in effect, they permit almost anyone who is offended by anything said by anybody to register a complaint with the police, and this first information report often becomes a tool with which to intimidate the individual who dared to speak up.

Goswami’s channel appears to have been running a loud campaign against the Maharashtra government and Mumbai police ever since the Shiv Sena broke with the BJP and took power in one of India’s more prosperous states in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and Indian National Congress. The channel has the right to do so. It has targeted the state’s chief minister. It has turned the appalling killings of sadhus in Palghar and the tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput into public spectacles, its reports filled with innuendo and gossip, empowered by leaks, where rumours are taken as facts and instant messages sent on cell phones are confused with evidence.

The Shiv Sena seems to have learnt from smart governments in India and abroad, which crack down on critics not by using speech laws, but more serious criminal laws. The crimes are often grave, which makes defending such individuals harder. Sure, a dissenter has the right to speak freely, but what if he is accused of a crime? How do you prove a state’s motive?

Some charges are credible in some instances—journalists are not angels; some have been charged with cheating, forgery, sexual harassment, and rape. But around the world, there have been cases where journalists and non-government organizations have been accused of terrible offences because it makes defending them more difficult.

Goswami has admirers and critics, and some may have already made up their minds about his innocence or guilt, as well as whether the case is politically motivated. He is also one of the most recognizable faces in India today. His celebrity could offer him protection denied to journalists and human rights defenders who are in jail, some of whom, prima facie, did nothing more scandalous than read certain types of books, cite non-violence in speeches at peaceful protests, work to empower vulnerable and marginalized groups, and seek justice for victims of abuses. To be fair, Goswami has vociferously intervened in some of those cases—and called them anti-national—and they remain behind bars, denied bail for months. Some are ill and have still been kept in congested jails during the pandemic and denied humane treatment.

That’s the real scandal in India—of keeping people yet to be tried, who pose no risk or threat and are unlikely to tamper evidence or intimidate witnesses, in custody for long periods.

The country needs to overhaul its criminal justice system so that bail grants are the norm, trials are prompt, and the law reflects a confident and democratic 21st century society, not a 19th century colony.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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