The cases filed against Republic TV chief editor Arnab Goswami, coupled with the mid-night attack on him and his wife, have opened yet another debate about India's media world. Although there are many who wonder whether Arnab's channel performances are to treated as media activity or entertainment, the rights and privileges he claims are usually in the name of news broadcast.
It is mostly on the grounds of first hand experience that he is being assessed as one of the champions of hate-journalism which keeps disturbing the communal peace of the country. For that reason, it is usually pointed out that whenever he speaks about media freedom, what he means is the right to spread hatre and libel. The sequence of events that have now led the issue to the Supreme Court began with the way Arnab presented a group murder in Palghar in Maharashtra. The moment news came of three people, including Hindu sants, several media entities pounced on it to communalise it. It took an official explanation to be released that behind the incident was not religion, but a speculation that those behind the act were thieves out under the cover of Covid and that out of the 100-plus arrested for the crime, thre was not a single Muslim. As for Arnab, his presentation of the news was with a mixed dose of religious sentiment together with hate politics. The question is how it will come under the realm of journalism when Arnab shouts that Sonia Gandhi kept quiet because the murdered were Hindus and that she should be feeling happy and sending a report to Italy that she is "getting Hindu sants killed in Maharashtra". Several Congress workers filed FIR against this in different states. The country also could see Arnab himself announcing that he and his wife – who enjoy 'Y' category security - were attacked by two bike-riding men, andn that when they were caught they confessed to being Youth Congressmen. There is no doubt that an attack of that kind is to be totally condemned. But none of that can be used to divert attention from the excesses that Arnab is conducting in the name of journalism. The Supreme Court, which limited the cases filed in half a dozen states to Mumbai, refused to reject the cases. Now as per the apex court order, Arnab cannot be arrested immediately, and he has three weeks time to file anticipatory bail too.
It is a shame for the country that blatant hatred and political animus are justified in the name of media freedom and the precious time of the highest court is consumed on it. More disconcerting are the pitfalls in the system illustrated by these incidents. This is a time when it has been decided that since the court's functioning is interrupted by the Covid crisis, a bench will hear only very essential matters by video conferencing. But, as observed by legal experts, it was unusual that the court agreed to hear at 10.30 the next morning, the petition that was filed by Arnab at 8 at night. A lawyer Deepak Kansal has written to the Secretary General of Supreme Court that a case he had filed on 17 April has not been listed yet and that there should be a rethinking about the way the court registry functions. It is indeed baffling that the court which is expected to hear only emergency cases, and which had deferred by a month even before the Covid crisis many cases like the petition against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and NRC with crucial implications, and the petition pleading to stop spread of hatred in Delhi, took up this case with such urgency. There is another petition that the court did not list for a week: by lawyer Jagdeep Chhokar requesting an order to send home inter-state labourers who were stranded in different states due to the lockdown. It is the court's undeniable discretion to list for hearing or defer a petition. But when the criteria applied for them appear unconvincing to the public, that will affect the credibility of the judiciary.
That said, loss of credibility in the field of media is a present-day reality. And there is enough of systemic failure involved in it. It is only just that the Press Council denounced the attack agtainst Arnab and sought a report about it. But, the Press Council, that is established to ensure justice and fairness in the world of media, fails to do anything against spreading communalism. When a case came up before the Supreme Court against the anti-Tablighi propaganda in the media, the court asked the petitioners to complain to the Press Council. But the Council in its turn washed off its hands saying that it has jurisdiction only over print media. At the same time, it failed to take note of the vitriolic propaganda of several print publications including 'Dainik Jagran'. The Press Council is not the least bothered either by the governemnt making vindictive moves against Kashmiri journalists including that of the Hindu. But then, it served notice on the 'Telegraph' in the name of a heading. And look at the speed with which the Council, which handles issues about newspapers with such 'vigilance', sprang into action in defence of the news anchor of a TV channel, which it said did not fall under its jurisdiction! To be noted is also the fact that the criticisms against the same individual by 'TRAI' (Telecon Regulatory Authority of India) or NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) or the poison he spews in his news presentation, do not disturb the Council at all. It is those like Arnab who passed journalism the mob in the street. And those who should correct him are not doing that either.