How (Not) to Defend Arnab Goswami

Arnab Goswami’s brand of journalism has shrunk the space for independent media and independent journalists, and the fact-free telethons on his channel have created more space for hate-spewing public discourse.

‘Let’s prosecute Arnab Goswami. Let’s not prosecute Arnab Goswami!’ Television of the Republic kind – and let’s not rush to call it journalism – has, for years, taken over the space earlier occupied by mainstream journalism. Its political and monetary clout buoyed by a surging ultra-nationalism in the polity has allowed it to dominate space and its screechy decibels have pushed out saner voices, sober analysis and fact-based reportage.

For many of us trying to ensure the survival of journalism, let alone journalism with a public purpose, it has been, in turns, frustrating, outrageous and terrifying to fight for our space while being constantly vilified in the toxicity created and amplified by some in media.

There is nothing better many of us would like to do this writer included than to revel in the comeuppance of one who has come to symbolise some of the worst excesses of the media. Arnab Goswami’s brand of journalism has shrunk the space for independent media and independent journalists, and the fact-free telethons on his channel have created more space for hate-spewing public discourse. Since he seems impervious to the basic tenets of journalistic practice we are quite content that he should receive his comeuppance one way or the other.

Journalists with a lifetime of work of great integrity have been discussing whether he needs to be supported or not, while some media and journalistic organisations such as the Editor’s Guild have rushed to his defence. So what do we do with the problem that is Goswami? Or, put another way, do we have to defend the indefensible, lending our support and voices to a man whose work undermines ours? It certainly isn’t necessary for all of us to speak on Goswami’s arrest for fear we will be judged wanting. In the multitude of issues that face us we all pick and choose what we want to speak about, if for no other reason than that we are swamped. The problem therefore really is figuring how we can think about it before we decide whether we want to say something about it.

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Some cogent arguments have been put forward in favour of remaining silent on this issue. There are many other clear cut cases of journalists of integrity being persecuted for their journalism about whom statements have not been made and who have received little support in public forums. Besides, Goswami has not been arrested for his journalism. Both arguments are correct, strictly speaking.

However, the first argument leads to the phenomenon of ‘whataboutery’ which leads nowhere. On the second, as we well know, in the art of the political persecution of journalists, governments do not always follow a principled approach to prosecute journalists for their journalism. Censorship comes in many forms and large swathes are coming in disguise.

We have seen journalists and media houses being targeted for their journalism, repeatedly, on grounds other than journalism. These kinds of attacks carry low attrition for the government as they can always be justified as necessary prosecution rather than censorship, especially if they are in the form of cases and investigations to do with financial issues or administrative matters. We know that prosecution is becoming a method of persecution. We also know that increasingly, selective prosecution is the preferred way of political persecution.

While Goswami is not being investigated for financial corruption, what few dispute is the political intent of the ruling Shiv Sena in recent actions to do with Arnab and his channel. Journalists who have risked much to stand up and fight for ethical journalism have argued that journalists do not need to speak on this case which is a political fight between two parties, the BJP having jumped to his defence.

Regardless of who has a stake in this fight, if we accept the premise that Goswami has been targeted in a political fight because of what he broadcasts on his channel, we need to think carefully about whether this meets the threshold that requires journalists to speak up, even if it is a case of two parties (within a larger intolerant right-wing culture) who are currently engaged in shadow boxing.

The grounds for arrest also seem tenuous if the suicide of an architect is being blamed on him, as the bar for abetment is quite high and requires mens rea as reported by The Wire: “In January 2010, the Supreme Court had held that for a case of abetment to be made out, there must be mens rea or intention – so the accused must have intended for the person to die by suicide. Given that, a suicide note is not enough to file abetment charges, several legal experts have held.”

It should be possible for us, as journalists, to employ the nuance that we think is a necessary part of good journalism. Not to rush to his defence or stay silent but to simply stress on the need for the law to take its own course. Not to support Goswami in a knee-jerk response, but to stress that while no journalist is beyond prosecution, every citizen should be beyond persecution, and to ask the Mumbai police to prosecute for actual crimes committed. If there is sufficient evidence that points to non-payment of dues, the charges that need to be brought against Goswami are likely that of section 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property) not 309 (attempt to commit suicide or suicide assistance) of the IPC.

That still leaves misgivings that many of us may still have – not on the grounds of technicality but the larger ethical issue of whether we do want to extend our support in defending a mediaman against indefensible charges even though the mediaman’s practice of journalism is indefensible.

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Tactically speaking – despite our momentary glee at seeing someone we dislike intensely getting his comeuppance his arrest, on grounds that are unlikely to be sustained in the court, is more likely to make a political martyr of the man than diminish him. However, the label that follows a case of 420 of being a cheater is far harder to shake off.

Finally, if we find Goswami’s brand of media problematic, and many of us do, we need to try and counter that through means of discourse, legal remedies and using whatever organisations and means are still available to us. This could include robust prosecution of hate speech and a denunciation of fact-free media production in every platform available. To take succour in any other shortcut may be unhelpful and undermine our own strengths.

Aunohita Mojumdar is a senior Southasian journalist and the former editor of Himal Southasian.