As soon as news of the arrest of the owner/editor-in-chief of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami broke, support for him poured in from all quarters. Several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders including Union ministers Amit Shah, Smriti Irani and Prakash Javadekar and other senior party functionaries expressed their outrage and compared it to the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Several BJP activists even took to the streets and protested, using BJP flags and symbols.
Many liberal journalists, writers and activists also took it upon themselves to condemn the arrest and defended Goswami’s ‘freedom of expression’. Despite their disagreements with Goswami’s journalism, they said they felt compelled to oppose his arrest.
Goswami is one of the most powerful men in Indian politics today. I can’t remember the last time when the entire Narendra Modi cabinet came out in public and vociferously expressed support for someone. We know that the Indian state will use all its might and do everything under its power to see him out of jail. To give you an idea of his political influence – it is not just government patronage that he enjoys, but a few months ago, we saw how private airlines rushed to ban comedian Kunal Kamra from flying in their planes just because he ‘heckled’ Goswami on a flight, something that this man is used to doing in his studio with just about anyone he or his political masters don’t like.
Unlike his victims including Umar Khalid, Dr Kafeel Khan, Safoora Zargar, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj and many others, he does not need a ‘Twitter storm’ to get heard or generate public sentiments in his favour. He wields so much power that he can ruin the lives of not just high-profile public intellectuals or university students – who at least have the ability to raise their voices on their campuses or on social media – but also extremely vulnerable people who have no power, no influence or social media presence.
Besides many other crimes, his channel led the communal coverage of coronavirus, during which we saw a section of the media directly blamed Muslims for spreading the virus in the country and used phrases like “corona jihad”, “corona terrorism” and “corona bombs”. The shrill and hysterical reporting against the Tablighi Jamaat was a dog whistle against Muslims in general, and created so much resentment and fear in the minds of ordinary Hindus that in at least four states, including the national capital, many residential societies put up boards disallowing Muslim fruit and vegetable vendors from entering. A milk-seller in Himachal Pradesh died by suicide after villagers insulted him over the spread of coronavirus.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that along with other news channels, this man and the coverage by his news network effectively enabled economic apartheid against these people in at least some pockets of India, destroying the lives and livelihoods of the poorest of Indians.
I am confident that my refusal to rally to Goswami’s defence will not negatively affect my liberal credentials or impinge on my obligations towards my journalistic fraternity. As someone who has spent two decades in audio-visual journalism, I have conducted hundreds of TV debates and can say with some authority that what Goswami does on TV debates is not journalism but an insult to the profession. I refuse to be counted with him and am ready to quit, if this is what qualifies as journalism in India now.
It is axiomatic that a man who has abused his right to freedom of expression and has near singlehandedly destroyed the institution of journalism in India cannot claim the freedom or privilege given to the press by the constitution. Any criticism of his arrest by the police or of the ‘misuse of state power’ has to lie firmly outside the purview of free speech and freedom of expression.
Even if we are to believe that the police action against him is politically motivated, Goswami should understand that it is very much a part of the game that he had signed up for by encouraging police action against others on flimsy grounds. The truth is that he has functioned as a political player and not as a neutral journalist doing his job. For the last six years, we helplessly witnessed the abuse of institutions by BJP governments at the Centre and in states to harass and incarcerate leftwing activists, students and honest journalists. Working in tandem, Goswami generated public support for the government narrative, ran kangaroo courts in his studio and became judge, jury and executioner. Not once has he risen to the defence of a journalist or activist targeted by the BJP and its governments.
He has actively participated in creating a situation in the country where any political adversary can be hunted down on false charges, key institutions barely come to their rescue and the sacred principle of the rule of law remains just on paper. He should be the last one to complain about this new ‘structure’ because he is one of the ‘nation-builders’ of our new immoral India of 2020.
As George Orwell once said, “Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”
It is clear that the victims of Goswami’s witch-hunt journalism – the hundreds of powerless citizens he and his like have targeted – cannot save themselves from slander campaigns or depend on the state and the courts to defend them, their lives and livelihoods. It is for us, who believe in the constitution and in democracy, to use our voice and social power to come to the defence of the disempowered. Instead of journalists and writers wasting their time and outrage defending a regime propagandist, they should find ways to stop this hateful, anti-people and anti-democracy propaganda that is disturbing our communal harmony and destroying our hard-earned social peace.