Arnab Goswami — Why press freedom in India transcends ideological barriers | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 11.11.2020

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Asia

Arnab Goswami — Why press freedom in India transcends ideological barriers

The recent arrest of a pro-government TV anchor has sparked a debate in India about press freedom and the journalists' ability to maintain neutrality and objective reporting. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.

Police in Mumbai last week arrested Arnab Goswami, the owner and editor of Republic TV, amid growing concerns about the muzzling of press and free speech in India.  

Goswami, a firebrand TV anchor who supports the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is being investigated for his alleged role in the death of Anvay Naik, an architect who designed his studio. 

In 2018, Naik and his mother took their lives, with his wife accusing Goswami of not paying Naik's fee. She said her husband had left a suicide note in which he blamed Goswami for his death.

Read more: What's wrong with Indian media?

Goswami and Republic TV deny allegations that they owed money to Naik.

On Wednesday, India's Supreme Court granted him bail after hearing his petition via video conference.

Goswami's supporters say there are political motives behind the arrest. They claim that Goswami was arrested because he accused Mumbai's police commissioner and Maharashtra's state government of covering up Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput's apparent suicide in June. In his shows, Goswami often criticized them for being lenient in their investigation into the actor's death.

Mixed reactions

India's ruling BJP condemned Goswami's arrest, with senior Cabinet ministers dubbing it a crackdown on the freedom of press in Maharashtra state, which is run by a coalition headed by the Shiv Sena party, a former regional ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP.

Read more: Aroon Purie: 'Fake news is a scourge' in India

Journalists, on the other hand, are divided over the issue. Many of them are critical of Goswami's right-wing views and his insulting behavior toward ideological opponents.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, a journalist working for The Wire news portal, says that Goswami's case shouldn't be treated as a freedom of speech issue. "We need to put it outside the purview of free speech and freedom of expression because Goswami functions as a political player and not as an impartial journalist," she told DW.

But others believe that press freedom must be upheld irrespective of the journalist's ideological leanings.

The opposition Congress party, which is a coalition partner in Maharashtra state, has accused the BJP of "selective outrage," saying its ministers are silent when secular journalists are harassed and arrested by their own state governments.

Us-versus-them

Critics accuse PM Modi's government of intimidating journalists and rights activists. At the same time, corporate media's nexus with politicians and government authorities has also had an impact on independent reporting.

In some cases, journalists critical of the ruling party have been charged with sedition. Recently, Siddique Kappan of a Malayalam news portal was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) anti-terror law for trying to go to Hathras to report a rape case there.

Read more: Can Indian media report freely about the COVID-19 crisis?

Journalists' groups say the press freedom situation has worsened since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, with authorities targeting journalists and media organizations for criticizing the government's COVID-19 policies. In June, the BJP government arrested journalist Naresh Khohal in Haryana state for violating COVID-19 rules and creating "nuisance" after he reported a stone throwing incident to police.

India ranks 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, dropping two places from last year.

Independent journalists say it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to report freely in the current political environment.

"By running campaigns against so-called 'anti-national' journalists, the government is trying to create an us-versus-them situation, which reduces the space for open and robust media," Vikas Jaiswal, a media analyst, told DW.

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