Indian political parties pretend to uphold the “free speech” when journalists are attacked in other states, whereas, the same parties keep mum and ignore the outrage if a journalist is attacked in a state ruled by them.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Hypocrisy Ki Bhi Seema Hoti Hai (There’s a limit to hypocrisy)”, he would have not imagined that his own dialogue can be used to troll him by social media users. However, it’s not only Mr Modi and his BJP that have shown hypocrisy and got called out. However, other political parties, which criticise the BJP and Modi government for targeting journalists, have failed to protect journalists in their own states.
On the occasion of National Press Day, let’s discuss how Indian political parties pretend to uphold the “free speech” when journalists are attacked in other states, whereas, the same parties keep mum and ignore the outrage if a journalist is attacked in a state ruled by them.
Arnab Goswami And Freedom Of Press
The whole debate around press freedom started after Republic TV’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami was arrested by Maharashtra police in connection to the 2018 abetment of suicide case. Arnab’s arrest saw a massive uproar from the right-wing users, who blamed the MVA government for crushing “dissent” and targeting journalists for doing their work. Many said the arrest of Mr Goswami was an act of vengeance by the MVA government over his reporting on issues such as Palghar lynchings, Bandra migrants incident and death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
It was probably for the first time that the country saw union ministers tweeting in favour of a journalist, demanding his release. Many BJP leaders were even reminded of the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi due to Mr Goswami’s unprecedented arrest.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah was quick to react on Mr Goswami’s arrest and said: “Congress and its allies have shamed democracy once again. Blatant misuse of state power against Republic TV & Arnab Goswami is an attack on individual freedom and the 4th pillar of democracy. It reminds us of the Emergency. This attack on free press must be and WILL BE OPPOSED.”
Congress and its allies have shamed democracy once again.
Blatant misuse of state power against Republic TV & Arnab Goswami is an attack on individual freedom and the 4th pillar of democracy.
It reminds us of the Emergency. This attack on free press must be and WILL BE OPPOSED.
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) November 4, 2020
BJP Maharashtra leader Ram Kadam went a step ahead. He not only sought Maharashtra governor’s and India’s President’s intervention in this matter but also marched for the release of Mr Goswai and even sat for a protest.
However, other opposition parties were quick to point out that the BJP (state governments and centre) has arrested a number of journalists under stringent laws such as sedition, UAPA and others just for reporting against the government. The opposition also claimed that the BJP was concerned about Mr Goswami because his journalism is pro-government and helps the BJP amplify their propaganda. Moreover, Mr Goswami was not arrested for his reporting but for his alleged role in abetting the suicide of interior designer Anvay Naik.
Uttar Pradesh: A Haven For Free Speech?
Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, who had earlier advised Kerala to take notes from his state on how to maintain hospitals, also came in support of Mr Goswami.
“The arrest of senior journalist Shri Arnab Goswami by the Congress party is an attack on the freedom of expression. The Congress, which is responsible for imposing emergency, is once again trying to throttle the democracy. This act of the Congress-backed Maharashtra government is a scandalous attempt to stop the fourth pillar of democracy, the media, from acting independently,” Yogi Adityanath tweeted in Hindi.
Just like Kerala has way better health infrastructure than Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra is comparatively doing better than UP in press freedom. However, that didn’t stop the monk-turned politician from upholding “freedom of expression”.
Last year, the Yogi-led UP government had registered a case against a journalist who exposed that children at a government primary school in Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh were being fed only bread (rotis) and salt as part of mid-day meal. The UP police later gave a clean chit to the journalist after there was a huge uproar against the government action.
Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, has been arrested twice by the UP Police in last two years- once for sharing a post on Ram Temple In Ayodhya and the second time for sharing a video of a woman who wanted to marry the UP CM. In both cases, Kanojia got bail but spent an ample amount of days in jail, many days more than what Mr Goswami spent in Judicial custody.
The UP police have arrested the secretary of Kerala Union of Working Journalists’ Delhi unit, Siddique Kappan, who was on his way to cover the aftermath of Hathras tragedy. However, he was picked by UP Police along with three others for their alleged links with Popular Front Of India (PFI). The UP CM had said that Bharatiya Janata Party’s political opponents tried to conspire against it by “trying to lay a foundation for caste and communal riots through international funding”. Mr Kappan, booked under the stringent UAPA, is still lodged in the Mathura jail.
Opposition’s approach: A cloud on the horizon
The opposition, which looks fiery and aggressive when journalists are attacked in BJP ruled states, overlooks the violation of journalists’ rights when they are attacked in opposition ruled states. Though the opposition tries to project itself a saviour of free speech and freedom of expression, it tends to somewhat do the same what the BJP does when journalists report against their own government.
- During the early days of the Congress–JD(S) coalition government, in July 2018, then Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had imposed restrictions on the entry of journalists to the Vidhana Soudha, which were lifted later after widespread criticism from media outlets and then Opposition BJP.
- In 2019, Karnataka Police filed a case against a senior journalist after he claimed in an article that Nikhil, chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s son, had yelled at his grandfather and JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda after his defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.
- Kamal Shukla, editor Bhoomkal Samachar, a regional newspaper, was dragged on the street by Congress goons and beaten in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh this year. The incident took place around 100 meters from Kanker police station in Bastar division, Chattisgarh.
- The Chhattisgarh government had issued a show-cause notice to a journalist in Bastar for allegedly publishing a report that “damaged the image of the administration”. The notice, dated April 26, asked Neeraj Shivhare of Bastar ki Aawaz to appear before the authorities in Dantewada and provide an explanation for his article. Neeraj had done a story in which a woman from Geedam said she was forced to sell household items to buy rations amid the ongoing nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus.
- Sheikh Safiqul Islam, a journalist in West Bengal who runs a web news channel named Arambagh TV, was arrested by the West Bengal police on June 29. Along with him, his wife Alima Khatun and journalist Suraj Ali Khan working in the web channel were also arrested.
- Bengali journalist Suman Chattopadhyay was arrested 20 months back for his alleged involvement in a Ponzi scam. A charge sheet was filed within four months of his arrest, but the trial is yet to begin. Even so, Chattopadhyay remains in jail, with his petitions for bail rejected multiple times at different levels of the judiciary. His family has cried foul about his continued incarceration, petitioning the Editors’ Guild of India earlier this month to seek its intervention.
- Ramesh Rath, a senior reporter with Odisha Television (OTV), was picked up by a group of policemen barely a few hundred metres from his residence this year. OTV is owned by BJP vice-president Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda’s wife Jagi Mangat Panda. Jay Panda was with Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal for nearly two decades as an MP before leaving in 2018 and joining the BJP.
- Journalist and Commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra who was briefly arrested by Odisha Police in 2018 for allegedly making derogatory comments on the Sun Temple in Konark. The Odisha Police also told the court that Mitra gave irresponsible remarks on social media with the intention of wounding religious feeling which might have resulted in communal friction. The police also added that the accused had tweeted against the people of Odisha.
- A journalist from Rajasthan’s Barmer was arrested in 2018 after a Dalit man from Patna filed a case accusing him of assault. The journalist, Durga Singh Rajpurohit, claimed he was being framed for his Facebook posts linking Bihar Governor Satya Pal Malik with a local BJP leader, Priyanka Choudhary.
- Pankaj Mishra, a reporter with the Hindi newspaper Rashtriya Sahara was shot at in Bihar’s Arwal district. This came just two days after the cold-blooded murder of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh at her Bangalore home. Pankaj was shot on his back by assailants who had come on two bikes.
The long list of cases and attacks against journalists in opposition-ruled states is never-ending. Though there are chances that some of these cases could have been genuine, it’s still clearly understandable that journalists are hounded in the opposition ruled-states as much as they are in the BJP-ruled states. So when the opposition shows somewhat holier than thou approach in regards to the free press, it could be seen lying through its teeth.
On National Press Day, let’s agree on a fact that every government targets journalists. In some or other way, journalists are subtly told to remain in their boundaries. While the BJP does it more blatantly by charging journalists with laws like UAPA, the opposition parties are less blunt in getting rid of journalists who report against them.
So why do these parties keep shouting and sloganeering about freedom of expression? Because ultimately, each party wants to win the elections. In a democracy, politicians love free press when they are part of the opposition. Once they come to power, their attitude towards free press changes.
A free press is the foundation of a functional democracy. A suppressed press slowly results in a failed state. An opposition that comes to power because of the free press, shall not undermine its importance when ruling the state.