Last Friday, after stating that, prima facie, the preliminary evaluation of the FIR against Arnab Goswami didn’t establish any charge of abetment to suicide, the Supreme Court extended bail given to the TV anchor earlier. That the court had overruled the Bombay High Court denying bail in less than two days was reassuring. As was the larger point made that courts must ensure the State doesn’t use ‘criminal law as a tool to harass or jeopardise liberty’ of citizens. Now, what’s sauce for the Goswami must be sauce for the gander.
Siddique Kappan, a Kerala journalist, for instance, who had gone to cover the Hathras alleged rape and murder case in UP, was arrested in Mathura on October 5 — under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The Supreme Court deferred that case on October 16 stating there was a ‘spate of petitions’ under Article 32 — relief for human rights violations — pending before it, and that it was trying to ‘discourage’ them. This ‘discouragement rule’ was rightly swept aside for Goswami. Now, it should be removed for all. Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi journalist, was arrested in August by the UP Police for a Ayodhya-related tweet. He got bail only two months later. Kashmir reporter Aasif Sultan was arrested in August 2018 for reporting on insurgents. He has spent 800-odd days in jail while his trial drags on since June 2019.
Regular arrests, jail without bail and other forms of harassment faced by journalists attack a very basic notion of freedom in a democracy and is a severe reputational setback for India. And, high courts haven’t always been on the side of liberty either. The Supreme Court must step in, and clearly enunciate first principles that define a democracy.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Economic Times.