On the day they arrested Arnab Goswami last week every senior minister in Narendra Modi’s Cabinet came out openly in his support. The list of ministerial supporters is long so here is an abbreviated version. Among those who tweeted for Arnab were the ministers of Home, Finance, External Affairs, Law, and Information & Broadcasting. They spoke of what happened to this celebrity TV journalist as an assault on ‘freedom of the press’. It was the hypocrisy of this that astounded me. They know better than anyone else that Modi has done more to curb press freedom than any prime minister since Indira Gandhi. Foreign correspondents who have written critical pieces on him have found restrictions imposed on their visas. Within India editors have been summarily dismissed for having the wrong attitude. Earlier this year I personally lost a column in a big Hindi newspaper that had been around for more than two decades. Discreet inquiries revealed that there had been pressure from the top.
So, the one thing that Arnab’s arrest is not is an attack on press freedom. What it can be called is an attack by the Maharashtra government on a journalist who has been so openly a spokesman of the BJP and the Modi government that it is hard to describe him as a journalist. There has not been an issue or event in this past year in which Arnab has not sounded like a member of the Modi government. When the protests started against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) he held a series of ‘debates’ that supported the new law and charged the protesters with being ‘anti-national’. When the first lockdown was imposed so suddenly that millions of migrant workers were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their villages, Arnab’s ‘debates’ sought to prove that journalists chronicling this exodus of hungry, desperate people were liars.
When during this same lockdown two sadhus were killed in Palghar, Republic TV tried its best to make it sound like a hate crime by Muslims. Then came the campaign to put Rhea Chakraborty in jail so that Sushant Singh Rajput’s name could be used by the BJP to garner votes in the Bihar election. Arnab led the lynch mob. She was first charged in Arnab’s court with murder and money laundering. Other famous anchors who emulate Arnab’s style of lynch mob journalism turned their own shows into courts in which she was judged guilty till proven innocent. When the charges of murder, abetment to suicide and robbing Sushant’s bank account did not stick, the lynch mob demanded that she be arrested for ‘supplying’ drugs to Sushant Singh. She was arrested and denied bail on charges too flimsy to merit incarceration.
There are many famous TV anchors who have been ‘managed’ by the Modi government but Arnab is the favourite because he has willingly allowed his Republic channel to be used as a weapon against the Maharashtra government. The BJP has made it clear that it wants to take back a state that they believe was stolen from them. In this cause the services of Arnab have been invaluable. He has attacked political leaders and the Mumbai police relentlessly to create the impression that there is a total breakdown of law and order in the state.
His style is to openly throw a challenge to the Chief Minister by saying that he is not afraid of him or of his police chief. In recent weeks it was the police chief, Param Bir Singh, who has been named and targeted in Arnab’s primetime show. The message has been ‘come and get me’. Well, they came and got him.
The question that arises is whether it is right for any journalist to play the role of attack dog for a political party or a government? Actually, the question should not need to be asked. The media’s relationship with government has to be adversarial because in a democracy the media’s role is that of a watchdog. Since Modi became Prime Minister, though, it has been very hard for journalists to play this role because they are immediately punished.
For a while it seemed as if Modi’s reason for never having given a press conference was that he did not know how to deal with the media. He believes that the media was unfair to him after the 2002 riots in Gujarat and so he prefers to talk only to friendly journalists (and Akshay Kumar) who ask him friendly questions. The main aim of his media policy, though, is to dragoon or lure pliable TV channels into his service. After he won his second term it can be said that the TV channels with the highest viewership have become aggressive and belligerent vehicles of government propaganda. And, Hindi newspapers with the largest readership usually write only in praise of the Supreme Leader.
This is why we have seen almost no criticism of that disastrous first lockdown in which millions of our poorest citizens had to walk to their villages because all means of transport were halted and their jobs were gone. This is why we see so little criticism of policies that caused an economic slowdown long before Covid. This is why there is so little investigation of the Chinese incursions into Ladakh. The media has been managed so well by the Modi government that for ministers to dare speak of ‘press freedom’ is offensive.