The Mumbai Police FIR against several journalists working at Republic TV, charging them with defamation and causing disaffection against the police commissioner, is an ominous new low even by today’s standards of the highly polarised politics and public discourse. If the police commissioner believes that the TV channel has crossed a line, there are means of seeking redress. Criminalising journalists for a story is just one step short of criminalising journalism itself. It is well understood that some media houses have become megaphones for the powerful and believe that the duty of the press is not to speak truth to power but let power decide what the truth should be. In this role, many TV channels reduce themselves to being handles for those in power, a role they seem only too happy and proud to play. Enter the police.
The battle between Republic and the Mumbai police is not about good or bad journalism, facts versus fake news, but in fact, a proxy political war between the BJP and the Opposition coalition that rules the state. This is unfortunate. In an opposition-ruled state like Maharashtra, this was an opportunity for the Mumbai police and the state government to show themselves as different from the national trend. But they have ended imitating this trend, in which, for instance, the Delhi Police Commissioner, who answers to the Union Home Minister, has been happy to welcome and pose with the authors of a book that reaches certain conclusions about how the Delhi riots began, even as the police force under his charge still investigates who the perpetrators of the violence were. It is no different, for instance, from the Yogi Adityanath government filing FIRs under sedition charges or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in the wake of protests over the Hathras rape.
Nothing is better news for those in power than a pliable press that is hyper partisan, a police force that’s pro-active to please its masters and a politics that couldn’t care less about freedom of the press. This shrinks the middle ground where free and independent media best thrive. As random petitioners seek to regulate the media, courts daily ask who should control the media, judges deliver insightful advisories on what is good journalism and ministers and politicians shed tears over press freedom, there is no question that it is that very freedom that is being sought to be circumscribed, despite the guarantees in the Constitution. That affects not just a few TV channels or the hollow hectoring of their frenzied anchors — but all media and society.
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