Arnab Goswami controversy: Legal angle

Reading time 8-10 minutes.

The Supreme Court is hearing the second petition filed by Mr. Arnab Gosawmi, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, seeking quashing of an FIR filed against him for allegedly disturbing the communal harmony over the gathering of migrants outside Bandra station in Mumbai, Maharashtra.  

Details of the case:

On 14th April 2020, Mumbai’s Bandra railway station had witnessed migrant workers demanding transportation for returning to their native place as due to the lockdown they are jobless. ABP Majha’s reporter had spread misinformation that Indian Railways will start running special trains for different states allowing the workers to go back to their homes. This resulted in large disorder outside Bandra railway station, and police had to use lathi-charge to disperse the crowd. Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, on his show called “Poochta hai Bharat” on channel R. Bharat had questioned, “why do crowd always gather in front of a mosque only during a lockdown?” During his show, Goswami had repeatedly stated the word Jama Masjid.

On 2nd May 2020 a FIR was filed by Irfan Abudakar Shaikh, Secretory of Raza Association Welfare Society, at Pydhonie PS. According to the complainant, Goswami had tried to give communal colour to the mass gathering of migrant workers and spread hatred against Muslim religion. The complainant handed over the footage of the show to the police and said in his statement that mosque had no link with Bandra incident, however, channel highlighted this subject.  

Legal provisions involved:

The FIR was registered by Irfan Abubakar Shaikh in Pydhonie Police Station, Mumbai under the following provisions of the Indian Penal Code:

  • Section 153 (provocation with the intent to cause riot)
  • Section 153A (promoting enmity between groups)
  • Section 295A (outraging religious feelings of any class of citizens)
  • Section 500 (Punishment for defamation)
  • Section 505(2) (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes)
  • Section 511 (Punishment for attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life or other imprisonment)
  • Section 120B (Punishment of criminal conspiracy)

Developments in the case:

Goswami approached SC seeking quashing of 2nd FIR filed against him. In his petition, he had claimed The Congress party was trying to create a false narrative of orchestrated migrant protest in Mumbai. He has also claimed FIR is politically motivated with vested interests. In his petition, he has questioned the role of the Mumbai Police and complainant’s FIR.

On 11th May 2020, the Supreme Court reserved its pronouncement after hearing Mr Arnab Goswami’s appeal to quash the FIR registered against him for allegedly creating communal hatred and violence vis-à-vis Bandra incident over his TV show. The bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah had extended the three-weeks of interim protection granted to him on 24th April 2020, and it shall continue in operation until further decisions. Due to current pandemic, the matter was heard by the Apex court through video conferencing. The interim protection was granted to him on 24th April 2020 by SC for several FIRs registered against him-making alleged defamatory statements during a live debate show called “Poochta hai Bharat” against Mrs Sonia Gandhi, The Congress Chief, presented by him on the channel R. Bharat on 21st April 2020. The interim relief granted to Goswami by SC implies that no cohesive action will be taken by Mumbai Police against him for several FIRs registered against him, that is, no court will take cognizance on a FIR registered on the similar cause of action.

Goswami’s council Senior Advocate Harish Salve had taken the court through two incidents regarding FIRs were registered, and subsequently through the petitions were filed before the Hon’ble Court. First sets of FIRs was regarding the remarks passed by Goswami on Sonia Gandhi’s silence after the unpleasant incident of Palghar mob lynching on 16th April 2020. In the beginning, Salve was requesting the Hon’ble court to quash the FIRs filed against Goswami or to grants him anticipatory bails. Salve argued that the nature of FIRs registered against Goswami is an “arm twisting tactic” and 12-hour continued questioning conducted by the Police was superfluous. Salve had drawn attention to the role of police in this probe that the Police are probing a FIR concerning a telecast of debate which raises questions about the Police’s role itself, and he also apprised the bench that one of the police officers who interrogated Goswami had tested COVID-19 positive.

Justice Chandrachud suggested that the points raised before the SC, can be put across before the Bombay High Court. Afterwards, Salve proposed that to avert the “chilling effect on the freedom of the press” either court must hear the matter or transfer the investigation to CBI (Central Bureau of Information). This suggestion led to an unpleasant exchange between SG Tushar Mehta, Kapil Sibal (representing the State of Maharashtra) and Salve. Sibal had opposed the suggestion by responding that the CBI’s investigation will go in yours (Goswami’s) hands. SG had extremely objected Sibal’s statement. Moreover, Salve argued that Sibal’s statement is the clear indication of why the probe concerning FIRs needs transferring to another independent investigation agency.

“We must ensure somebody is not subject to harassment, but we should not create an environment where anybody, in particular, is exempted from the normal course of proceedings,” a bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed orally. Sibal had argued that there was a clear violation of Article 19(1) (a), and the accused was stigmatising people by way of sensationalism. The court indicated that they are going to pronounce its verdict later whether they are going to transfer the probe to CBI or not regarding the probe of FIRs. Court had also taken into account the claims of Police’s claims of threat and pressure from Goswami. 

Critical analysis:  

According to Dangerous Speech Project (DSP), there are five elements of dangerous speech:

1) Message

2) Social or historical context

3) Medium

4) Audience

5) Speaker

Not all five elements need to be in every case. In the present scenario, Goswami’s statements on his debate show are analysed based on the aforementioned elements –

 1) MESSAGE: Goswami remarks were unencrypted, rather explicit remarks were presented. He had frequently mentioned the word mosque and inquired why crowd always gathers outside the mosque to defeat the lockdown. The linkage of mass gathering to a neighbouring mosque is irrelevant. The headlines running, during his show, displayed that ‘from where the crowd had gathered in the mosque?’

2) AUDIENCE: Goswami is a prominent journalist. Goswami’s oratory skills and his debates are popular. Everybody is aware of Delhi’s incident, and people have condemned Nizamuddin’s incident. Many people began generalising the followers of Muslim faith and jumped to the conclusion that every believer of Muslim faith wants to spread the Coronavirus. The crowd had gathered outside Bandra station to demand transportation to return home. During the debate, the frequent mention of the word mosque appears to be irrelevant. Earlier also, there had been countrywide a huge outrage for negligent behaviour on the part of organising authorities and pilgrims for not co-operating with the frontline workers. Viewers’ perception created will be that persons who were present outside Bandra station are carriers of the fatal virus. In the comment section of his debates, aggressive emoticons have been used by the viewers, suggesting they are inclined towards violence, and they can easily commit any violent act in response to any activity or incident which does not match with their political or social opinions. The feedback of people indicates what will be their reaction irrespectively of the fact that India has any law or not. According to the complainant, Goswami tried giving religious colour to the mass gathering of migrants outside the railway station. He had also presented that the people who had assembled and overlooked social distancing are a threat to society. The viewers will form their perception based on debate broadcasted.

3) CONTEXT: The communal hatred and violence between religious groups are a hotbed subject of debates. While reporting any incident, anglicising debates and skewing them to give a communal hue grabs more attention in the age of live news reporting. The weakened social fabric of our society makes it prone to be misused for the benefit, here TRP’s. History is already rife with instances of several communal riots and irreversible damage to life and property. The triggers leading to riots and violence incited are more than often misused by regional and local religious organisations with vested political interests. For self-serving gains, hateful communal remarks are spread through political agendas or sensationalist media coverage and reporting. 

4) SPEAKER: Arnab Goswami is not an amateur journalist and thereby any communal remark of his become more controversial by default. His live debate shows at prime-time garners viewership for news served sensationally with equivalent amounts of showmanship. His reach among viewers is unparalleled compared to any another journalist. Goswami’s oratory skills are his USP because of which his debates retain a dedicated audience. The manner, these debates are carried is even more popular. He is a domineering speaker, and he never misses to convey his contention. Communal remarks concerning the mass gathering of migrants by such a speaker are hard to miss by the populace. If not for the facts, for the spoken manner Goswami serves news on prime time, seems designed for gaining TRP’s.

5) MEDIUM: We are living in age digitalisation, and it seems like our life depends on the internet. Currently, news broadcasted on television is easily available on online platforms. Goswami’s debate is broadcasted on television, and every household has a television set. Medium is not an issue for Goswami to reach to his dedicated audience. If one is not at home, then he can catch up with debates on YouTube. The clips of his sensational debates are frequently shared on open and closed social media platforms.

Probable future:

The Apex Court’s might transfer the probe of registered FIRs to CBI. The bench may issue some guidelines for the media channels to avoid sensationalising any incident, and Goswami might be convicted guilty. Freedom of press flows from Article (19) (1) (a) of the Constitution as he claimed of delivering a critical remark about the incident. The freedom of the press includes some limitations also. Due to the prevailing pandemic, people are already traumatised. This sensational news with communal colours will spread only hatred against a particular faith.

Whatever the decision might be, one can hope the due process of law is followed. However, it becomes imperative to remember, media represent the fourth pillar of democracy for a reason. It shoulders the responsibility of bringing out the truth through unbiased ground reality coverage, and more so the onus lies on news anchors who are essential in forming a narrative through their inference and analytical abilities. Whatever the apex court decides, acts and narratives that incite violence should not go unnoticed by law, if unpunished on grounds of legal technicalities because judiciary ensures the essential system of checks and balances in a welfare society. Communal narratives have been peddled in mainstream news repeatedly and in critical times of a global pandemic, responsibility of news anchors becomes tenfold. Any lackadaisical treatment of news coverage right now will have a ripple effect as we have seen over the course of the last two months.

Conclusion:

Media is viewed as the fourth pillar of democracy as the role of media has grown more ubiquitous. A critical remark being delivered on the news channel is not a focus of attention, but a critical remark along the communal lines is a focus of attention. The SC’s decision on Arnab Goswami’s plea would be unusual as to how it will anchor a new course of direction for journalists. The bench had verbally observed that we should not create an environment for a person to escape from criminal procedures of a FIR. It’s up to the Hon’ble bench to decide whatsoever about Goswami’s plea, and while any decision is being made the due process of law shall be followed. 

Author: Himani Shakya from Galgotias University.

Editor: Akshat Mehta from Institute of Law, Nirma University.

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