India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday granted bail to the head of a nationalist TV channel, a week after he was arrested for allegedly abetting the suicide of an interior decorator, a case the channel blamed on politicians angered by its news coverage.
The court said a lower court had been wrong to deny bail to Arnab Goswami and ordered his release on bail of 50,000 Indian rupees ($670).
“If we as a constitutional court do not lay down law and protect liberty, then who will,” said the top court, as it chided the Maharashtra government, run by parties opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Police said the decorator had left behind a suicide note saying Goswami’s Republic TV had not paid him for design work on its Mumbai-based television studio, leaving him in deep debt.
The channel, which has a reputation for shouting down guests at its nightly debates, said the 2018 case was fabricated and that the local government was punishing it for its news coverage.
Goswami’s arrest drew contrasting reactions and exposed divisions within Indian politics. Several members of Modi’s government condemned the detention as an attack on the press.
But others said the BJP had itself been hostile to journalists in the states that it governed.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, a minister from Modi’s BJP in the northeastern state of Assam, said he was “extremely pleased” with the court’s decision.
“Justice prevails!,” he wrote on Twitter. “With this, I sincerely hope the wicked witch hunt against @republic Editor in Chief, and the channel, comes to an end.”
Pandering to Modi’s agenda
Critics have accused Republic TV of pandering to Modi’s agenda at a time when other media channels say press freedom is under threat.
Journalist Prashant Kanojia has been arrested twice in the last two years in Uttar Pradesh for tweets critical of the government led by Modi’s BJP. He was released after the intervention of the courts.
Siddique Kappan, a reporter with the Malayalam news portal azhimukham.com, was arrested last month in Uttar Pradesh while he was on his way to see a Dalit teenager who had been gang raped and murdered. He remains in jail.
India has slipped two places on the global press freedom index – from 140 to 142 in a list of 180 countries, according to a report compiled by the Reporters Without Borders.
Multiple senior leaders from the governing BJP were quick to condemn Goswami’s arrest last week.
“Blatant misuse of state power against Republic TV & Arnab Goswami is an attack on individual freedom and the 4th pillar of democracy,” tweeted India’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah. “This attack on free press must be and WILL BE OPPOSED.”
The Editors Guild of India, which represents the country’s newspapers, condemned Goswami’s arrest. In a statement, it called upon authorities to “ensure that Goswami is treated fairly and state power is not used against critical reporting by the media”.
Goswami is not new to controversies.
He has been charged in two other cases with inciting communal tensions and promoting hatred between religious groups. He has denied these charges.
In October, Mumbai police also accused Republic TV of rigging the rating system, a chief factor affecting the ability of a channel to charge advertisers. Goswami and his channel have denied the allegations.
Over the last few months, he has run wall-to-wall coverage against the Mumbai police and accused them of mishandling an investigation into the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.