New Delhi, India – Eight days after his arrest, in a rare hearing during a holiday recess, India’s Supreme Court granted bail to right-wing TV presenter Arnab Goswami, but critics have accused the top court of failing to show the same urgency for other jailed journalists.
Goswami, who was arrested over a 2018 suicide case, walked out of a Mumbai prison on Thursday flanked by his supporters. The journalist, who has been accused of pandering to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda in his nightly shows, has been charged with abetment to suicide of an interior designer and his mother.
Goswami, the founder of the pro-government Republic TV, has denied the charges and alleged that this is a conspiracy to muzzle him by the Maharashtra government which is run by a coalition of parties opposed to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
His arrest last week drew swift condemnation from ministers, including powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, from the Modi government that itself has been accused of silencing dissent.
Selective treatment for the high and mighty like Goswami only lowers the credibility of the judiciary as an institution.
The speedy hearing and bail given to the divisive TV presenter has brought into focus cases of other journalists and activists who are undergoing or have gone through prolonged periods of imprisonment due to judicial delays.
“The Indian judiciary runs on a hierarchy – there is the lower judiciary, the high courts and at the top the Supreme Court. All litigants have to follow this chain, except in rare cases when a higher court may intervene depending on the gravity of the case,” Tarannum Cheema, a New Delhi-based lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
“It is quite surprising that the Supreme Court chose to hear Arnab’s [Goswami] matter when the lower court, in this case, the High Court, had already directed that his bail plea should be heard by a local court,” Cheema said.
In its order, the court said, “We must send a message today to the high courts as well. Please exercise your jurisdiction to uphold personal liberty … if this court were not to interfere today, we are travelling on a path of destruction of personal liberty undeniably”.
BJP’s national spokesperson welcomed the granting of bail for Goswami. “I have known Arnab Goswami for the last 20 years, and I know he is a fighter. He was put in jail under strange circumstances. We accept the judicial verdict, I am happy that he has been released”, Tom Vadakkan told Al Jazeera.
The arrest and subsequent bail of Goswami follows a string of cases involving journalists, students and activists, many of whom have been charged under draconian laws such as sedition, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA).
It’s been almost a month since we made a request to the Supreme Court. Arnab Goswami’s file was looked at quickly. Why are there two standards of justice?
Last month, journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested in northern Uttar Pradesh (UP) state while on his way to report on a gang rape and murder case. He has since been charged under the UAPA by the state government run by Modi’s BJP.
In contrast to the swiftness with which Goswami has managed to access justice, Siddique’s lawyer has not been given access to even meet him.
“On October 6, we moved a Habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court, it was listed for October 12. On that day the Supreme Court told us to go to the appropriate local court. A few days later, our application to meet Kappan in jail was rejected by the local court,” Kappan’s lawyer Wills Mathews told Al Jazeera.
“On October 29 we approached the Supreme Court again with a bail application and seeking directions permitting us to meet Kappan, we filed for urgent listing on November 2 but due to the holiday break the court has listed the matter for November 16.”
Kappan’s wife, Rihanath, says her husband has been wrongly arrested.
“It’s been almost a month since we made a request to the Supreme Court. Arnab Goswami’s file was looked at quickly. Why are there two standards of justice?” she asked.
“My husband went to UP to report. That was his mistake, his crime. But Goswami’s arrest isn’t like that. It’s related to suicide. Why is his case more urgent? He is also a journalist. What’s the difference?”
Early last month, 27-year old Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi-based freelance journalist, was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court two months after he was arrested by the UP police for retweeting a tweet related to the Ram temple in Ayodhya. This was the second time Kanojia had been imprisoned by the UP state police since 2019. In both instances, he was jailed for tweets critical of the state BJP government.
“Contrary to what many people believe, jail and not bail is the norm in lower courts,” Kanojia told Al Jazeera.
“I would only urge the Supreme Court that how they should provide ease of bail to everybody who deserves it and not just the rich and powerful like Goswami who can afford expensive lawyers at the Supreme Court.”
Kanojia was lucky as national media highlighted his case but journalists from India’s northeast and Indian-administered Kashmir have faced prolonged imprisonment. Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who was arrested on terror charges in 2018, languishes in jail. Media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists has called for his release.
In the northeastern state of Manipur, 39-year old Kishochandra Wangkhem, an outspoken commentator, has been in jail for more than 40 days over what the local authorities claim are communally offensive social media posts.
This is the second time Wangkhem has been arrested. Last year he spent more than four months in prison under NSA and sedition charges for posting a Facebook video criticising the state Chief Minister Biren Singh and Prime Minister Modi.
He was finally released in April 2020 by the Manipur High Court owing to procedural lapses by the police.
“We will approach the sessions court who will, I hope, follow the example set by the Supreme Court”, speaking about his second arrest, his lawyer Chongtham Victor told Al Jazeera.
Another journalist from the northeast region, Patricia Mukhim, was slapped with criminal charges for discussing the lack of police action and justice for victims of violence against non-tribal people in Meghalaya state.
“I will be filing a special leave petition in the Supreme Court. Going by the court’s latest judgement I am sure I too will get timely hearing and relief as the grounds of upholding personal liberty are applicable to my case as well”, said Mukhim, who is the editor of Shillong Times.
Rights activists have also pointed out that 99 percent of the habeas corpus petitions filed in the High Court in the wake of mass arrests following the stripping of Kashmir’s special status are pending.
Legal experts point out that as on November 1, 63,693 cases were pending in the Supreme Court alone while the total number of pending cases across the country hovers around 40 million.
Given the backlog, there is invariably a long waiting period before cases are taken up by the country’s top court.
But which cases get listed on a priority basis is a prerogative of the court. This opaque selection criteria has been criticised in recent times, especially regarding bail pleas involving academics like Professor Anand Teltumbde, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, and activists and social workers such as 84-year old Stan Swamy and 79-year old Varavara Rao, all of whom are in prison under the UAPA. On Thursday the Bombay High Court denied Rao bail despite the investigative agency admitting that he is in poor health.
On Friday, comedian Kunal Kamra was charged with contempt over his tweets criticising the top court’s decision to grant bail to Goswami. Kamra has declined to apologise for his tweets.
The president of India’s Supreme Court Bar Association highlighted the subjectivity in hearing pleas in a letter on November 10.
“In April this year as well, Goswami had received almost instant hearing at the Supreme Court and got relief as well. I am not against the latest verdict or Goswami. I just want that every lawyer and his/her client receive the same access to judicial remedy,” Dushyant A Dave told Al Jazeera.
“Selective treatment for the high and mighty like Goswami only lowers the credibility of the judiciary as an institution.”