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No easy answers

That Republic TV, in general, and Mr Goswami in particular, can be accused of displaying undue bias in their coverage of events in Maharashtra, especially the death of an actor, is not in doubt

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

Few events in Indian media have proved as contentious as the arrest of a television anchor in Mumbai on charges of abetment to suicide and his remand in judicial custody. But when the police in Maharashtra’s Raigad decided to arrest Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of the Republic TV network on Wednesday, they opened themselves to the charge that they were extracting a price for what the state government considers repeated verbal assaults by the channel on its leaders and police officers.

That Republic TV, in general, and Mr Goswami in particular, can be accused of displaying undue bias in their coverage of events in Maharashtra, especially the death of an actor, is not in doubt. That the state government has shown disproportionate interest in targeting the channel and its head, especially allegations of doctoring ratings and now in the matter of a 2018 suicide, is just as evident.

Some facts are not in dispute. An architect, Anvay Naik and his mother did die in 2018. He did leave a suicide note blaming non-payment of dues by Goswami and two others for the act. Before taking the extreme step, the architect did write to Goswami asking him to settle his dues and said it was a matter of life and death. The Maharashtra Police, then under a Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation, did file a closure report in the case, citing insufficient evidence.

The family of the architect did make repeated efforts to get the matter re-opened but failed. It was only after a change in government that the matter was re-opened. It is also a fact, as alleged by the daughter of the deceased architect, that Goswami had in the matter of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death repeatedly called for his former girlfriend’s arrest, even though no suicide note was found.

But this is more than a matter of Goswami being hoist by his own petard; it can and must only be viewed through the prism of the law. Judgments of the apex court and various High Courts state unequivocally that the presence of a suicide note is not by itself ground for registration of a case of abetment to suicide.

A judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court says that an offence under Section 306 must reveal mens rea (a guilty mind). The court held that the contents of the suicide note must be read with other attending circumstances. Whether the case against Goswami meets this test is for a court to decide. Whether Goswami is guilty or not is also for the court to decide. But the first question that ought to agitate us as a society is whether journalistic excess even to the point of manifest bias is a right the media can claim. The second is whether the arrest of Goswami is an assault on Press freedom, as his well-wishers allege. Neither question offers an easy answer.