Contours of press freedom 
will be redrawn
File Photo

The words 'freedom' and 'speech' are both so amorphous and quixotic that we all claim their protection but unabashedly abuse the freedom given to us by the Constitution in Article 19 which encapsulates six freedoms. These freedoms have now metamorphosed into a Medusa-like monster with the Television 'Rigging' Points (TRP) scam occupying prime time news debates, overriding news such as the Chinese occupation of Indian territory.

Be that as it may, the electronic media, which has been mistakenly called the “fourth estate” because the Constitution does not even mention it, leave alone confer it with any powers, has been forced to report its own nefarious activities. At the heart of the issue is Republic TV, owned by Arnab Goswami and the India Today news channel owned by Aroon Purie, with Rahul Kanwal, one of his two star anchors, even naming Republic TV by calling it “pathetic journalism….. less than pathetic journalism.”

The winner in all of this will be the government because a division bench of the Bombay high court, comprising Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni remarked in no uncertain terms: “You (Republic TV) need to know there are certain boundaries. You need to stay within your boundaries and not cross over.” Mumbai Police chief Parambir Singh has accused Republic TV of being implicated in the TRP scam by allegedly paying Rs 400 to Rs 500 to certain slum-dwellers to keep barometers in their chawls and keep Republic TV (English) and Republic Bharat (Hindi) on 24 x 7, to ensure they (Republic TV) topped the TRP ratings.

For his part, Arnab Goswami has demanded Singh’s resignation because the name of the India Today news channel was allegedly mentioned in the FIR and not that of Republic TV, according to Goswami. He has a running battle on with Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi (whom he lambasts as Antonio Maino) and NCP chief Sharad Pawar. He was even summoned to the Maharashtra legislative assembly for alleged breach of privilege for his utterances against Thackeray, and his son, Aaditya Thackeray whom he calls 'Baby Penguin'. This is an epithet for the younger Thackeray for his pet project of bringing penguins to the Byculla zoo at a cost of Rs 2.5 crore; two of whom died.

But Aaditya Thackeray apart, during Republic TV’s submissions in the high court, CJ Datta asked, “Does investigative journalism mean that you (media) can seek public opinion on who should be arrested? How can a news channel tell an investigative agency to arrest someone in a case by running a campaign such as #ArrestRheaNow#. Is this part of investigative journalism ?”

“We are not suggesting that the media’s throat must be throttled…. In a case where it has yet to be proved whether it was a suicide or homicide, a news channel cannot claim it was murder….This is not investigative journalism. You become the investigator, prosecutor, judge and even pass verdicts. Then why are we (judges) all here ? You cannot cross your limits,” CJ Datta remarked.

Rahul Kanwal of India Today declared : “You cannot be judge, jury, executioner all-in-one.” He was obviously referring to their numero uno rival, Republic TV which claims the highest TRP ratings. But the TRP ratings are a charade because there is no way of assessing who is watching what channel and at what time of the day by installing barometers in select homes.

These impoverished homes are obviously paid to keep their TV sets on 24 x 7. At the heart of all this is the Rs 40,000 crore advertising pie, which fund news channels, causing a leading media house in the country to surreptitiously admit, they are in the business of advertising and not hard-core investigative journalism. Goswami knows that because he was their star anchor not-so-long ago.

To add to all this garam masala, a former police officer, Iqbal Shaikh has sought to restrain Republic TV and its chief Arnab Goswami from debating the TRP scam, in which it is an accused with Box Cinema and the Marathi channel Fakt Marathi, of manipulating TRPs. He filed a suit seeking Rs 5,00,000 as damages, saying the “defamatory reports” published against the Mumbai Police had caused him mental agony.

The suit, alleged Republic TV and its Hindi news channel, Republic Bharat, had launched a 'smear campaign' against Mumbai Police. Whether Shaikh is acting at the behest of the latter or some other agency is debatable. Plaintiffs occasionally do act at the behest of others who stay in the background to achieve their own objectives.

Shaikh averred in his complaint to the court that Arnab Goswami could not “be granted the liberty to discuss his own case and arbitrate his own cause by defaming Mumbai Police” with an investigation still underway.

The moot question is whether a civil court will grant such an injunction restraining Goswami from discussing the TRP scam “because the nation wants to know”, Goswami's favourite expression. When Judge S J Sharma of the CBI special court passed such a gag order on November 29, 2017, Justice Revati Mohite-Dhere of the Bombay high court struck it down two months later by ruling the CBI special court had overreached its powers by issuing such a gag order. She said the media was a “watchdog of society.”

The end result of this ongoing controversy is the Supreme Court will delineate the contours of press freedom as and when these petitions appeal to it as eventually they will. For freedom of the press includes the right to claim viewers watch channels which they don’t. It also includes the right to entertain, irritate, amuse or enthrall audiences in India by exposing Bollywood actors who take drugs before mugs who shrug as long as the money pours in.

Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in media law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.

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