There can be little doubt that Chief Justice SA Bobde asking Republic TV chief Arnab Goswami to file an affidavit in two weeks detailing the steps he plans to take to ensure his channel is more responsible in its broadcasts represents a major assault on the freedom of the press. Indeed, the assaults on this constitutionally guaranteed freedom are increasing by the day; Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s filing of FIRs against journalists earlier this month is an example of this. And, the manner in which the Mumbai police has gone after Republic TV and its reporters—by filing hundreds of FIRs against its journalists, to quote the Editors Guild of India media statement—smacks of the same desire to check the media; indeed, the fact that the Mumbai police commissioner chose to have a press conference in which he named Republic TV in the TRP-manipulation scam was shocking. All of this lends credence to the view that Republic TV has become a proxy in an ugly battle between the central government and the Shiv Sena-led state government of Maharashtra.
That, sadly, is just one side of the story. It remains equally true that anchors of several news channels—of which Republic TV is just one—have arrogated to themselves the role of judge, jury and executioner; basic journalistic hygiene, of cross-checking facts, has been given the go-by so brazenly, and so often, that is difficult to separate fake news from real news. As a result, even as the case is investigated and tried in the courts, politicians are declared as complicit in the death of their wives, so-called WhatsApp messages are read out on TV to prove that an actor is part of the drug ring that Bollywood is alleged to be; even as the investigation into the death/suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput is underway, guilt has been assigned on several TV channels.
Hardly surprising, then, that the Bombay High Court asked Republic’s lawyer about the harangue directed at actor Rhea Chakraborty, “Is this part of investigative journalism? Asking the public about their opinion on who should be arrested?”. Indeed, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) statement on the Republic TV issue is quite nuanced. After criticising the Mumbai police and asking for the victimisation of journalists to be stopped, EGI talks of the “right to free speech does not mean a licence to promote hate speech”, it speaks of how “Republic TV’s high-strung conduct” in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, “also raises issues about media credibility and the limits to reporting”. It is high time, EGI concludes, “the channel behaves responsibly and not compromises the safety of its journalists as well as hurt the collective credibility of the media”.
In the West, and this is a cautionary tale, the refusal of social media to police itself has led to a cry for government intervention, and removal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 that offers it protection; in fact, after US President Trump’s order, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has said he would clarify the extent of the protection social media can get under this section. Indeed, it is fair to say that a large part of the outcry against Big Tech firms is actually the result of anger against social media firms and their role in manipulating news. If you don’t regulate yourself, the short point is, someone else will do it for you.