A Delhi court’s decision on Saturday to order the registration of a First Information Report against Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami received a surprising burst of approval from social media users. This is primarily because of Goswami’s on-air personality: at Republic TV, he has dispensed with any question of neutrality (not least in being the face of a channel set up by a man who is now a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament) or even journalistic ethics. He has frequently called for legal and criminal action to be taken against people with whom he disagrees, including other journalists. There is no doubt that Goswami’s nightly prime-time theatrics, and indeed much that is aired on his channel through the day, is deeply problematic, even dangerous for India.
Yet the court-ordered FIR against Goswami is also disturbing. The order came after Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor complained that material that was collected by police during its investigation into the death of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar, ended up being aired on Republic TV. “Such documents are copy of internal file notings of Delhi Police, copy of statement of complainant given to Delhi Police, copy of statement of complainant’s aide Mr Narain Singh, pictures of deceased which were taken during autopsy,” the court order said.
Tharoor told the court that the airing of this information, which should have otherwise only been seen by the police and the court, was illegal. His lawyers cited Right to Information replies from the Delhi Police saying that “it is not permissible” to share information or documents related to an investigation while it is still underway. Tharoor also claimed that his email account was also illegally hacked into, with Republic TV airing the details from personal emails.
The court accepted the contention that this should be looked into. “The court is of the considered view... [that] matter discloses commission of cognizable offence, and in view of this court, matter requires investigation by police as it is not clear that how said material came in the possession of proposed accused persons,” the order said.
Tharoor already has two cases against Goswami: A criminal defamation suit and a civil defamation suit. Both of those are proceeding at the regular pace expected of the Indian judiciary. If indeed Tharoor’s e-mail account was hacked, that too deserves to be investigated. Moreover, if Goswami broke any laws by airing information that was otherwise private – without a compelling case for public interest – that also might be worth examining.
But the desire to investigate how journalists got their hands on police documents is troubling, even if the journalists are from an ethically dubious organisation like Republic TV. Journalists are constantly working to access documents that are otherwise kept secret from the public, with the idea being that the transparency serves the larger public interest – though it is for editors to decide what is actually worth publishing or airing.
Despite the Right to Information Act and the general presumption that information ought to make its way to the public, the Indian state and investigating agencies in particular are dead set against transparency, preferring instead to offer up targeted leaks. That leaves journalists no choice but to develop official sources that will help uncover otherwise secret information that is in public interest. While Goswami’s critics may be happy at the thought of him facing legal action, the order should nevertheless alarm any well-meaning citizen since it could easily prompt the police to investigate any journalists who have got their hands on information held by the state.