‘Cannot stand it’: CJI laments standard of TV news debates

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Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde told television presenter Arnab Goswami’s lawyer on Monday that he could not stand the level to which prime time news channel debates had descended and wondered where that had left public discourse in the country.

In an open admission during a hearing before a three-judge bench of an appeal filed by the Maharashtra government challenging a stay order on an investigation against Goswami in criminal cases lodged against for allegedly spreading social disharmony, Justice Bobde commented it was the court’s duty to ensure peace in society.

“Frankly speaking, I cannot stand it. This has never been part of our public discourse,” he said about the high-decibel television debates. “Frankly speaking” also happened to be the title of a show presented by Goswami.

The Maharashtra government appealed against a June 30 order of the Bombay high court staying the investigation into two FIRs naming Goswami and other members of his channel, Republic TV. Appearing for Goswami, senior advocate Harish Salve said the FIR was politically motivated as it targeted the news anchor and his channel for raising questions over the silence of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her party over the killing of two Hindu seers by a mob in Palghar in April.

“At best, these individuals can file defamation but where is the question of charging them under Section 153A which is inciting disharmony,” Salve argued. This fact was noted by the high court which in its June order said, “It is quite clear that the object of or the target of the petitioner’s attack was primarily Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party. There was no mentioning of either the Muslim or Christian community. It would be too far-fetched to say that the two religious communities were involved in the debate.”

The Supreme Court bench, also comprising justices DY Chandrachud and LN Rao, said, “We are more concerned about peace and harmony in this country. Nobody is immune from being questioned. We can ensure questioning is done (by police) in keeping with your right to dignity. But we want an assurance of a sense of responsibility from you (Goswami).”

Salve replied, “Responsible journalism is covering sensitive cases without sensationalising.” Salve agreed there was too much noise in television debates which made the court remark, “It is better to remain old fashioned.”

The bench said it was concerned that with each passing day, there was a new conflict between the state and Goswami’s channel. The court allowed Salve to file an affidavit mentioning further developments since the high court stay on the investigation.

The Maharashtra government questioned why Goswami should get treatment distinct from that given to any other citizen as the high court even stalled the investigation into the two FIRs in relation to the Palghar incident. The bench replied, “While nobody is above the law, some are targeted with greater intensity. Some people thus need additional protection.”

The bench said in such matters it adopted a “conciliatory” approach and asked the state to produce a list of all cases being investigated against Goswami and his channel in two weeks. Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi appearing for the state said that the high court stay on the investigation must go. He was willing to give an undertaking that there shall be no arrest, and summons for appearance will provide a time gap of 48 hours and no questioning will be conducted during night time.

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