The Supreme Court’s action in freeing from judicial custody the journalist arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in an unwarranted action carries a significant message about liberty being sacrosanct. The question is whether the message is getting through to the bureaucracy and police, that seems overly concerned about protecting the image of their political masters. On the very day the Supreme Court freed journalist Prashant Kanojia, the UP government arrested a third member of a Noida-based television channel that had allegedly aired defamatory content against the UP chief minister.
State governments in West Bengal, Karnataka, UP and Tamil Nadu have recently been hauled up by the courts for similar actions, that have no real basis in law. It’s a wonder why governments pick specific social media posts or TV remarks from the millions of bytes aired online or broadcast daily, and blatantly ignoring fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
As the court rightly said, this isn’t about the merit of such posts as with the personal liberty of citizens.
The disdain for broad principles so well enunciated in the Constitution betrays the fact that the bureaucracy in certain states are so beholden to the powers that be that they will go to any lengths to please their masters. Dragging in clauses regarding spreading disaffection among people to justify such arrests of journalists is further proof of motivated action by officialdom. Such actions will not stand scrutiny in a country of freedom and individual rights, but the Supreme Court has to step in even in vacation time to deter errant behaviour by the State. The judges themselves noted that the content on the social media is so vituperative these days as to warrant less attention to what has become a social trend, where individuals air their rant against authority in general. It stands to reason that those who seek public office must cultivate a certain disdain as an attitude to vague criticism or just plain abuse.
The lack of concern for procedure makes the UP issue considerably worse. As the judges pointed out, this was no murder case; but even in such cases there are legal methods for authority to act. Compliant magistrates and police personnel must face the most severe action if such flagrant illegalities in proceeding against citizens are to be curbed. So completely sold on the outcome does the State seem that the end always seems to justify the means employed in these arrests and remand. This is an even greater affront to democratic principles than some person forwarding a social media message lampooning politicians, which may be unwelcome if it is prurient and yet the freedom of speech and expression of the person has to be upheld. In a changing landscape of social media freedoms, netizens and others must help the system to accept and adjust to rapid changes.